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My wife and I have been married for over 10 years, and I have gradually come to realize that she often shows poor judgement based on personal feelings about a person rather than factual information. Here are some examples:

  • A financial advisor hurt her feelings, so she often makes poor financial decisions such as not paying her credit cards every month and borrowing against her retirement.
  • She had a cyberstalker that, rather than ignoring/reporting/blocking, she chose to engage and confront the person (making the situation more dangerous) because someone who gave her advice about the issue made her feel scared about what could happen.
  • Repeatedly breaks phones/computers/appliances because she refuses to read the instructions and feels like anyone offering her help is "talking down to her."
  • A mechanic criticized her for not taking care of her car properly, so she doubled down to the point of even running out of gas and getting stranded several times.
  • Getting lost and robbed in a foreign country because she refused to follow the directions of a friend she got into an argument with.

The thing is that she is very well educated (2 Master's degrees) and successful (prestigious upper management position). She can even repeat sound advice to her friends and family, but when it comes time for her to follow the same advice, she seems to automatically associate the information with her feelings about the person who presented the advice and reacts in an emotional way, rather than based on the factual merit of said advice. If she has a negative view of the person giving the advice, she will ignore/do the opposite. If another person attempts to provide the same/similar advice, regardless of how it is presented, she will typically react based on her perceptions of the first person who presented the topic, rather than subsequent information.

I have tried to bring this topic up with her and point out that this behavior (which she recognizes as harmful after-the-fact) has led to her not only making life choices she ultimately regrets, but has also put herself or family members in physical danger. Unfortunately, this is ultimately counterproductive because then she is angry at me and typically this makes these behaviors worse.

How can I communicate the importance of being self-aware of this reaction and putting checks on it without making the situation worse?

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    Sounds like she has some growing up to do. You won't be able to get through to her until she gets over her pride and ego. And that won't be a pleasant journey - at all. – AndreiROM Jan 11 '18 at 18:20
  • "I have tried to bring this topic up with her and point out that this behavior [...] has led to her not only making life choices she ultimately regrets". What behavior did you point out - not following those people's advice or the behavior that directly led to problems? I mean, do you say somthing like "You didn't listen to your financial advisor" or "You made a poor decision here and there"? – Anne Daunted Jan 11 '18 at 18:40
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    The most you can (try to) do is make her aware of the behaviour. Although it sounds like she's already aware of it, so I suppose you want offer advice for how to deal with it, which is extremely unlikely to go down well if she didn't specifically ask for advice or if she's not receptive to it (which it sounds like she isn't), and I might say it would be better dealt with in therapy. Related: How to get spouse to empathetically listen to problems instead of (or at least before!) offering solutions? – NotThatGuy Jan 11 '18 at 18:48
  • @Paparazzi There are many people who are in upper management or executive level positions who have very poor self-awareness and self-control. Just watch the news. – drz Jan 14 '18 at 18:24
  • @drz Not what I would call evidence. Do you think people are promoted for good judgement or poor judgement? – paparazzo Jan 14 '18 at 18:29
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If it were a friend, I'd say one thing. Given that this is your wife, with whom you are committed over the long haul, options dwindle.

First of all, she needs to want to make the change. If she doesn't want to, anything you do will merely exacerbate the issue.

If it were a friend, I'd say "let them keep learning lessons the hard way; eventually they'll come to their senses. Or they'll be alone, having chased away all their friends." I think that the most indicative point is reading instructions - it's hard to have feelings about the people who write them. Unfortunately, it appears to me that ego is the largest problem here and not feelings about the deliverer of the message.

If she engages with you about instructions/advice, I'd ask "how do you feel about the person who told you that?" Then I'd start asking questions. "What do you plan on doing? What do you think will logically happen if you do that? What do you think will be the outcome if you don't do that? What effect will that have on this person?"

