Wife’s ‘teas­ing’ has mate off-bal­ance, un­sure of judg­ment

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST/TELEVISION - CAROLYN HAX Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group/NICK GAL­I­FI­ANAKIS Chat on­line with Carolyn at 11 a.m. each Fri­day at wash­ing­ton­post.com. Write to Tell Me About It in care of The Wash­ing­ton Post, Style Plus, 1150 15th St. N.W., Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071; or email t

DEAR CAROLYN: I know teas­ing can be a play­ful way to get close or nudge us not to take our­selves too se­ri­ously. But some­times I feel my wife uses it to ex­press an opin­ion or point about me with­out say­ing it straight out.

These ex­changes al­ways seem a bit off, like lit­tle side­long digs, but if I look at her in­quis­i­tively she says she was “just teas­ing,” im­ply­ing that I missed the harm­less fun. I end up feel­ing off-bal­ance, like the episode served more to di­vide than join us.

If I’m mis­read­ing her, I want to stop and lighten up. If my sense of these sit­u­a­tions is ac­cu­rate, I want to re­spond more con­struc­tively. How do I know which is which, and where do I go from there? — Too Sen­si­tive?

DEAR READER: Think about a time when your at­tempt to tease some­one fell flat.

Did you say, “I’m just teas­ing,” and im­ply your tar­get “missed the harm­less fun”?

Or did you apol­o­gize?: “It was sup­posed to be a joke. I’m sorry.”

There isn’t much of a ver­bal dif­fer­ence here, but there’s a huge emo­tional one. The lat­ter is what you say when you up­set some­one you don’t mean to up­set.

The former is gaslight­ing. A nickel def­i­ni­tion: It’s a sub­tle abuse tactic to make some­one ques­tion him- or her­self in­stead of the abuser. It dis­em­pow­ers and also iso­lates, since vic­tims start hold­ing back to avoid mak­ing these per­ceived mis­takes.

So, your wife drops a side­long dig, and you don’t feel closer to her, ob­vi­ously — nor do you say, “Wow. That was mean.” In­stead you re­treat in fear that it’s your fault for be­ing sen­si­tive.


Read your let­ter, and note how dis­tant you sound from the per­son you mar­ried.

It’s a sur­mount­able prob­lem, once you learn to iden­tify and stand up to it, and — this is huge — de­ter­mine that your part­ner is a de­cent per­son who is act­ing un­awares on un­healthy re­flexes, as op­posed to some­one who know­ingly seeks (and jus­ti­fies) the up­per hand.

She’ll re­veal which one she is when you ar­tic­u­late your dis­com­fort with com­mu­ni­ca­tion by snark.

If she re­sponds with more blame, then you’ll know she’s not will­ing to build trust through open­ness. Coun­sel­ing would make sense in that case — just you, though, not with a dom­i­neer­ing spouse.

If in­stead she drops her de­fenses, enough to treat your feel­ings as valid — a pre­req­ui­site for break­ing pos­si­bly life­long emo­tional habits — then there is a clear and con­struc­tive path for you to fol­low.

First, you find the courage to com­mu­ni­cate clearly: “That sounds like a dig. If there’s some­thing you’d like to say to me, then please say it di­rectly.” Next, she finds the courage to ac­cept that: “You’re right, I wasn’t be­ing di­rect. It both­ers me when you do X.” Then you ac­com­mo­date as you want to and can while re­main­ing true to your­self.

This leaves plenty of room for harm­less teas­ing — mu­tual, joy­ful, ul­te­rior-mo­tive-free.

The power ruts you’re in, yours and hers, de­fer­ring and dom­i­nat­ing, are about hold­ing on. That sug­gests — iron­i­cally — you’re both gov­erned by fear of los­ing some­one.

The way to keep some­one is to be open enough about frus­tra­tions, fears and af­fec­tions to bring you close, and to ac­cept the risk of find­ing out you’re bet­ter off apart.

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