Dealing With Husband’s and Mother-In-Law’s Vacillating Behavior

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Reader’s Question

I have a question on how to deal with certain kinds of people. They either make it appear as if they want your input on something, or they might even ask you directly for input or a suggestion, only to reject every suggestion or answer you give them and then try to persuade you to agree with what they want. They will even go as far as to reject my suggestions, then make a suggestion themselves, and if I agree with their suggestion, they turn around and argue about why it isn’t a good suggestion after all.

My husband does this, as does his Mother (my mother-in-law). For example, when we go out to eat, my husband will always ask and even insist that I suggest where we should go, or what kind of food we should eat, and every single suggestion I make he rejects or has a reason for why he doesn’t want this. Even if it is a special event, like my birthday and he wants me to choose, he will always challenge it. My husband also does this on financial decisions or when we are making a large purchase. He always asks for my input, but he always rejects it and ends up making the decision himself. It is so bad with my mother-in-law that when she comes to visit, I refuse to cook and my husband has to. She will ask what is going to be made, then has a long list of suggestions and always tries to get us to change our minds to what she wants. If she is going to cook a meal for us at her home, she insists that we tell her what we’d like her to make, and always suggests something else instead, and if we agree with her suggestion, she will then go on to make other suggestions.

This behavior pattern is extremely frustrating, and I see my husband doing this more any more. He now does it with our 5-year-old twins. I’d like to know if there is a “label” for this type of behavior and if there is anything I can read on how to deal with this. I’ve tried nicely to point out how he does it, but he denies that he doesn’t allow others to ever make decisions. It has gotten so bad that when we go out to eat (which isn’t often because I get so frustrated with him) I have a canned answer of “whatever you want is fine with me”. I refuse to make suggestions or even comment on his suggestions because I’m tired of always being shot down or having him challenge me. We can’t even go out for a date night because if I try to make plans he always wants to talk me into something else, or if I just insist that he should decide, he wants to play this game of insisting I make suggestions only so he can tell me why each one is not a good idea.

Psychologist’s Reply

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There actually is a label for the kind of behavior pattern you describe, as well as the personality style that frequently accompanies it. I have posted on this topic before and write about it extensively in my books In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] and Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Unfortunately, the labels for this behavior and personality style are among the most frequently misused — by professionals and lay persons alike — in mental health.

Some folks have never reconciled whether they want to adopt a primarily independent (“I’ll chart my own course”) or a primarily dependent (“I’ll do whatever you want me to do”) style of coping. Their active ambivalence about this issue causes them to vacillate incessantly between these two positions and begets what has been labeled the passive-aggressive or “negativistic” personality style. Unfortunately, many folks erroneously use the label “passive-aggressive” instead of the more accurate label “covert-aggressive” when they’re trying to describe underhanded, subtle attempts to exploit, manipulate and control.

Ambivalent personalities are challenging to deal with both in relationships and in traditional counseling or therapy. They are perpetually caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place. They fear asserting themselves almost as much as they detest being led by others. Still, they can be dealt with. Because they are much more in tune with the things the don’t want or like than the things they really want, the next time you’re faced with one of the dilemmas you describe, you might ask where they don’t want to go or what they don’t want to do. Once you’ve narrowed the options, you can move toward getting a more firm decision.

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