Unfortunately, I think your relationship is going to suffer here. Until she can make that separation of message from messenger, she's going to keep making bad decisions, which are going to affect you. It sounds like money overall isn't a problem (upper management positions generally pay well, although expenses are also matchingly high) so the impact will more be to convenience and pride. don't validate her actions - if she takes steps that lead to her car breaking down, don't allow her to toss blame on someone else. If she breaks a phone, don't let her blame it on crappy construction. she needs to realize that she took actions and these have consequences. Validating this particular view only makes things harder on you and increases the dysfunction over the long haul.

I'd avoid staying away from "so-and-so told you about this." She already knows that something unpleasant happened; this will only add fuel to the fire.

Edit in response to @AndreiRom: It's going to take some deft maneuvering on your part while she learns these hard lessons. If she won't accept responsibility for her choices, you're the closest one and therefore stand the greatest chance of being the party being blamed. Your challenge will be to not accept blame while not engaging in fights with her over this. If, on the other hand, she insists on blaming everyone around her for her actions, you're going to have to evaluate how to stay in this relationship, which most likely would involve counseling. Being the ongoing object of blame is not a pleasurable experience.

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    Seeing how she reacts to any sort of negative feedback, the marriage may very well suffer if the OP tries to push the issue (or even mentions it). Now, I'm not disagreeing that this should happen! In fact, it should have happened 10+ years ago. I just think you should mention the potential pitfalls here. Good answer otherwise. – AndreiROM Jan 11 '18 at 19:12
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You're not going to change them if they don't want to change. If they're not receptive to criticism or advice don't give them criticism or advice. They're an adult and can make their own poor choices. They're still responsible for the consequences, and Unfortunately you're married to them and their self sabotaging behavior affects you.

Practice saying "We all make choices....". It's a great phrase that makes no judgement about the act but clearly dictates who is responsible for it.

When you do need to talk to them, talk to them about specific behaviors you are concerned about. Not this overarching issue of them ignoring advice. Don't blame them. Use I statements. Let them know that their actions are having affects on others and ask them to work with you to resolve the issue.

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    probably the best relationship advice I have ever heard is, don't say things like, "you are" or "you feel", but instead say things like, "I seems to me.." or "I feel like this when..." – drz Jan 14 '18 at 19:04
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The aspect that sounds worrying to me isn't the part where she doesn't listen to advice from people she doesn't like. It's the part where she actively does the opposite - in order to spite them? - and hurts mostly herself (and not the advisor) in the process. If she wanted to get back at the advisors, she should do something that hurts them. But she doesnt...

That sounds like disguised self-harming behaviour and it sounds like she should mainly get help from a mental health professional to handle this. Of course, getting there doesn't sound easy.

You could start by leaving the advisor out of it and focussing just on the "How did it get to [thing that harmed you]?" and "How did you feel then?"

In the end it may well be that you can do nothing about it unless she realises that she needs to change her behaviour. Maybe you can only disengange or divorce :-/

  • I do believe it is a mixture of pride, spite and stubbornness. Her mother even told me that when she was a kid, she would often "dig herself deeper" when she was in trouble by being defiant and confrontational rather than simply excepting her given punishment. If I had to guess, I would say she is trying to spite the memory of someone who upset her in order to "not let them win," accepting the personal cost either consciously or subconsciously. Does anyone know if there is a term for someone who does this? Is there an established way to deal with it? – drz Jan 14 '18 at 18:54
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    @drz It'd be interesting to know if she accepts the costs consciously, especially if they are costs not only to herself but to others as well. If she consciously puts others in danger to spite someone who likely won't notice, that'd be a red flag for me and I'd ask her about that. – AllTheKingsHorses Jan 14 '18 at 19:37
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Most people who react defensively in this way tend to know that what they're doing is wrong/harmful/prideful. Pride seems to play a big part in this and it's unfortunate that danger has become a byproduct of her behaviour. She's angry at you for bringing it up but I bet she doesn't realize that much of that anger is towards herself.

It might help if you're able to cushion the hurt pride with solutions/reparations to the problems. There's not much point bringing up the past without solutions. The biggest thing I hate hearing is "You should have..." and if I had a time machine, I would have done it. That's like throwing salt on an open wound. It may help in softening her up to openly deal with those types of situations and reactions. She may want to know and hear that you support her, and then you can gently bring up how you can both deal with those situations.

