My boyfriend criticizes everything I do

He's a big slob but he points out my every flaw

By Cary Tennis

Published August 19, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Hi Cary,

I'm hoping you shed some light on something my boyfriend does that drives me absolutely crazy. He takes my inventory, if you know what that means, and focuses on things that he himself does.

He can be one of the messiest men I know, and he thinks nothing of leaving a huge mess in his house if he wants to go do something he's interested in. I work from home, and that means that even though I'm home, during certain periods I'm doing nothing but working during the work day, just like any other person. But when he comes over, he'll comment that I have dishes in the sink, even though I know that he has dishes in the sink himself at that very moment.

He'll live with a huge mess in his house for weeks on end, if it suits him or if he's tired after work or otherwise engaged, but gets tetchy about coming over to my place if he thinks it's going to be messy (and I own next to nothing and live in a small apartment, so I don't have a lot of stuff strewn around). He's also prone to wearing torn clothing, which doesn't bother me at all -- but he'll notice if I'm wearing something slightly past its sell-by date and comment that I should buy something new. His car is always a huge mess, and most of that mess is his own junk, but if my car gets messy, he gets really focused on it and advises me to clean it out. He gets upset when other men flirt with me (even if I don't respond, which I -- usually -- don't), but if I point out that this woman or that woman was flirting with HIM, he'll deny it and put up such a fight it's not worth talking about. He'll mess up in the kitchen (he's a great cook) and give himself a break, but if I mess up, I hear about it with advice on how not to make that mistake next time, and so on.

I can't quite understand why he does it. To me, it seems controlling at worst, or not self-aware at best, or maybe arrogant. He may think he's being caring by pointing out that I'd feel better if I did my dishes, but I already know that and make choices about my time just like he does. I don't like having another adult make comments about the way I choose to live, especially an adult whom I don't live with, aren't married to and who exhibits those behaviors himself. There are lots of good things about him, don't get me wrong -- but I feel insulted by this particular thing, for some reason, and am getting less and less tolerant of it. It seems unfair to me. It also seems as if someone who focuses on the negative the way he does is sending me a clear message, either "I think you're an idiot" or "I don't respect you" or "I'm intolerant of your quirks because I'm not really that into you."

What do you think, Cary? I'm making him sound like an ass here, because I'm focusing intensely on this one thing -- but there really are many other things about him that making keeping company with him worthwhile.

Don't Mess With Me

Dear Don't Mess With Me,

Since you say, "He takes my inventory, if you know what that means," I'm guessing you have some experience with recovery programs, in which "taking someone's inventory" is slang for inappropriately giving scrutiny to others' actions instead of one's own. If you and he are both experienced in this area, then I'd suggest you and he both do your own formal written inventories. That would be the sensible thing to do if you're in recovery.

If your boyfriend were to do an inventory, and if he were to spend some time contemplating his choices in this matter, he might realize that while he can't change you, he can change the dishes. He has the power to transform them from dirty to clean by picking them up one by one and washing them. Actually, it is possible to reach this realization without doing a formal written inventory. In fact, it is a remedy often suggested in such situations.

Whether you're in some kind of recovery program or not, what I really think is that you should tell this guy to shut up about how you live your life. Tell him that comments about your sink and your clothes are unacceptable. If he comes over and says you've got dishes in the sink, tell him to go home. Don't suggest that he wash them. He can figure that out on his own. Let him offer to wash them. If he doesn't offer, just tell him to go home.

It doesn't matter why he does it. It's just something he should stop doing. That's my advice to you: Be hardcore. If you can't get him to stop doing it, then stop seeing him.

But enough about you and your boyfriend. Let's talk about me.

When it comes to taking other people's inventory, I am terrible. Plus I am married.

I try to keep my mouth shut when I see my wife putting the dishes into the dishwasher all crooked. Like she'll put the plates in straight on one side and then on the other side she'll have them facing the other way, so you can't fit as many plates in, or she'll put a bowl facing sideways right in the middle of a row of plates. Or she'll put a long-handled item, like a spatula or serving spoon, along the row that's reserved, in my mind, for only coffee cups.

I've given up trying to educate her in my superior method. Instead, I secretly go in after she loads the dishwasher and change things around.

It has been suggested by observers that I am a bit of a "control freak" and that I am "obsessive." I have heard these things said and I have taken them in. They are being processed.

Meanwhile, there are other things my wife does. Like when she takes out the recycling, she doesn't wait until the recycling bag is full. I wait until it's full. I figure why waste a trip downstairs with a half-empty recycling bag. But when it comes Tuesday evening, time to put out our trash and recycling, even if I have just taken out a full bag and replaced the full bag with an empty bag that has only one thing in it, she will take that bag out because it's Tuesday. Even if there's only one thing in it. Plus there's something else she does. Now, reasonable people can all agree that it is wrong to take the full bag away without first replacing it with an empty bag. Otherwise, someone else will open the bin for recycling under the counter, see that there is no bag there, and have to get out a new empty bag yourself and put it there. That person will be me. Then that person will think, Why am I the one who is doing this? Is the universe against me? Now, you may say it's a little thing, and maybe it is. But think of how all this time adds up. Think of all the little art projects you could be doing when instead you're getting a new recycling bag out, opening it up and putting it under the counter.

My selfless attempts to save my wife from her own misguided and inefficient habits have mostly failed. At first I thought I wasn't communicating my methods clearly enough, so I worked on that. But communicating more clearly did not have the desired effect. In fact it seemed to make things worse.

I thought that maybe if I honestly confessed that this is just a little obsession of mine, she might reward me for being honest by agreeing, just to humor me, to change her obviously inferior way of arranging the dishes in the dishwasher and putting out the recycling. But to my surprise she just looked at me in this odd way she has, and then continued to do things the way she prefers to do them. So after a period of bleak despondency I reluctantly concluded that she will continue to do things the way she does them because that is the way she prefers to do them.

Why do people prefer to do things differently from the way we would do them? Why, oh God, why do people take the towels from the bathroom when they think they are dirty or wet and not replace them with new, dry, clean towels? Why? Why, even after we have demonstrated the obvious superiority of our methods, why do other people continue to do things their way?

I have as yet received no answer. I suspect God is looking at me with that same expression that my wife has.

Citizens of the Dream

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

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