Dear Carolyn: My wife has been telling me as long as we've known each other (around 10 years now) that she wants nothing but openness and honesty from me. So when she asks me personal questions, especially questions that bring up things from my past or that I have deep personal connections to such as sexual attractiveness and other very intimate subjects, I answer as honestly as I know how.
My problem is that she reacts in a way that undermines the trust and confidence I put in her, and uses what I tell her against me when we fight. Such as: "You can't criticize me for that because you (insert incident from when I was 15 that I told her about)," or my favorite, the snide comment about some personal anecdote about my sexual history, which she likes to drag out when we haven't had sex in a while.
I find myself confiding less and less in her, and sharing less and less, and in general just not offering to her information from the heart because I fear everything I say will be used against me at some point in the future.
This leads her to complain I'm not completely honest with her, which leads me to feel like sharing even less information because I know if I do so under duress, when she's demanding it like this, then it will just go in the "ammo for later" file and we'll be repeating the cycle with whatever new things I give her.
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I've mentioned many times that this is not fair, and I don't appreciate being manipulated into divulging my secrets only to have them thrown in my face. How do we break this habit? — Trust Issues
"We" break it by realizing you have done your part by voicing your concerns, asking not to have your secrets used against you, and withholding further intimacy until you can feel confident your partner understands and won't do this again.
Her part now is to hear you, respect you, apologize to you for her profound abuse of your trust, behave herself hereafter — and then be patient with your continued guardedness as you see whether her newfound decency sticks.
If I were Lucy van Pelt, my next dialogue bubble would read: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA.
Clearly there's nothing funny about how far your wife is from such regard for your feelings. Your account doesn't even mention her acknowledging these hurtful remarks, much less that she mines the most painful moments in your history to find them.
There's no intimate future left for you two unless she recognizes, admits and renounces these tactics of her own volition.
I'd advise marriage counseling to nudge her in that direction, but unfortunately the caution against counseling with one's abuser applies here. What you describe is indeed abuse, and she could exploit therapy to keep hurting you. National Domestic Violence Hotline's website offers a thorough explanation of this risk: bit.ly/Xabuse.
So I suggest instead that you talk to a skilled therapist by yourself to learn more about the dynamic in your marriage, where it comes from, why it's so unhealthy, and what your options are if — when — she keeps refusing to do her part. That's when you stop trying to save the marriage and focus on saving yourself.
Email Carolyn Hax at firstname.lastname@example.org, or chat with her online at noon each Friday at Washingtonpost.com.
Washington Post Writers Group