Feeling Dismissed vs. Micromanaged: How to Break the Pattern

It's a common problem: one partner feels dismissed, the other micromanaged.

Posted Oct 20, 2019 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

 Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

Allie tells Dan that he needs to pick up the kids earlier today, also that she read an article about saving money on car insurance and wonders if he could check it out, and, by the way, that he didn’t put the garbage can lid on tight and it blew off.

There are a few ways Dan typically responds to all this: sometimes he half-listens but then often forgets; or he automatically dismisses what Allie says, countering that their insurance coverage is fine; or if he is stressed or tired will snap back and tell her to get off his back. Occasionally, he’ll outright blow up, resulting in a shouting match over whose reality is right that goes nowhere.

Ask Dan why the attitude and he’s likely to say he’s feeling nagged, micromanaged, criticized all the time—whether it's about money, sex, kids, or clothes on the floor—or that Allie is always worrying about nothing, or that there is always something that Allie wants him to do and that he needs to do it right, making him constantly feel like a 10-year-old.

Ask Allie what’s going on and she’ll likely say that sure, sometimes she is reminding him because she’s worried he’ll forget, or gets frustrated because she feels like he blows off her requests. But often she is just reminding to remind, making suggestions, like about the car insurance, with nothing more than a suggestion intended. But then, she says, Dan cops the attitude, is so sensitive and negative, and yes, this spills into those big blow-ups.

What's going on?

This pattern of mutual resentment and misunderstanding is one of the most common sources of trouble between couples, and though the image of the nagging wife is built into our culture, the patterns could easily be reversed with Allie being the one feeling like she is living with a drill sergeant, and Dan feeling like he’s living with an unreliable 15-year-old. But the problem isn't about who's right or wrong, who starts it or doesn't, but about the pattern itself. Each is fueling the other, setting off a chain reaction. 

Here’s how it may break down: 

Allie

Simple misunderstanding: Allie’s comment about the insurance really is benign. She thought checking out the insurance was a good idea and is only making a suggestion. In her mind, this is part and parcel of the give-and-take of relationships, of them working together as a team that Dan hears as controlling.

Anxiety: Allie may have low or moderate anxiety which causes her to easily worry—that Dan will forget about the kid pick up, that the garbage can cover will blow away and get lost in woods or make the garbage stink. Her anxiety gets translated into control—if she can get Dan to do what she wants, she is less anxious

Entitlement: Maybe it’s less about anxiety and more about Allie feeling entitled—she's essentially spoiled, she wants what she wants when she wants it and pushes people to do what she wants to get her way. This may be a factor but is rarer. 

Emotional wounds: Allie is particularly sensitive to feeling dismissed—that others don’t take her seriously, that they blow off her ideas and concerns, that others are not reliable, don’t care, can’t be trusted. She has a hair-trigger about this, and is easily offended by Dan's reactions. This is likely. 

Coping style: If Allie feels dismissed, dissed, or feels more anxious or frustrated, she presses harder with more reminders, which Dan hears as nagging.

Dan

Emotional wound: Since Dan is the one here on the receiving end, what is likely driving him are his emotional wounds, specifically, feeling criticized and micromanaged. While Allie may be particularly sensitive to feeling dismissed, to others not being reliable, he is particularly sensitive to anything that seems critical or micromanaging, even her suggestion about checking out the insurance. 

Coping style: But then it gets worse by his coping style. He overreacts with snapping, ignoring, blowing up, which only fuels her anxiety and feeling wounded.

Breaking the pattern

The emotions quickly override the content because each says to themselves or aloud, "There she/he goes again." This fuels the frustration and the pattern that rapidly deteriorates into a power struggle. They each need to break the pattern; the pattern is the enemy, not the other guy. They need to change the climate between them.

How?

Allie

She needs to talk about her drivers. 

Because Dan easily misinterprets her comments, it would help if she says her intentions and drivers at the front end—that she is worried about the kids getting picked up because the schedule has changed, that she worried about the garbage smell, that she was just thinking aloud that maybe they could save some money on insurance. 

