Q: My husband has a tendency to “mansplain.” Recently, when I asked him if he had heard of any U.S. military action planned against North Korea, he began his response by telling me the name of the leader of North Korea, the fact that they have been doing nuclear weapons testing, who Rex Tillerson is, etc., all of which I knew already and wasn’t really the answer to my question, was it?
When I call him on it by commenting that he is mansplaining, he becomes angry and says he only knows one way to talk. Am I wrong to call him on this?
A: Depends on how you define “call him on this.”
If it means saying to him, “When you give me all that background information, I feel like I’m back in kindergarten” – and asking that he please assume you have knowledge of geopolitical basics – then it is not wrong.
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If instead it means using the lingo du jour to call him a patronizing sexist blowhard, then, yes, that is wrong.
Not that the (BEG ITAL)facts(END ITAL) of the accusation are wrong, necessarily; he may be all of those things. Or not. I don’t know.
But you’re supposed to be life partners: Slapping a label on him is not the most constructive way to improve that bond, or to make your point.
It is arguably an act of kindness to let a partner know when a habit of his risks alienating you. That’s communication couples need. If integrity permits you to add, “I don’t think you do it on purpose,” then, even better. It helps to show you’re not assuming the worst of him in raising the issue.
What doesn’t help is to assume the worst, to ascribe motives to him without giving him room to say otherwise. A “mansplaining” charge assumes he overexplains because he thinks you’re ignorant, and thinks you’re ignorant because you’re a woman – when there are other possible explanations. Right? Couldn’t he just be a plodding, methodical guy? A blowhard without a cause?
Consider whether he talks this way just to you, just to women, just to people he might regard as subordinate. Are his male peers and superiors subject to the same lecture format?
These may seem like “duh” points for the person who married and lives with him, but sometimes there are things we don’t see unless we make a conscious effort to look.
If indeed you’ve thought it through, gathered evidence without bias, confirmed to your own satisfaction the presence of gendered disdain, and talked to him about it using your trusty “When you [blank], I feel [blank]” phrasing, to no avail – then you need to decide whether this is a blind spot of his you can live with or a disrespect you simply can’t.
Q: My mother-in-law is very ill and we have all been put on alert for her passing. We are preparing mentally for this.
She has always said disparaging things about me, to my face and behind my back. Consequently, my in-laws have treated me as an outsider.
While I am not glad for her passing, and do want to be supportive of my spouse, I don’t know how I will respond when I receive comments like, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” or, “She was such a good mother-in-law.” I’m not sorry I will no longer have her in my life – and she was not a good mother-in-law.
A: “You’re very kind, thank you.” “Generous” works, too.
Meaning, you acknowledge that it is kind/generous of people to offer you their condolences.
And that it is a very kind/generous interpretation to say she was a “good” mother-in-law and that her absence registers for you as a loss. The second meaning can remain strictly between us.
Q: A friend who I have known for many years is either angry or depressed or complaining about her family. I am reaching the point where I can no longer deal with her never-ending madness and sadness and criticism.
I hate to lose her friendship but I worry about my own health. Thank you for any advice.
A: It is OK to tell a friend you aren’t equipped to carry the burden she asks you to bear?
You can also say this without having to reach too far for the necessary compassion. She’s unhappy and you’re worried about her, so you need only to tell her that truth.
And: “I hope you’ll consider talking to a therapist. If I could help you just by listening and caring, then I would have by now – but if anything, you’re down more often lately, not less.”
Expect her to reject therapy at first, or at second, or beyond. If so, be consistent: “I’m sorry I’m not equipped to help you.” If she won’t hear that, then admit you’re feeling caught in her undertow. Decline unwelcome invitations.
Staying on as her designated listener isn’t just bad for you; it enables her to postpone getting the help she apparently needs.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.