This is the second installment of a new Dating and Relationships column I’m attempting to create here on Phicklephilly. My friend Jackie and I have been kicking around the idea of writing an advice column together. We actually came up with the idea a few years ago. We wanted something that gave advice from a man’s and a woman’s perspective. We’re going to try to publish this column at least once or twice a month for now. If it catches on, we’ll probably run every week.
Welcome to: HIS & HERS!
So let’s begin with a little background on Jackie.
Jackie Rupp grew up as a very sheltered only child, having parents with mental illness and few friends, she’s always been fascinated by the human condition and all our unique quirks and idiosyncrasies. She often writes about wrestling with social anxiety, fumbling through relationships, and ways to improve outlook. As a marketing consultant and founder of CAT creative agency, she helps businesses develop better content and branding messages and is always taking on new clients. A proud mom of two, she’s also passionate about pancakes, kittens, and exploring new adventures in handmade crafting.
Okay, let’s get to the business at hand. Here’s our newest question.
I’m On The Verge Of Leaving My Wife And She Has No Idea
The reason? I feel like I’m back to being five years old and living with my parents. Let me explain. Since the pandemic started my wife and I have both been working at home. She works part-time and I work full time which gives her extra time around the house compared to me. I like to cook and try to contribute equally to household chores like cleaning and shopping. I’ve always noticed that she likes to be in control and tell me I “should” be doing things a certain way but as we’re both home together more things have reached a breaking point.
In her mind it seems I’m incapable of even the smallest task. Take last week as an example. A friend was stopping by so I decided to whip up some cookies. I didn’t need any help and didn’t consult her on it as I thought it would be a nice surprise for them both. She came down to the kitchen as I was prepping things and started to take over, berating me for not using the right spoon, etc. like I was an inept person who had never been in the kitchen. Guys, I hold advanced degrees, I’m well respected in my field, and am responsible enough to manage several people at my job. Her work is far simpler but I would never want to make her feel less than because I don’t believe she is.
At the end of baking, I didn’t even want to be in the same room with her anymore and the final straw came when our friend was over and complimented the cookies and my wife chose to give a laughing rundown of all the things I did wrong. It turned my stomach. But I don’t know how to respond. If I respond in anger it looks like I can’t take criticism (which is usually baseless by the way and more like her preferences rather than actual things I’m doing wrong).
When I’ve challenged her in the past she’s gotten defensive and upset like I was the one hurting her feelings. I want a wife and lover, not a parent. I’m starting to feel diminished as a person and don’t know what to do. Help!
-Husband Due Some Respect
Phew! I felt the tension in the air with this couple. Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. But I do have a little bit of perspective to give that might be helpful. Full disclosure btw, I’m no counselor, so take this for what it is. But here’s six observations I’d like to make for this gentleman to hear:
- The cookie incident as I’ll refer to it shouldn’t get pushed under the rug and never talked about. One major revelation I’ve recently learned was that we don’t lose the right to be hurt/bothered/annoyed/frustrated by something just because we didn’t react at the moment. There are no statutes of limitation on feelings. Now I’m not saying to dig up that wedding dance that embarrassed you five years ago, but the cookie incident should not go un-discussed.
- When you do discuss it, talk about FEELINGS, in particular, yours! Here’s an example: “Hey, remember the other day when Sonia came to visit and I made cookies. I can’t help still thinking about this. What you said really hurt me and made me feel small and unappreciated. Did you want to make me feel that way?” Notice I didn’t say “Hey, what YOU did the other day was really shitty. Because that’s a good way to get someone on the defensive, which it sounds like is a route your wife is always ready to take. Discuss things calmly, be seated, and give yourself the time and setting to allow your feelings to take their rightful spot in this relationship. It sounds like they’ve been taking that space in your own head for a while, now it’s time to share that with your team member.
- Following up on that, make this a team problem, which requires a team solution. Go into this conversation expecting your wife to WANT to change. If she shows other inclinations, express your disappointment in that path she’s chosen. “I was really hoping we could work on this together so that we both feel respected and uplifted, I need that in a partner and I think you do too.” Give her several chances to choose the right path (even if she gets defensive the first few attempts). Prepare for her defensiveness and don’t let it distract you from moving her closer to the right path of acknowledging her behavior and wanting to change it.
- Consider your wife’s needs. I know you’re struggling right now with feelings of unhappiness, but consider your wife’s perspective for a moment. Happy people don’t constantly feel the need to put someone else down to make themselves feel better. Depressed, insecure, unhappy people do this. It’s worth opening a conversation and also seeing if there are things you can suggest to bring more happiness and fulfillment to your wife’s world. Is there a hobby she’s long forgotten? Did she give up a passion that you know she used to love? Don’t expect change overnight or for her to jump right into something new. It might take time. You might also inquire with her about her happiness level, not in an accusatory manner, but in a place of compassion and love.
- Seek couple’s counseling and also individual counseling for both of you. Couples counseling can give you an objective trained third party who can keep the conversation on track and point out when one person might be being unfair or unreasonable. It’s definitely worth at least giving a try before you end your marriage. You do have the responsibility to let your wife in on your thoughts about ending the relationship because of this pattern of behavior. Especially since up until now, she hasn’t really gotten any consequences from you other than an argument that ends when she gets defensive and emotional. All you’ve done in that respect has been to reinforce this behavior and she’ll continue to go to it if she knows it gets her off the hook and out of the argument.
