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Carolyn Hax: When ‘I love you’ sounds like ‘I smother you’

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Dear Carolyn: I married late in life, at 46, and prior to my marriage I was (mostly) happy as a single person. Husband had been married before and really identifies as part of a couple.

He has this thing he does that I find super annoying, and then I feel guilty about being annoyed by it, and I can't quite decide if it's a sweet thing I should learn to embrace or if it's subtle controlling/gaslighting behavior.

I am absorbed in reading/cooking/cleaning/other, and husband intently tries to get my attention: Honey? Hey, Honey? Hooooooney? And when I answer (sometimes annoyed, sometimes sweetly), he says, "I love you!"

I get this sounds like he's a sweetheart, but he does this multiple times a day, and honestly I feel like I just can't concentrate on anything with him around and find myself getting annoyed more and more and more. Makes me feel like a supreme b---h because the message is so sweet, and what wife doesn't want to hear "I love you" 20 times per day? Am I an ungrateful rat b---h, or is he deliberately trying to make me focus on him every waking second of my day?

— Annoyed Ingrate

Annoyed Ingrate: Wow. Do you always invalidate yourself like this, or is it just in this instance?

Because that’s some powerful venom you’ve aimed inward, just for having your own opinion. The misogyny in your language alone stops me cold.

Maybe you are the most supremely ungratefully annoyed rat b---h for other reasons, but you certainly aren’t one based on what you’ve shared here. And be assured, please, that even the most supremely ungratefully annoyed rat b---h has a right to her own feelings and her own preferences.

If you don’t like being interrupted, then that’s your prerogative.

If you find this gesture of his super annoying and needy, then that’s your prerogative.

If you’re the wife who doesn’t want to hear “I love you” 20 times daily — this one doesn’t either, by the way, because to me that sounds unctuous and suffocating and not sweethearty in the least — then that’s your prerogative and no one gets to tell you otherwise.

And if your husband doesn’t respect the way you feel about his interruptions, then his message is no longer a sweet one (if it ever was), because how could it be sweet to do something repeatedly for someone that you know irritates that person? So, yes, if he continues after you’ve clearly asked him not to, then that crosses the line into gaslighting and/or controlling behavior.

There is some nuance to this, in that your husband is as entitled as you are to his feelings and preferences. And sometimes an “I love you” is just an “I love you.”

But such entitlement extends only to the end of each person’s actions and feelings. It covers what each of you does, not how the other person responds. Meaning, he can say what he wants, but he is not owed the reaction he wants. You do not owe it to your husband to welcome 20 daily I-love-yous just because he thinks he’s doing something sweet.

And he, likewise, does not owe you a change of his emotional makeup just to satisfy you.

Committed couples do owe it to each other to try to find ways each of them can meet the other’s needs while still being true to themselves. And not induce tooth-grinding irritation in the process. The pillars of this approach are:

●Self-respect, where each of you identifies your emotional needs and owns them, instead of writing them off as ungrateful or rat-b---hy or whatever else.

●Respect for each other, and thereby not dismissing, ignoring or trying to change the other’s emotional needs.

●Communication, so you can both say what you like, don’t like, need and want instead of expecting minds to be read or assuming preferences to be shared.

●Patience, so you can act on what you hear instead of reacting to it, since the latter tends to punish and eventually discourage honesty and transparency.

For you two, this might mean he owns and articulates his need for together time, and you own and articulate your need for alone time, and you then deliberately build some of each into your days. That way each of you gets the necessary emotional dosage without the irritating push-and-pull you both resort to when your unfed cravings take over. As in, when the other’s emotional default settings stand between you and what you need.

Again: For this to work, both of you have to operate from a place of respect, and the respect has to flow both ways. If he can’t comfortably take no for an answer and you can’t comfortably give yes for an answer, to your mutual satisfaction, then your marriage arrives at a crossroads: Stay in irritation, or go in peace.

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