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By Chandrama Anderson

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About this blog: I am a LMFT specializing in couples counseling and have lived in and around Palo Alto since 1969. I worked in high-tech at Apple, Stanford University, and in Silicon Valley for 15 years before becoming a therapist. My background i...  (More)

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You're Not Doing it Right!

Uploaded: Dec 20, 2013
Dear Chandrama,

My husband does things that drive me crazy, and I want him to stop! For example, he reloads the dishwasher, tells me where to turn when I'm driving, criticizes the way I chop vegetables, and doesn't want me to help put his tools away. Why does he treat me like I'm stupid and incompetent, when in fact I have a Masters degree? I am getting worn down by alternately complying or fighting back. I feel like I am walking on eggshells.

Dear Eggshells,

Sounds like your husband's attempts at 'helping'; sound, look, and feel a lot like controlling behavior to you. Perhaps you feel you're being treated like a child. What he likely calls 'efficiency,' may be signs of anxiety, although he would not call it that. He learned this anxiety and these 'helping' behaviors before he met you. They are likely coping strategies to not feel out of control or anxious. He also likely has had a lot of professional success from these behaviors; if they work at work, they should work at home, right?

While you may experience the behavior he shows toward you as critical, let me assure you his self-criticism is much worse; unless he has drowned it out with behavior, will, or alcohol. He probably needs your compassion.

Most husbands are very surprised to learn that their behavior is considered critical. In a misguided way, this may be a way he's trying to connect with you.

In order for there to be an issue between you, there has to be tension – as with Velcro. If one of you is calm and okay with yourself, you are like a smooth surface – no Velcro, nothing to get stuck over.

We all have coping strategies, usually developed when we were kids, to manage our particular family. And make no mistake, it is a strength to develop coping strategies, and we can feel good about that.

When we are adults using children's coping strategies it doesn't always work very well, especially with our mate who grew up in a different family system. We need to examine our strategies, and create adult-based skills to deal with a variety of situations. But under stress, it is common to revert to our childhood strategies.

Here's an experiment to try:

First, remind yourself that you are not stupid or incompetent, and this does not mean something about you.

Second, check in with yourself as to whether there is something you want to handle differently with these situations (i.e., what's my contribution?).

Third, get curious as to what is going on between you. Search through what you know about both of you and your histories.

Fourth, get curious and ask your husband what this is about. For example, you may ask him (in a nice tone of voice and not while one of the interactions is happening) what he knows about his 'helping' behavior: what happened in his family growing up? Did one of his parents direct the other? How does he see it? What is his sense of it? How would he like your interactions to sound? How does he feel when you do things your own way? What does that mean to and about him?

Fifth, let him know it brings up your feelings of stupidity and/or incompetence. Let him know you realize that is not his intention; yet that is the impact on you. Ask what his intention is. Listen really well, and let him know you heard. Then give empathy. Ask that he shift into home mode when he walks through the front door.

Of course, you can always just tell him to knock it off! For some couples directness and humor, and not sorting through the cause works just as well, or even better.

At our house, my husband stacks the dishes just so. When he finishes a project, I bring his tools by the garage and he puts them away. Do any of these behaviors mean something about me? No! I tease him about it sometimes, but I also just let him be as he is.

Maybe he will change, maybe he won't. Hopefully he will work on these things because you are important to him. Maybe he will address the underlying issues, maybe not.

As long as you have addressed your contribution, and stop letting this push you into your own reactions of feeling stupid, or incompetent, or it meaning something about you, it's easier to let it go. BTW, where does your reaction come from, and what old coping strategies are you employing?

I mostly see that husbands eventually understand that their 'helping' is not helping the marriage, and having two adults in the relationship is much better than a parent/child interaction between husband and wife. Usually, both partners change their behavior a little bit, and that takes care of it.

In closing, I want to recognize that these roles can be reversed: where a husband experiences his wife as critical and controlling. In either case, try the experiments above.

And let me know how it's going.

Comments

Posted by Marie, a resident of Barron Park,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 12:40 am

It is my experience that people don't know that they are being annoying unless you inform them of that fact. If after they are aware of that they do not change their behavior, then you have a different problem on your hand.


Posted by Chandrama Anderson, a Mountain View Online blogger,
on Dec 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

Chandrama Anderson is a registered user.

Good point, Marie. My therapist from many years ago said that if we don't let someone know her behavior is not okay, then we are telling her it IS okay.

And, I see this "criticism" issue nearly every day.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 25, 2013 at 4:27 pm

My girlfriend is a smart lady too ... that's why she is my girlfriend. But what does smart really mean? I was doing some quick touch up painting of trim around the house when she came up and wanted to "help" me. I said no at first, but then she seemed hurt or displeased with me for not taking her seriously. So I asked her if she knew how to paint, and she exaggeratedly said, yes, of course she knew how to paint. So, I gave her a container of paint and a brush. She turned around and the first thing she did was to dunk the brush down into the paint right up to the metal, withdrawing a thick dripping blob that no one could paint with. It's not that she is not smart, its just that she did not know or understand what there was to painting. There is really no way to win in these situations for either person. When it comes to some things, even people who advertise their skills in in the paper or on the Internet don't really know what they are doing. There is a lot of judgement involved in some very simple things that some people take very seriously, and in some cases can make a big difference ... and most of us are way too sensitive about the slightest negative imagined slight.


Posted by CrescentParkAnon., a resident of Crescent Park,
on Dec 25, 2013 at 4:34 pm

> It is my experience that people don\'t know that they are being annoying unless you inform them of that fact.

So, how do you determine just who it is that is being annoying, and whose annoyance is bigger or has priority? ;-) Who has the right to be annoyed, and is being annoying something to be put up with if it is not too annoying? People are just too complicated to figure out.

Maybe what seems like annoyance is more complicated, and thinking about it, who made therapists the arbiters of human behavior. We don\'t know much about human behavior and what we do know is changing yearly if not daily. Our media has set up people\'s expectations so high and so self-centered that it is surprising any of us have anything in common at all or can even speak the same language. ;-)


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