Dear Patti,

My husband Dennis and I have been married 32 years and I love him dearly. Despite ups and downs over the years, we’re now semi-retired and love being together. Unfortunately, he has always had an annoying habit he does all day long and can’t seem to stop. It may sound petty, but it makes me angry.

The problem is that no matter what another person says, Dennis feels compelled to question or amend it. When our neighbor was excited and ready to buy a car, Dennis brought up two other cars for him to look at first. If we’re driving together and I decide to take a surface street, he’ll suggest we take the freeway. When I was a teen, my father taught me how to paint homes’ interiors and I’ve always been proud of that skill. This summer I decided to paint all our bathrooms and Dennis questioned me every step of the way. If I put on a red dress, he’ll suggest my green dress might be more flattering. It’s not that he acts like a know-it-all but anything I do, he suggests a different way. I try not to say too much about it, but I want to sarcastically ask him, “How did I ever learn to drive a car, do my job or navigate my life in the 33 years prior to meeting you?”

He admits it’s so second nature to him and that it would be very difficult for him to stop. He doesn’t understand why I make such a big deal out of it. He says he’s merely offering suggestions and alternatives and it’s always the other person’s prerogative to choose his way or not. He believes he’s just creative, that’s how his brain works and that he can’t help it.

Why does he do this? It happens numerous times a day and I think it interferes with our relationship and his friendships with others well.

  — Brenda

Dear Brenda,

I can understand how you don’t want to make a big deal out of something your husband does with the best of intentions and isn’t trying to be mean in any way. However, I can certainly see how his responses and alternative answers could be an idea killer, attack your freedom of expression and creativity, and even affect your self-esteem and confidence. It must be difficult when the most important person in your life isn’t eager to listen and support your ideas sometimes without any resistance or comment. It might be a good idea to see a marriage counselor, an objective third party that could help facilitate better communication between you and help Dennis recognize that too much unsolicited (albeit well-meaning) advice can be harmful. Instead of letting resentment build, discuss with Dennis how you feel.

If someone constantly washes their hands or checks to see if their stove is turned off numerous times a day, this obsessive compulsive behavior is part of a treatable anxiety disorder. If your husband’s habit happens so frequently and constantly that such behavior interferes with the quality of his relationships, the psychotherapist may want to rule out the possibility Dennis’ habit has a compulsive aspect to it.

A common trait of one who is passive aggressive is to be argumentative. If your husband has pent-up resentment, he might subconsciously express his aggression by being difficult and disagreeable. Another topic for Dennis to discuss with the therapist is whether or not he is passive aggressive.

Is the source of Dennis’ habit due to a desire to control others in order to feel secure? Was he overly controlled as a child? As a young child trying to be supportive and take part in other’s activities, did he learn a social habit that might not always meet his goal; specifically, to be helpful and interdependent with others? Does he have a desire to be noticed, heard, and thought of as valuable and intelligent? He might have a deeply rooted fear of becoming invisible or thought of as insignificant or unimportant.

Lastly, it may be exactly as your husband describes. His mind might respond quickly, creatively and differently than many and it’s part of his personality. If that’s the case, he could often end up feeling misunderstood and isolated, since he’s wired differently in how he responds in a social setting and needs help in how to relate more effectively with others.  


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.