Dear Carolyn: My wife of three years feels the need to, in her words, “vent” to her mother whenever she and I have problems. This venting is usually bad-mouthing me, and isn’t always truthful, or the complete truth. It has made it near impossible for me to have a relationship with her mother, who is convinced I am a controlling jerk.
I have asked my wife to stop, or at least be honest and give both sides. She flat refuses to see there is anything wrong with her actions. Am I fighting a losing battle? Is there a way to fix this? Am I completely wrong?
A: There are a lot of might-be-wrongs here, including: the venting to Mom; Mom’s accepting her daughter’s version wholesale; and the goings-on between you and your wife that generate such venting. There’s also the thorny business of your … overhearing? listening in on? your wife’s conversations and trying to, ahem, control their content.
All of these things are potentially wrong. I just can’t say “completely” wrong, or even how bad they are, without knowing more details because each of these situations comes with a scale. Some confiding outside the marriage is OK, for example, but oversharing, bad-mouthing and truth-shading are not. Some bias toward one’s children is unavoidable, but bringing no skepticism to their whining jags can actually enable dysfunction and undermine their relationships. Some disagreement between committed couples is normal, but enough to supply a side industry of venting to Mom? Not so much.
So, I’m going to start with the only calls I can make: Your marriage has fallen ill, and your wife’s “flat refus[al] to see … anything wrong with her actions” is wrong. Completely.
What, I hear people asking, if you are in fact a “controlling jerk”? Then she’s still wrong to refuse, because relationship problems are never the work of just one person. Even in the absolute extreme, when the problem stems from the unchecked evil of one partner, the other partner’s act of remaining in the relationship is still necessary to complete the transaction.
And this is where we need to start, because any effort to fix your ailing marriage will also end right here unless both of you soften.
You need your wife’s cooperation in the form of simple acceptance that both of you are pitching in to these circumstances she’s venting about to her mom. Likewise, you’ll get nowhere if your Plan A is to get your wife to do all the changing and you don’t have a Plan B – especially since the “controlling jerk” opinion is in the air, even if it’s unfounded.
The path to mutual cooperation has to start with your admission of fault. Even if it’s general, it’s essential: “That you have so much to ‘vent’ about tells me we’re doing something wrong. I’d like to know what that is, what my part in it is, and what I can do better. Will you work on this with me?” Insert openness to professional help here.
Here’s why her “completely wrong” has transformed into your supplication: When she’s trashing you to Mom, when you’re listening in, when she’s cherry-picking facts to vindicate herself and indict you, and when you’re trying to remedy this by micromanaging what she says to a confidant, it’s time to recognize that the atmosphere between you is poisoned by mistrust and self-interest. And when that happens, no self-protective half-steps will get you close to the heart of that mistrust.
The only way to get there is to show her that you’re dropping your defenses, and inviting her to do the same.
Yes, this leaves you vulnerable. Yes, she can scoff. Yes, you can get hurt.
To this I say, it hurts so much more to watch your intimacy die while questioning whether you really did all you could. Do all you can, and drop those dukes.