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It sounds as if the root cause of this is deep-seated and could be very difficult to address. When you argue with her over any of these isolated incidents you are attacking a symptom, not the cause, which is why you are not getting anywhere.

It seems like she feels the need to perhaps prove to others that she can make her own decisions without assistance. Rebelling against any kind of authority, real or perceived, seems to be default behaviour.

My advice is firstly to be patient. Don't sit her down and attempt to psychoanalyse her, but talk to her over time and have a think about what may be the cause of this. Did she experience excessive control from parents or somebody in authority in the past? Did she struggle at any point in her life? Did she feel that she had to compete with others, perhaps siblings?

If you have an idea what might be going on with her, try to have a conversation that links her past experience to her present behaviour. But speak positively about her - don't suggest that she is obstinate or stubborn; maybe ask "do you think that is why you are so fiercely independent?"

You said she already accepts that her behaviour is harmful after the fact, so perhaps she will respond to your help if given in the right way. She is probably in denial to a degree. Be supportive at all times throughout this. If there IS something in her past that has made her this way, professional counselling would be the best way forward, but counsellors do not give advice, really they just ask questions that encourage a person to reach their own conclusions. You have already experienced that if you try to give her advice, she does the opposite, so the only way you will succeed is by following that approach.

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As another poster has pointed out, the fact that you are married to this person makes things very complicated.

Your primary dilemma

She seems like not realizing the fact or the problem in that she does not separate between message and messenger. You might be able to point out when she does something wrong, you might be able to nudge her into a healthier direction but ultimately, nothing will fix the issue as long as she has no epiphany about herself. Most epiphanies in that regard are hard and unpleasant lessons to swallow and there is a good chance her internal mechanism will connect that to you. My guess is that you alone will be unable to resolve this.

Professional help

The issue you described hints at some problems covered deep in your SOs psyche. Now of course its easy to say that regarding any odd behaviour, especially on the internet, but a good rule of thumb is determining whether or not the habit in question has a tangible negative impact on the life of a person and their close ones - which clearly is the case here.

You are (most likely) not a trained therapist. I strongly advice against doing that yourself, such as performing pseudo-therapy, digging around in her past etc.

The biggest challenge here is getting her to accept therapy/help and not dismissing it for the same reasons you described. The will of the patient to participate/change is essential in any form of treatment in this regard.

You have to find a therapist she personally likes and some "hook" that enables her to engage in therapy. It might be advisable to not speak about the core problem you described here but instead find something else (superficial) she might agree on. Good therapy will get to the underlying problems and sometimes also include sessions with you (together with your wife and/or alone) where you can speak your mind freely. The other way around would be you getting help because the situation has a very negative impact on your mental wellbeing, which could then also lead to couple sessions. Risk being that she will perceive that as putting the blame on her from the start.

Contingency plans

Now dont get me wrong, Im not asking you to betray your wife, although it might feel like betrayal. You yourself described highly problematic behaviour that affects both you and family members which goes beyond mere inconvenience - financial decisions, critical safety decisions. You have to think about how you bring yourself out of harms way and what your plans will be if things go south.

How much you actually implement (e.g. a secret bank account with some reserves) is entirely up to you and your judgement, just dont be taken by surprise.

In the interest of both of you!

This is not only for the eventuality that she might turn hostile against you but also for a scenario where she maneuvers herself (and by proxy you) into deep shit, unable to (easily) get out by herself, such as getting arrested, bank account frozen/identity stolen, stuck in another country) - in which you can provide assistance thanks to your backup plan.

I know this can lead to more trouble in case you raise suspicion or she finds out. I dont want to be in your shoes honestly. Yet, in case she does find out and you are completely honest about it, she might realize how volatile and unreliable her behaviour makes her in your eyes - which might appeal more to her conscience than any conversation you could ever bring up. Im not going to sugar coat it though, it might also blow up horribly.

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