My wife and daughter lead me. How can I handle this? | Leading questions

I am a 61 year old man who lives with my partner and my three children. One, the daughter of my wife’s first marriage, is 24 years old. We all get along except for one thing that drives me crazy. My wife can be quite bossy at times and over the past year my 24 year old daughter has joined her. She regularly tells me that I’m not doing things right, like putting things in the dishwasher the right way and the right place. The other day she asked me what I was doing with a razor in the front room, etc. I can handle my wife’s bossy ways, but now I have two to contend with.

Frustrated, I asked the 24-year-old to relax a bit and not comment every day on what I’m doing or tell me I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. She said no, then ran upstairs crying. How the hell can I handle this please?

Eleanor says: One of the great mysteries of people’s dominance is the extent of the asymmetry between how they live themselves and how everyone around them does.

A person who insists on correcting every little thing – minor tasks, pronunciation, gestures, decisions – often acts from a deep store of insecurity or anxiety. It’s like emotional hydraulics: their own feelings are put under pressure and redirected to the little things in front of them, literally “suppressed” onto others.

But the person who feels they must seize control rarely realizes when they have taken control, and that can mean that people on either side of the bullying pattern see it completely differently. One person feels like the other’s preferences always win out, while the other feels like they get nothing at all – after all, if he was really in charge, why would there be there so many things to fix? One person feels like they’re under a relentless patrol while the other denies being the sheriff.

It’s a dangerous asymmetry, that one.

And worse, as you understand, it can become a habit: it can saturate a dynamic until it’s no longer noticeable – until they no longer feel like they’re cracking up when ‘they tell you you’ve done something wrong.

In my opinion, if you want that to change, the options are basically to encourage them to stop or to try to have a different reaction.

Let’s start with the first: it seems (if you allow speculation) that your daughter might be mirroring behavior she’s seen often. If you can cut it off at the source — your partner — you might be able to end the surreptitious expectation that this is how dad is treated.

Try to pick a particular time. It is difficult to fix a dynamic without specific examples; “you always…” is rarely persuasive. Instead, when a particular instance of bullying occurs, try hitting pause and pointing it out — like a lepidopterist of emotion, pinning the moment to a cork board. Put it under glass, light it up, call the other to see: am I talking to you like that? Am I just saying “you didn’t do it right”, or am I assuming you have reasons to do it your way?

If you think this seems unsuccessful and you prefer option two – that it gives a different response to you – you can try laughing it off. It will depend on whether you have the kind of silliness at home that allows for light fun, but you’d be amazed at what a dad-style cartoon performance can accomplish – I put aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa all the bowls at upside down! I am the bowl monster! Laughter can be a surprisingly effective, low-confrontation way to functionally refuse to obey; you can resist people’s efforts to take your power away by confidently telling them not to, you can also be foolish when they try.

But try not to underestimate the impact this can have on you. Small but repeated reminders that you’re doing it wrong can make it seem like only you are wrong — and worse, you can start to believe them. The dynamic can change; but they will only be if we modify them.

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