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Carolyn Hax: Man troubled by wife complaining about him to her mother

DEAR CAROLYN: My wife of three years feels the need to, in her words, “vent” to her mother whenever she and I have problems. This venting is usually bad-mouthing me, and isn’t always truthful, or the complete truth. It has made it near impossible for me to have a relationship with her mother, who is convinced I am a controlling jerk.

I have asked my wife to stop, or at least be honest and give both sides. She flat refuses to see there is anything wrong with her actions. Am I fighting a losing battle? Is there a way to fix this? Am I completely wrong?

– L.

DEAR L.: There are a lot of might-be-wrongs here, including: the venting to Mom; Mom’s accepting her daughter’s version wholesale; and the goings-on between you and your wife that generate such venting. There’s also the thorny business of your overhearing, or listening in on, your wife’s conversations and trying to, ahem, control their content.

All of these things are potentially wrong. I just can’t say “completely” wrong, or even how bad they are, without knowing more details because each of these situations comes with a scale. Some confiding outside the marriage is OK, for example, but oversharing, bad-mouthing and truth-shading are not. Some disagreement between committed couples is normal, but enough to supply a side industry of venting to Mom? Not so much.

So, I’m going to start with the only calls I can make: Your marriage has fallen ill, and your wife’s “flat refus[al] to see there is anything wrong with her actions” is wrong. Completely.

What, I hear people asking, if you are in fact a “controlling jerk”? Then she’s still wrong to refuse, because relationship problems are never the work of just one person. Even in the absolute extreme, when the problem stems from the unchecked evil of one partner, the other partner’s act of remaining in the relationship is still necessary to complete the transaction.

And this is where we need to start, because any effort to fix your ailing marriage will also end right here unless both of you soften.

The path to mutual cooperation has to start with your admission of fault. Even if it’s general, it’s essential.

The only way to get there is to show her that you’re dropping your defenses, and inviting her to do the same.

Yes, this leaves you vulnerable. Yes, she can scoff. Yes, you can get hurt.

To this I say, it hurts so much more to watch your intimacy die while questioning whether you really did all you could. Do all you can, and drop those dukes.

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