Carolyn Hax: One-upping wife requires love, not criticism


Dear Carolyn:

So my wife is a one-upper, and after 30-plus years of marriage, it is really getting to me. And I know for a fact that we lost a close friendship of a couple over this issue — I’m still friends with the husband — and it’s been brought up by other friends, too. (No, I do not solicit complaints.)

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

I don’t want to be the corrector, but it’s gotten like fingernails on a blackboard to me. She gets very defensive about it when I do, and I’m sure I leave something to be desired in the diplomacy area.

A Hot Place

The facts you provide are tips of icebergs. Your wife is a one-upper and defensive when challenged (tip), which says she’s a deeply insecure woman (iceberg). Friends have complained to you about her (tip), even though you haven’t solicited such complaints (tip), which says your receptiveness to third-party wife-bashing is apparent in other ways (iceberg). You are long married (tip) and beyond diplomacy (tip), which suggests this has metastasized into generalized alienation of affection (iceberg).

It doesn’t take much imagination to envision an insecure mate reading your negative body language and . . . saying, “Oops, you’re right, I’ll stop dominating conversations!!!”? No — she’s going to fortify her defenses, and churn out one-uppings to keep pace with her need to feel good.

If my interpretation is accurate, then you have only two choices: Perpetuate this cycle or break it.

To break it, I suggest you summon the will to drop your defenses and keep them down, no matter how loudly nails meet chalkboard. Force yourself to set aside your anger, your hopes she’ll transform, your desire for vindication, all of it. You are kindness, forgiveness, peace.

From there, the most straightforward approach is to look at your wife not merely as the host of this conflict, but instead as the whole of the person you love. Unfortunately, looking for what’s wrong with other people tends to come naturally, once the pheromones back down, especially when you’re trying to justify your side in an ongoing conflict.

So try instead to forgive her insecurity as her built-in flaw — the kind everyone has, the suck-it-up yin to her lovable yang. In fact, as a thought exercise, think of your own best qualities and the baggage on the flip side of each.

Think fully about her for the specific purpose of renewing your appreciation for her.

Disposing yourself more kindly toward your wife is the most reliable way to draw out her best. Should she soften, that in turn will likely dispose others more kindly to her. It’s not a promise of sunshine and flowers, but this can ease you back from the brink.

If you haven’t the affection or patience to pull that off, then you’ll need the have-it-out conversation, where you start with a, “When you do X, I feel Y” statement, and then you ask her how she would like you to handle this. The “Help me” approach welcomes where the “Do this” approach repels.

This doesn’t guarantee anything, either. However, both approaches ensure a change to what you bring to the cycle. Since that’s the only part of it you control, and since you’re the one seeking a new outcome, that’s where any productive path must start.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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