By doing this she taking responsibility, owning her own emotions and concerns, and by doing so, putting them in a larger context that Dan can hear more clearly.

She needs to be sensitive to Dan’s emotional wounds

This is 2 parts: She needs to be careful about how she sounds when she says something that may seem critical or micromanaging. This does not mean she can’t speak up, but she needs to watch her voice tone and non-verbal behavior. And if Dan does seem to overreact, she needs to clarify just by… clarifying: I’m not trying to be critical, I’m not trying to micromanage you. This will help Dan understand that she is being sensitive to his needs and triggers.

She needs to be willing to compromise

They do need to work together as a team, not be entitled, which means that she can’t have her way all the time, that she needs to decide what things are really important to make a bigger deal about, which ones to compromise on, which ones to let go of. 

She needs to override her emotional wound

This is about her learning to realize when her little-kid emotional wounds are being triggered, and consciously say to herself that: I’m getting triggered, this is about the past. By labeling, she can push it mentally aside, get back into the present, out of her emotional brain and into her rational, adult one.

She needs to increase the positives

If you live in an environment of tension and conflict, you need to work hard to offset it. Here Allie consciously makes a big deal when Dan does what she needs—listens to her request without snapping, follows through on the insurance, kids, garbage—or anything else that helps her feel cared for and heard. This positive feedback and appreciation will help him stop feeling “always criticized” and motivate him to keep it up.

Dan

He needs to regulate his emotions but talk about them

Dan needs to work on his snapping, his passive-aggressiveness. He knows how to restrain himself—he probably does it at work all the time—but the intimacy of the relationship and history make this more difficult to do at home. But that's not an excuse, he still needs to rein it. And just as Allie needs to be sensitive to how she sounds and needs to clarify her intentions, he too needs to work at not being the injured 10-year-old, but instead be understanding and speak up. If he knows about the kid pick-up he reassures Allie that he’s on it. If he thinks the insurance thing is a waste of time, he can take the time to calmly say why; ditto for the garbage can cover.

He needs to be willing to compromise

Here he puts the cover on the garbage can, not because mommy told him but because he realizes as Allie’s partner that it is for her important. Or even if he doesn’t worry about the cost of insurance, he takes time to find out why Allie does, and is willing to work with her about budget or call up insurance companies and get quotes when he has time next week.

He needs to override his emotional wounds

Like Allie, he needs to catch when his little-kid wounds are being triggered and talk himself down into adult reality.

He needs to increase the positives

He too is responsible for changing the climate. He compliments Allie on her compliments, notices when she's making the effort to be more laid back, appreciates the things she does that he takes for granted.

He needs to step up

Part of the larger dynamic here is that Allie is doing most of the initiating with Dan taking a more reactive, passive role. By Dan's changing this pattern, by taking a more active and proactive role — whether it be letting her know that he is aware of the kid’s schedule, initiating conversations about money or sex or parenting, keeping her up-to-date on his job woes—rather than waiting till Allie comes at him, he is building the teamwork that Allie is looking for. This will help reduce Allie's anxiety, help heal her wounds, help break the dysfunctional cycle.

Solve the problems together

This is a "both" thing—they need to solve the concrete problems that arise rather than getting sidetracked by the emotions. Here they map out the kid pick-up schedule in advance, talk about budgets and money, come up with a chore list, talk about the state of garbage.

And, more importantly perhaps, they need to talk about the patterns and wounds themselves and come up with a plan for putting them to rest. Here Allie talks about what she needs from Dan overall so she doesn’t feel dismissed. Dan talks about what he needs from Allie to not feel micromanaged. They stick to these meta-issues, and not get into the weeds of talking about kids or garbage. They come up with a concrete, behavioral plan that has win-win compromises. They do, check-in, tweak. And if they need help pulling this together and staying on track they get it. 

The goal here is clear—to get out of the rut of tit-for-tat arguments over whose reality is right, breaking patterns to stop the wounding and resentment. This is solvable. 

Is it time to stop?