Dear Neil: My husband always has to be right, acts like he knows everything and takes every opportunity to make me look wrong. I can’t make him understand that his criticism makes me feel badly. I wonder if I am adding to the problem by avoiding conflict, letting him have his way and not speaking up when he hurts me. I try not to pick the movie or the restaurant because then I don’t have to listen to his criticisms of my choices. If I assert myself, he acts mad for the rest of the evening. I feel like he controls me with his anger. Can you please help me change my reactions so he will make some changes?
Being Driven Nuts in Colorado
Dear Neil: My husband is a very volatile and verbally aggressive person. He critiques, criticizes and “offers advice” on almost everything I do—and very, very rarely compliments me. In an argument, he’ll decide he has reached his threshold and will cut off the conversation and shut me out. He would much rather work on projects or go to the mountains with his brothers than spend time with me. I feel as though I am never the priority and therefore can never feel really secure in our relationship. I want our marriage to work, but I don’t have any more energy to give it. Any more insults, yelling or hanging up on me and I feel as though I might just crumple into a sobbing heap permanently.
Exhausted in the Rocky Mountains
Dear Being Driven Nuts and Exhausted: As strange as this is going to sound, the two of you are describing extremely disempowered and impotent men who appear to be powerful because they are so rejecting, critical and controlling.
If I feel as if I don’t measure up and I’m not good enough, I will be in constant fear of you finding out about me and eventually leaving. One way for me to allay this fear is for me to act judgmental, critical and rejecting of you. My goal will be to focus on your mistakes or shortcomings—and to tell you how you don’t measure up or how you could have done something better—so you don’t feel confident about yourself either. If I knock you down to my level, and instill doubt in you about how good, competent or appealing you are, you (hopefully) will not feel strong enough to find fault with me, criticize me or reject me.
In my heart of hearts, I think that I have to be critical, judgmental and controlling of you before you get critical, judgmental or controlling of me. If I make you feel you don’t measure up, perhaps you won’t pay attention as to how well I measure up. I think I have to judge or criticize you before you can judge and criticize me. And one of the most common ways to control others is by getting angry at them. Most of us will want to keep the peace and avoid conflict by giving the controller what he or she wants.
However, personal power doesn’t come from knocking others down. It comes from recognizing my strengths and abilities, recognizing other people’s strengths, abilities and positive traits, trusting in my honesty, honor and integrity, expressing myself effectively, being respectful of both myself and others, being in charge of my emotions and reactions—and attempting to actualize my goals, visions and dreams.
If you’d like to stop this pattern, quit accepting what’s unacceptable. Quit allowing yourself to be treated poorly or controlled. It will escalate your husband, but it will begin to free you.