Amy Dickinson is a general advice columnist.
DEAR AMY: My wife and I are successful, hardworking physicians in our late 50s. For many years we have had stress in our marriage that often centers around my tendency to focus on perceived “wrongs,” and what I believe is her tendency to say things with hurtful intent. After I saw a therapist, I worked harder to understand this, and our relationship has improved in the past year. Until last night. We were watching a television show when a commercial came on. It featured a handsome man about my age, standing in front of a very nice island home. He invited the viewers to enjoy financial independence. I mentioned that I would like to join him on his island of wealth. My wife said that she would like to run away with him (laughing, of course). I did not share her laugh. I went up to bed. Then I began to fixate on her comment, and why she thought that was so funny. I think what made it more hurtful to me is that A: I have thinning hair, and B: I just worked for over two hours making dinner for her because she was working late. Later, I told her that her comment hurt my feelings. She replied, “But it was only a joke.” Well, of course, I knew she wasn’t going to run off with this handsome actor, but I still wonder if this is how normal, emotionally close couples share humor?
DEAR UPSET: Many a marriage has been strained by failed “humor.”
However, let’s re-rack the evening in question: The “joke” started with you, saying that you wanted to join this man on his private island of wealth. Given your own extreme sensitivity, why would you make this sort of comment to your wife? By saying it, were you implying that your wife has not done a good enough job of providing wealth to your family? (No, but she could take it this way if she wanted.)
Instead, your wife signified that she got the joke by making a joke in return.
It’s called domestic comedy, and in order to take the main stage, you need to not only make, but take jokes, making an effort to respect the context.
You should recommit to your individual therapy and be screened for anxiety; you and your wife could also use some relationship counseling, in order to learn ways to keep your communication family-friendly. Part of this effort would be for your wife to genuinely apologize when you tell her your feelings are hurt.
DEAR AMY: I’m worried about the United States. In my 66 years on the planet, I’ve never seen this many angry, violent and selfish people making news. Some advice, please, on some basic everyday practices by which we can learn to be better neighbors to one another.
DEAR TROUBLED: I have received many queries like yours, and of course I am personally also experiencing some of the tumult you describe, in my life, as well as through comments and reactions to my advice.
I am not quite as old as you are, but I can think of at least one other lengthy period during my lifetime when this country seemed to be combusting. During my childhood in the ’60s, riots, protests, violence, racial tension, political corruption and upheaval, as well as the tragedy of the war in Vietnam, were a daily and inescapable backdrop to American life.
Then as now, the most we can do is also the very least we can do. And that is to be decent, respectful and kind to people; to protect people in trouble and to lend a hand when someone needs it.
If you are distressed, it would help to disengage from social media, where accusations carom back and forth, ”facts” are misstated, feelings are hurt and reactions are amplified.
Let your actions reflect the better angels of your nature, and you may inspire others to do the same.
DEAR AMY: Regarding the letter from “Baffled,” whose 10-year-old son was rude to his grandmother: That mother needs to teach her son some manners and how to behave and care for others. It’s something that should have been done through the years, and I hope it’s not too late to start. The fault does not lie with the grandmother. The fault is with the mother’s inability to teach her son.
DEAR DISAPPOINTED: Blaming the grandmother for her own sensitivity to this rudeness doesn’t help the child, either.