Dear Carolyn: My wife and I often grocery shop together. My wife will predictably identify something among my few items and ask that I return it to the shelf. It reminds me of a mother telling a child to put back the Lucky Charms. Yet, she may have a few similar items.
I typically put up some resistance but relent to avoid an in-store argument. These episodes have taken their toll on me.
I have voiced my feelings to my wife in the moment and during therapy. These small issues have become a metaphor for what I feel is belittling me and my role.
I was recently disappointed to see this behavior continue. I can calmly explain again to my wife that this behavior humiliates me and makes me want to avoid shopping together. I am certain, however, she will accuse me of being oversensitive and painting her as a monster, and nothing will change.
Should I simply stand down from shared shopping excursions? Is “giving up” a healthy strategy? I will need to explain why I no longer accompany her.
Carolyn says: A few points before we get to the grocery aisle:
That you’re in counseling says this is a bigger issue involving a lot more than encroachment on your inalienable right to grab a box of Ho Hos. Yes?
That she’s still correcting you after you’ve said your piece about feeling belittled says she (still) believes she has a right to tell you what to do, and therefore will keep doing it.
So you’re married to someone who is controlling and who apparently would rather gaslight you — “she will accuse me of being oversensitive” — than challenge her own behavior.
This is the problem in your marriage. Because there’s never a bad time for a 45-year-old movie reference, I’ll let “The Exorcist” speak: “There is only one.”
You can simply stop shopping with her, yes, and tell her why. But that only spares you some cart rage and leaves the problem intact.
Anything shopping-related, in fact, will be a repair on the margins unless you apply it across your relationship, as a matter of principle and self-preservation.
The response that addresses the problem itself is to decline to be controlled. Calmly, firmly and without fear of an “in-store argument,” because she knows you fear that and counts on it to silence you.
Tweak your phrasing to reflect the situation, of course — but when you’re told to return an item, a cool and quiet, “I am not your child,” will suffice. Items stay in the cart.
If she responds to this by making a scene — expect it — leave the scene calmly and promptly where practical, and otherwise calmly finish buying food.
Again: Quietly refuse to be controlled. Make this your blueprint for finding the words and actions in the heat of a moment that preserve the right to self-determination due any competent adult. Take this blueprint with you to the store, to the kitchen table, in the car, on vacation. Apply it with a two-part strategy of holding firm and then, as needed, declining to act in her scene.
Quietly refuse to be controlled.
This is your start. Therapy solo is next. That’s how you navigate wherever your marriage goes next.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.