One of the couples I see weekly struggles with issues that are, unfortunately, so common to us all. He complains about her nagging him all the time over “silly” things, while she says the things she complains about are not “silly,” and his saying so invalidates her legitimate concerns. This is one of the many cyclical patterns in their marriage which perpetuates an unsatisfying and even miserable life together.
But in one particular session, I tried to look more closely at his experience of her “nagging.” The first thing that struck me was that many of the things she “nagged” about were regarding actual mistakes, mental errors and general imprecision in his statements. This resonated with my present experience of him as well: in the days leading up to our most recent session, where some adjustments to the scheduling were needed to accommodate commitments on their end, I found him to be quite confused over the phone. He seemed to having trouble locking in one time, putting it into his calendar and then repeating it back to me. Perhaps he was preoccupied… I don’t know. But when I moved to explore it during this session, he glossed over it, downplayed his confusion, and then said, “well, I don’t want you to think I’m a jerk or anything…” and then changed the topic to his recent frustration regarding his elderly father.
As it happened, he and his wife agreed about how difficult his father could be. The subject in question was each time they drove his father to his senior residence, several times a week, his father would consistently warn them to watch out for two speed bumps each and every time they entered the parking lot. Occasionally, he would harshly add that the patient drove over them too fast.
I asked the husband to look closer at his father’s nagging, and for whose sake the father nags. The patient interpreted it as criticizing him in advance, anticipating that the patient will disregard the bumps and jostle them all in the car. I suggested that perhaps his father is instead motivated by his own internal script, having always had a need of his own to feel in charge, to direct, to order, to criticize and correct. (Perhaps that need is now enhanced by his increasing dependency in his later years which energizes his need to drive even from the back seat). Over time, this wonton criticism becomes a narrative which demeans and negates. It makes the other person feel like they are a useless, good-for-nothing, a nincompoop, and a jerk.
Therefore, in all his years living under his father’s hypercritical eye, my patient internalized his father’s criticism and made it truly about himself; his father wasn’t unfairly putting his son down repeatedly, he must have rightly been pointing out where the son was screwing up. He must have been, in fact, a jerk. But part of him unconsciously knew better. And it became a badge of honor he grew to resent: absorbing his father’s criticisms to “help” him feel better about himself. But it covered all circumstances, even when he legitimately screwed something up- the criticism it drew was never truly experienced as warranted, and it gave him the license to repel the attack, minimize it, and change the subject.
When criticism, even of legitimate things, arises in his marriage, he is primed to reject it out of hand and experience it as the same undeserved, self-serving narrative that he experienced under his father. He has never really developed the ability to calmly distinguish demeaning criticisms from helpful critiques.
And so returning to the session, I highlighted that even for me, he imagined he would be called a “jerk” for messing up the session times; not that a curious other was non-judgmentally inquiring about his mistake, but that a harsh, judgmental father was prepared to find another “silly” reason to call him out as being a “jerk.” And this applied daily and weekly to his wife. Without letting his wife be real and honest with him, through his out-of-hand rejection of all her comments as nagging, he can hardly expect her to feel close and loving to him. And the misery would continue.*
This session was an eye opener for both spouses. It ended up highlighting, in a non-pejorative way, how he was misguidedly rejecting her attempts at closeness. It also validated her own perspective on things and helped her to stop seeing herself as always a nasty “nag.” It doesn’t take one moment of recognition to suddenly change long-lasting patterns and habits. However, it begins the process of broadening one’s repertoire of interpersonal scripts and expectations. We will continue to return to this moment in therapy and reinforce the lesson it teaches them. Gradually they can incorporate new patterns of healthier interaction into their relationship, and pave the way to a more fulfilling marriage.
*It should be noted that a technical difficulty that required some negotiation was that the very act of my pointing out his misperception of these criticisms was likely to be taken as a criticism, akin to my calling him a “jerk” for screwing up his marriage in this way. This transferential dynamic had to be discussed and processed in-session as well.