Carolyn Hax: Dealing with a nitpicking other half

Carolyn Hax
Columnist March 10

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Every so often my other half will complain about something I’ve done. It’s nothing consequential and nothing that will end our relationship. Example: I sometimes put bags on the kitchen counter even though the bottoms of those bags are not necessarily hygienic.

While I think it’s perfectly valid to communicate one’s pet peeves, no matter how trivial, I can’t get myself to do it when I find my other half doing bothersome things. At the same time, I hate feeling like crud when my other half points out a shortcoming and I don’t have a specific comeback.

When I challenge in a generic way that [I’m keeping this gender-neutral on purpose] (s)he also does things that bother me, so maybe we could just let this slide, I’m always asked to provide examples. However, because I don’t “keep score,” I can’t generally provide these examples, and I’m left changing my behavior in what seems like a one-sided way.


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

The last thing I want to do is keep tabs on these things or raise the shortcomings when they appear, because it just seems so petty. But I don’t want to be the doormat.

Scorekeeping

“While I think it’s perfectly valid to communicate one’s pet peeves, no matter how trivial”: Really? I think it stinks.

Now, if you’re talking about a one-time warning along the lines of, “I have an irrational aversion to seeing unclean things on our kitchen countertops,” with a rare, self-deprecating refresher — “Remember my bizarre countertop fixation” — then I do agree with you. But if one of you believes the other owes it to him/her to be ever mindful of his/her expectations, then I’m back to saying it stinks.

So it’s to your credit that you don’t have examples at the ready of your partner’s nuisance moments.

It also positions you well to stick to the more relevant point: “If you’re suggesting that you’re perfect and never do anything wrong or annoying, then I need to ask you to reconsider.”

Avoid the tit-for-tat, though, and go straight for: “I think we’ll both be happier if we don’t nitpick than if we attempt to perfect each other’s behavior. I want home to be a safe place for us both to be ourselves.”

If that doesn’t fly, then it’s time to ask yourself how much of your life you want to spend with someone who feels entitled to fix you. In response to this 2013 column, I heard from many people who’ve been “corrected” all marriage long by their spouses, and they’re not happy tales. Escalation is the norm.

Re: “Scorekeeping”:

How would your suggested conversation change if only one spouse has annoying habits? My spouse is always noticing that I left the counter dirty or the sponge wet, etc., but pretty much never does those things himself. We have two small children.

Anonymous

I refuse to believe there’s someone who has no annoying habits. Perfection is itself annoying when used as a cudgel against the imperfect. In fact, I can’t think of anything more obnoxious than “always noticing.”

Perfection also, by the way, DOESN’T EXIST. Please humor me and read “Domestic Violence: The Facts,” specifically the “Warning List.” The constant fault-finding alarms me.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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