Posted by: itneverrainsinseattle | September 24, 2010

Advising Penny

Look, my point isn’t that Penny is a bad person. She’s decidedly not a bad person. She’s just not the right person to be my wife.

And I can only hope that I’m not a bad person. There’s certainly plenty of evidence that leads me to believe I’m not a bad person. But I’m clearly not the right person to be Penny’s husband.

She came to the conclusion that she didn’t want me as her husband long before I realized she would never be a good wife for me. And yet here we are, with me being the one who has to make the divorce happen.

It’s difficult to push things forward and keep things civil (thank you, Mandy, for making the distinction) when any time you advise your wife, she takes it as a personal attack.

We have been business partners for a while. If she wants something done a given way, she’ll say so. If she doesn’t like the way something is going, she’ll point it out. She’s not overbearing about it. “Could you please clean up the printing station?” Or, “[Employee] has been [performing annoying habit] again. We need to find a way to get him to stop that.” Fair enough.

But when I would make any similar observations or requests, it has traditionally been met with defensiveness or outright hostility. Sometimes, the response would be why she was too busy, too distracted, too something to have gotten to it — expressed in a tone of voice that said, “Don’t hassle me, okay, I’m having enough of a hard time as it is and I’m barely getting through the day.” More often, anything I said would be taken personally. If I made suggestions on how we might improve the layout of our website, or that a given customer reacts better to phone calls than to e-mail, she made it clear I thought she was terrible at whatever it was she was doing and that I obviously had no regard for her at all.

“Honey, could you please pass the salt?”

“What, now my cooking’s not good enough?!”

Okay, I exaggerate.

Now, obviously this didn’t happen all of the time. If it did, communication would have been impossible, and absolutely nothing could have been accomplished. But it happened often enough to be noticeable, and to cause me to change how I approached things with her. Which is to say, I stopped talking about anything that required or implied a value judgement of any kind. I went from extrovert to avoidovert. (Hmmm. Come to think of it… communication was pretty impossible, and our company’s website languished for over a year and a half because I wouldn’t say anything. Hmmm.)

The funny thing is, I didn’t have this problem with other people — I could offer suggestions and critique and outright requests with no problem. What was even funnier was that Penny could take the exact same observations/suggestions/requests from other people, even worded in a similar manner, as if it was the best and most welcome advice she’d ever heard.

No exaggeration here: while Penny was working on a newsletter project for an organization with which we were both affiliated, I made an observation that was taken as a personal attack. Later, I heard another member of the organization make the exact same observation to her, and Penny took the words of this other person to heart and appreciated the mentorship offered by this other person. The thing that struck me was not only that the observation we offered was the same, but that we presented our suggestion using almost the exact same words and tone of voice.

It was yet another scene from “My Life, The Sitcom.”

…which leads me to today’s punchline.

When I’ve suggested that we need to file for divorce without waiting for absolutely every last detail regarding the house to be resolved first, she has offered a silent, wounded look (another common response) that indicates I’m being unreasonable and pushy. So imagine my surprise when a couple of days ago, while discussing possible options regarding the house, Penny said, “Yeah, [friend who is our real estate agent, and one of the only mutual friends Penny has told about our impending divorce] says we’d be well-advised to start filing the paperwork soon.”

Spoken as if this were a new idea, and worth considering.

I wonder what would have happened if she had ever opened up and spoken with someone she trusted about the problems in our marriage. Would she have received good advice that she’d have been willing to take?

Never mind. Doesn’t matter, and it’s too late anyway.

The point is, now I have a clear understanding of how to advise Penny:

Let someone else do it.



  1. Ouch. That’s a tough one. The only thing I can say is that sometimes people (especially those in a marriage) can sometimes poke the other person when our own issues and tendencies come in conflict with one another. Likely Penny’s reaction to you has more to do with your overall history than the individual comment.

    But it still sucks, I know.

    At this point, giving Penny space and letting her either figure things out on her own or with the people she confides in is probably the best idea.

  2. Momma Sunshine is right. All of it. And there’s nothing that will change it now…as you know. Time to roll with the punches. You’ve got this.

    Big hugs!

  3. Your last line is beautifully succinct and classic. It, of course, made me laugh hysterically. I appreciate how you found humor in the situation, regardless of how annoying and hurtful it really is.

    I really do admire the grace with which you continue to handle these surreal situations.

  4. One phrase (with an explanation): Nonviolent communication.

    I have stated before that I am married. After the start of year 2, we had some intense, for us, financial issues. What are the top four reasons for divorce (according to my Communications Prof from so long ago)?: Religion, Family (ideas of), Money, and Sex (needs, desires, wants, etc).

