I’ve been married for six years, and I have a problematic situation that drives me crazy! My husband, Reuven, is the type of guy who has high standards about everything. That’s fine. In fact, I’m sure that’s part of the reason I married him. He took everything very seriously and I knew I could count on him always. That feeling of security was something I was definitely looking for and found in him. So that’s good.
The problem is that every time I do something wrong, whether it’s an accident or intentional (honestly, it’s almost always accidental), I have to sit and listen to a long litany of every single time I was ever guilty of a similar transgression.
I’ll give you an example. Two weeks ago, Reuven and I made plans to meet in the city for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. Since Reuven takes the train to work every day, I was supposed to drive in to the city, meet him at the restaurant, and we’d drive home together. I know how crazy traffic to the city can be at that time, but I felt I gave myself plenty of extra time. I arranged for a babysitter to come to the house very early so I could get ready on time, without interruptions from our children. I left myself lots of time to drive in. And yet, with all of this foresight and preparation, I still managed to get to the restaurant about 15 minutes late. I did call Reuven from the road, telling him that, unfortunately, I would probably be a little late.
As I literally ran into the restaurant, almost falling over in my heels, I already saw Reuven’s unforgiving expression and I knew what was in store for me. Not only did he tell me how much he hates sitting around and waiting and that he can’t understand what is wrong with me since I wasn’t able to plan better, he also felt the need to bring up every single time I was late for anything, going all the way back to our dating days. We were sitting there in public, and I just had to take it, even though it felt like repeated blows to my head. But Reuven isn’t finished until he reviews every single time I messed up in this regard. Needless to say, our evening was ruined. He may have finally moved on after he finished spewing his list of complaints all over me, but I was left feeling abused and miserable.
He does this with everything. If I forget to pick up his clothing from the cleaners when there is something in particular that he was hoping to wear, I have to hear about every other time I didn’t pick up the dry-cleaning on time. As if it happens so often or as if I do it intentionally. On and on he goes. And I’m thinking at the time that I just want to run for my life!
I wouldn’t even mind if he vented in the moment that he was upset about something I did, and would just leave it at that. Why can’t he just stop there? Why does he have to go back in time and do the “review?” It really makes me sick. I think about what it will be like when we’re married 20 years (if we make it that long), and the “review” takes several hours since he will have known me for so long and the list of all of my terrible actions that disappointed and angered him will be quite long!
When he’s not focused on my mistakes and we’re having a normal conversation, I try to explain to Reuven how much I can’t stand that he feels the need to bring up everything from day one. His answer to me is that he’s not making anything up. It’s all true and therefore worthy of being repeated. Somehow, he just doesn’t get how crazy-making it is to me and that sometimes I feel as though I can’t take it anymore! True or not true, how many times do I need to hear the same thing told to me? I’m not an idiot, and I certainly would never forget; every incident is already burned into my brain!
How do I deal with such a person? I know you always say we can’t change others, but I find it’s very hard for me to change myself and just take it and not get extremely aggravated and angry at Reuven for what I feel are his petty and ridiculous reactions. Any suggestions?
I’m afraid, my dear, you are married to an emotional stenographer. Those are the people who feel the need to make note of every single grievance they have with another person. Never able to let anything go no matter the intention, they love to whip out their trusty little notebook so they can review all of their notes at every possible opportunity, thereby creating a compelling case for their victimhood and the perpetrator’s bad behavior.
Emotional stenographers feel quite justified in their behavior, because, after all, they have truth on their side, which supports their ridiculous and nitpicking behavior. They are so busy defending their case, with their “always” and “never” statements, that they are clueless about how off-putting their actions are and how others perceive and despise that behavior.
I understand how challenging it must be for you to be forced to sit and listen to Reuven drone on and on with facts that he’s already stated for you many times over. It’s like being force-fed the same repellant medicine again and again, in one sitting, while feeling as though you just might throw up!
Yes, it’s true that I often say that we have no power when it comes to changing other people’s natures or choices. That powerful we’re not. However, when it comes to behaviors between husbands and wives, we are definitely entitled to determine whether certain behaviors are absolutely unacceptable and draw our line in the sand, as we express our determination that we no longer want to participate in situations that are hurtful and useless and, worse yet, self-indulgent on the other person’s part.
Nothing good comes from this aspect of Reuven’s behavior. Whether it’s motivated by his arrogance, his desire for a pity party, his need for payback, or his belief that it’s his job to be your teacher, none of these motivators are appropriate between a husband and wife. (Frankly, I can’t think of any relationships in which they would be appropriate.)
Therefore, it’s your job to tell him that you no longer have any intention of listening to his list of grievances from the beginning of time. You have no problem hearing about his disappointment in the moment you blow it, as we all do now and then, and you are prepared to apologize for whatever you may have done (by accident or otherwise) that is upsetting to him, but if he starts to pull out his stenography pad, you’re not sticking around to listen to all of his entries. And then you have to be prepared to get up and walk away if he can’t resist the satisfaction he gets from doing “the review.”
Hopefully, Reuven will get the message and ultimately confront and relinquish this behavior of his that is becoming quite burdensome for you. If your words and actions fail to make a dent, then it’s time to visit a marriage counselor, who will be able to go a bit deeper, help Reuven understand where all of this is stemming from, help him understand how it has been chipping away at your marriage, and teach him new tools for expressing his anger.
You’ve taken it on the chin for a while now. It’s time for a change.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.