The Washington Post

Over-criticized or overly sensitive?

- Carolyn Hax Write to Carolyn Hax at tellme@washpost.com. Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at wapo.st/gethax.

Dear Carolyn: My husband is an extremely competent person who approaches everything with informed and reasoned thinking. I approach things less so, but I am not a generally careless person.

When my husband believes I am doing something in a way that could be done better or could result in a negative outcome, he might correct or assist me by taking action or telling me what I should do. I have been chafing under the assistance and correction­s, and after our thoughtful discussion on this matter, I am left with a couple of questions:

How do I know whether my husband is nitpicking or whether I am being overly sensitive? How does the degree of negative consequenc­es that might result from an action, and the frequency and delivery of the correction or assistance, impact this?

— Nitpicker or Narcissist?

Nitpicker or Narcissist?: It’s actually three Ns: nitpicker, narcissist or neurodiver­gent.

None of which I am informed or qualified enough to answer, but that is your question: Which one is he? Because that will tell you how best to respond.

Addressing your questions from the bottom up, the last one is straightfo­rward. If you’d fill the “frequency and delivery” blanks with “constantly” and “meanly,” then, yes, that will have a huge impact. Like, divorce-attorney impact. Who wants to live with that.

The “degree of negative consequenc­es” is also a significan­t inflection point. If he’s correcting the way you’re installing a light fixture because you're about to electrocut­e yourself, then that will be far more welcome and forgivable than if he corrects you for using the two-bunny-ear method to tie your own shoes. If he doesn’t have a working significan­ce filter, then that gets old quickly indeed.

As for nitpicking vs. sensitivit­y, that’s a combinatio­n of your other questions. If he’s infrequent­ly stepping in kindly because he fears you’ll hurt yourself, then I could see how that would get annoying, but you still have ample justificat­ion to try learning to breathe through it. (And if you can’t, then you can’t. Not every breach can be fixed.)

If instead he’s stepping in constantly to prove to you how much better he is than you are at handling trivia, minutiae and scraps, then I urge you to find a therapist qualified to determine which N is making a nuisance of your husband.

The true competency you’re looking for in a therapist applies here: the ability to see whether you’re being gaslighted.

A neurodiver­gent, highly literal spouse might innocently fail to grasp that you value your freedom to go uncorrecte­d above loading the dishwasher correctly. You can work with or around that, if you’d like.

A controller might deploy correction­s to assert the upper hand and grind your confidence to a nub. That’s not workable. By insisting defensivel­y that you’re “not a generally careless person,” in fact, you’re backhanded­ly validating his view that marriage is a competence contest. Is it?

An anxious controller, meanwhile, could be grabbing the reins out of fear, not trusting anyone else to be as responsibl­e as he is. Also unworkable, but treatable if he's willing.

So sort out your marriage, with (solo, to start) or without expert counsel. But also keep your own basic needs in mind. If you’re suffering and nothing eases that, then diagnoses are moot. Unhappines­s is a reason to act in itself.

Join the discussion live at noon Fridays at washington­post.com/livechats.

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