    So, beginning of year 2 was hard. We sought couples counseling. He attended the first time only, but I stayed for a year. You’ve been in therapy, you’ve probably been told the same things, but I am bringing this up because your situation is “classic” in so many ways. I have done this. And then I started talking to my psychologist about it, at which point she reminded me, “Your husband is not responsible for your feelings. You are.” Right. Yes. I am an adult.

    Enter nonviolent communication. I bought the book years ago, but I forgot I even owned until about two weeks ago. Everything the psychologist told me to do was a step from nonviolent communication.

    So, now you want an amicable divorce, something you are told lawyers laugh at, although a good goal since you both are likely going to have to talk and communicate more once you separate households.

    So, I would like to encourage looking at Rosenberg’s suggestions and observe the situation, reflect on it, state your feelings, needs, and your requests.

    I am not an expert, by ANY means, so please, take a grain of salt with this paraphrased example: “I am sorry, Penny, I didn’t mean for my suggestion to make you feel anxious… it seems that it has. I feel frustrated when you stonewall my suggestions because as a business person, I need our Internet face to be well represented. Could you please tell me what I said to trigger your anger?”

    Anyway, Rosenberg has a great example in his book about addressing this issue to some “punk” kids.

    If you know this, great, but I felt it was worth repeating that we are responsible for controlling our own feelings as adults, which means being responsible for them. You don’t have to be responsible for Penny’s hostility and anger, and she shouldn’t expect you to.

    Anyway. Good luck. As always. Please, take it all with a grain of salt.

  5. Agree 100% with Suzanne – you are handling this all VERY well considering the craptastic nature of it all. I admire it as well.

  6. Interesting post, Inris. While I’m the one who instigated my divorce, I have to admit that I was just like Penny. Anything that Pat said to me felt like a criticism, a judgement. Perhaps part of this was our history, part was his communication style, but I know that a lot of it was just me. I can’t explain why I was so hypersensitive to anything he said, but it’s something I’m trying to analyze now that I’m out of my marriage – and something I’m making sure to be aware of in a new relationship. If I figure out the reasons behind it, I’ll let you – it may help you understand Penny’s response.

  7. i feel your pain on this one, too. the ex takes most things i say in the practical realm as if i were trying to slice his heart out with a broken beer bottle. it’s hard as hell to deal with, especially given that i’m doing nothing more than fulfilling my role in our marriage. but whatever. that’s been my biggest lesson in all of this: let it go. let him do what he’s going to do. if he screws up, if he doesn’t have all the information – well, that’s his problem now.

    it’s so hard to deal with this. but it’s what has to happen. it’s the next step, i guess…

  8. Hmmm. I have given the “silent wounded look” before. In fact, a lot.

    When I did it, my reason was more that I thought his timing was terrible, and I couldn’t believe he wanted to go there “now”… As if he was completely out of touch with what was going on with me. As if he didn’t care at all how I felt.
    It wasn’t so much about what he said, as when he said it. I took it personally every time.

    Of course, that was long ago, and I like to think I’ve evolved. Because now I do really think I am responsible for my own reaction to what anyone says to me.

    Still….I think you’re making major progress; having come VERY far from when I first started reading this blog, when you were still afraid to “have the talk”.

  9. I am also very familiar with discovering that a good idea of yours is dismissed by your spouse until someone else says it.

    There is an interesting dichotomy inherent in this post that you should definitely take note of. On the one hand, you are expected to deal with the dirty work that arises, yet on the other you aren’t competent enough to define what the dirty work is! It’s enough for one to ask why one’s spouse bothered to marry one!

    This is blatant manipulation, a tactic which allows Penny a great deal of control over you and your actions, something she desperately needs as she doesn’t feel very secure about much of anything in her life. Her entire marriage to you fits in this description very nicely, as she expected you to take care of her needs and concerns without her having to take any responsibility for them herself. But woe betide you if you failed her in some way!

    You might try introducing new discussion topics incrementally, and putting her input toward solving it first. “[Employee] has been …. What would you like to do about it? [Child] needs to …. What do you think best? ” I expect that she will decline to take the lead, and if she raises a fuss later, you can remind her (gently!) that you did ask for her input. But if she does have something to offer, you at least have the topic of discussion in plain view.

    It is time for you to being watching for land mines. It’s going to get explosive from now on. Her insecurity is going to take her over and irrationality is going to be the order of the day. Red sky at morning, sailor!

  10. This seems pretty straightforward to me. Penny no longer trusts you or your advice and she needs to get it from people she *does* trust, which seems natural in a divorce situation. I think it is very wise that you have decided not to advise her further. You are no longer a “couple”….why SHOULD either of you be taking life advice from each other? This is the letting go part…and it’s hard, but both of you will find your way through. 🙂

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