Punishment and love entwined



Hi, Carolyn:

My wife and I have fought over whether I should be giving her open access to my personal email. I’ve had this account for at least twice as long as I’ve known her (going back 20-ish years) and we had a kind of cat-and-mouse type of situation where she would try to trick me into giving it to her. She finally forced me to tell her one time by refusing to get out of the way when we needed to check on an email in my account. She assured me she would not force me to do so again.

Not long after, she did it again and we fought over it. She thought she was being playful, but I know she was only acting playful about it because this is one sticking point she has always had about our relationship.

I believe she wants access to dig up whatever she can find to use against me when she “needs” it. In the course of our fight about this she brought up all the things she doesn’t like about me from before we were together. She tried to use them all as justification that, despite our having been married for some time now, I am somehow trying to keep her out of my life. I keep telling her I do not think she has my best interests at heart, because otherwise she should be able to take “no” for an answer and give me a better reason for wanting it than making us closer as a couple.

We already share bank accounts, pets and have been discussing children, so being able to freely read my email whenever she wants does not strike me as necessary to having an intimate relationship. I know some people have no problem with this arrangement, but I also know I should be allowed to give it to her of my own free will rather than being forced to divulge.

It’s only an issue because of her tendency to drag up past arguments that should have been settled years ago. If she’s willing to do that with what we have merely talked about, I’m not comfortable with her having access to years of archival footage of conversations that she can turn against me.

Am I wrong to think this way?

— Separate but Equal?

Not even remotely.

Your principal error is in the other direction, in underplaying this as “one sticking point.” It’s like calling the iceberg gash “one hull issue” with the Titanic.

If a female friend came to you with a story about her husband physically blocking her path and forcing her to surrender her passwords so he could check up on her and gather potential leverage against her, wouldn’t you at least warn her about the possibility of abuse, if not outright urge her to call a hotline for help?

Yet you have the same sort of raging distrust, obsessiveness and boundary violations going on in your own home, without seeing any abuse flags and while actively considering bringing children into the marriage.

Please, please don’t. I beg.

An intimate relationship is neither about shared pets, bank accounts and children, as you assert, nor about the unfettered access to archival email that she apparently sees as the linchpin of her emotional well-being. It’s about trust. Full stop. And there’s no sign of trust anywhere in the marriage your letter describes.

Your wife doesn’t trust you to represent yourself honestly and wants to do her own fact-checking. In fact, this distrust preoccupies, even consumes her, by your account.

You don’t trust her to be fair to you when you argue, kind to you in her interpretation of past words and deeds, or honest with you about her motives, not even for “acting playful.” Nearly a decade of cat-and-mouse over this, if I’m counting correctly? Wow.

This answer is going to be more analysis than prescription because what you describe is not something a simple adjustment will fix. See “Titanic,” above. I can only urge you to find a very good family therapist and start talking. Just you: Counseling as a couple is not recommended when there are issues of control and emotional abuse.

As you line up professional help, please also read “Life Skills for Adult Children,” by Janet Woititz and Alan Garner. It stems from work on adult children of alcoholics, but offers key practical guidance for anyone who struggles with boundaries, communication, difficult feelings and respectful disagreement.

Make these steps the start of a serious response to the alarms here, please. When you pay informed attention to what boundaries are and where you would like them to be, I think then you’ll start to see how far over them your wife has crossed and, ideally, why you’re several years into a lifetime with someone who entwines punishment with love.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

 

Carolyn Hax

Carolyn Hax

Syndicated Advice Columnist
Advice Columnist Carolyn Hax takes your questions and tackles your problems.

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