Ladies, I have something about this letter to say to you. I KNOWWW many of us do this in heterosexual dynamics. I know many times men give us plenty of reasons to complain and berate — they always take the long way places, they don’t bag the groceries “right,” they don’t know how to dress. But lemme tell you for every one of the things we can get on them about, I’m sure there’s a similar complaint they could lodge at us. Many times it doesn’t come down to IF there’s a complaint you can voice, but if you SHOULD. Read that line again. We’re all different and do things in different ways, yours may be the very best way in the world, but your goal in your relationship should be to be right about the small stuff, it’s to be happy. I have an example for you. Last year my boyfriend took me on a surprise drive for my birthday. He had arranged a couple’s massage for us. I was SO excited. In the car on the way there, I realized he had scheduled it at the more expensive of the two places we usually go to. I quickly hopped on Groupon to see if the other spa had a cheap deal, we could probably reschedule at the other spa and save him a few dollars. I stopped. Why would I take away this moment from him? He was doing something FOR me and I was trying to take over that and do it myself. Why? I realized it was about control. I think for many of us we get used to handling so many tasks in a day that we sometimes lose sight of the importance of letting someone else steer the ship for a bit. Because that can be a little scary and unfamiliar to us. I consciously had to choose to shut my mouth and enjoy the ride, which is what I did.
You have to love yourself before you can be in a healthy romantic relationship with anybody else who loves you. If you’re feeling low and worthless, maybe you’re not ready for a relationship. Maybe you’ll be stronger and healthier if you put your love life on hold for a while, strike out on your own, and take the time to improve yourself first. You can also improve yourself while in the relationship if you get enough free time to yourself.
Some people were raised critically. It’s possible that your girlfriend was criticized a lot by her parents as she was growing up. I know that my parents were the ones who told me that they only criticize me because they love me. If they didn’t love me, then it’d be easier for them to just not say anything and let everybody else look down on me behind my back. Since your girlfriend says something very similar, I’d suspect that she’s criticized a lot by her parents, and it might really be how she expresses love. It’s natural to feel self-conscious and defensive when criticized, but remember your girlfriend is human too. It’s possible that it’s a symptom of the damage her parents did to her.
Considering that honest communication is necessary for a healthy relationship, there’s some truth to the idea that the ability to speak freely with each other can be an indication of a healthy relationship. It’s not healthy to ask her to stop criticizing at all. However, depending on what she says, there might be ways to criticize more constructively and without being as hurtful about it. For example, if she hates what you wear, she can take you clothes shopping and buy you new clothes instead of just criticizing your current clothes. Or if she wants you to have more muscles, she can buy you a gym membership and you can work out together. Or if she wants you to eat healthier, she can handle food for you. Or if she thinks you’re lazy, she can help encourage you to be more productive. Since she doesn’t seem to know how to be more constructive herself, you might try to lead her to think about improving the way she criticizes.
The next time she criticizes you, the first thing to do is to figure out whether you agree with her. Take a deep breath, count to 10, and try to calm down. Try to avoid getting emotional and defensive. Try to think first before responding. Ask yourself if it’s really something you want to improve about yourself. If not, then maybe an appropriate response might be something like, “Thanks for the compliment! I’m quite happy with myself about it.” If you agree with her and you really don’t like what she’s criticizing, then say so, like “Thank you for telling me. You’re right. I don’t like that about myself.” Then, put the ball back in her court: “How do I get better?” If she’s criticizing the same thing over and over, maybe try “I already know that, and you’re right. I’ve been trying to fix this about myself and I haven’t been able to. I hear what you’re saying, and it isn’t helping me figure out how to get better. Can you help me?” and “I’ve already tried to improve by doing all these things, and none of it worked. Do you have any new ideas about how I can improve that I haven’t tried yet?” Basically, every time she wants to criticize you for the same thing again, leads her to become more constructive about it and come up with a new way to help you improve.
Just remember: (1) you need to be fundamentally okay with yourself before you can have a healthy relationship, and (2) honest communication is also necessary for a healthy relationship. All humans are damaged in one way or another, and your girlfriend might be damaged in a way that she can’t stop criticizing completely, but it might be possible to work with her on how to channel her criticism more constructively. However, if you’re really too sensitive to take any criticism from her at all, no matter how she says it, then maybe it’d be good to spend less time on the relationship and more time on self-improvement until you can be okay with yourself no matter what anybody else says.
I really agree about criticizing being how someone might show love. That’s a great insight. Like some of us were raised in an environment that it’s the only way we know to show we care. From a woman’s perspective, many times that can turn into almost mothering your man. We want to show love, and we may be “mom-ing” all day so our partner just becomes another person that we should love to by instructing and critiquing. For me anyway, it’s still a conscious battle to refrain from doing that too often. Thinking before you speak can do wonders for a relationship, especially when you take the time to think about how the other person will feel about what you have to say.
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