Care and Feeding

Why Can’t I Yell at My Wife? She’s Allowed to Emotionally Manipulate Me.

Is yelling during an argument in front of your kids really so bad?

A man yelling.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My wife and I fight a lot. We try to keep perspective. For instance, it’s hard to imagine that any couple with two stressful full-time jobs, little kids, and limited resources wouldn’t be fighting a bunch. At a minimum, on a Monday morning, fighting can sometimes seem necessary just to push away the exhaustion and start moving. We’re not like the people on Facebook. We don’t get vacations.

Years ago, I used to yell a lot during fights. Now, strangely, she’s sometimes louder and more aggressive than me. Due to our past, however, I’ll always be branded “the angry one,” a title never to be repealed. At my wife’s request I’ve worked on decreasing my yelling. I grew up in a family that fights and yells and argues and she comes from a family that never yelled. I can’t imagine how they aired and resolved problems, so go figure. So in her world yelling in general—but especially in front of the kids—is a cardinal sin. I don’t claim that it’s the pinnacle of good family health, but in general I consider us good parents and our lovely children well-behaved.

I wanted to ask about this yelling thing. Surely every parenting expert (I’m skeptical that such a person exists) avers that yelling in the house, in front of the kids, between a loving couple, is absolutely not OK. And yet I remain not wholly convinced. Could there be a family who is perfect in resolving differences? If so, it must be because they amicably separated years ago. Yelling isn’t pretty or healthy (whatever) but I consider it part of relationship life.

My wife can be very emotionally manipulative. Is that better than yelling? At least with yelling the other party knows the position. One may not be able to rationally sort out differences in the heat of the moment with an angry person but there’s a certain transparency to yelling. We know what they’re thinking. Emotional manipulation—which may include sarcasm, twists of tone, guilting, gaslighting, bringing spouse’s other intimate personal matters into an argument, bringing spouse’s work relationships into an argument—seems to me far more destructive and poisonous than yelling, in particular because within their subtle art, a deft manipulator can eschew any responsibility whatsoever. It’s true, how does one know it’s there? So it takes a lot of energy to attempt to gather evidence that emotional manipulation is even taking place and even if evidence is found, it’s nearly impossible to get a deft manipulator to fess up and not twist the evidence until it doesn’t exist.

The strangest part is that my wife sees yelling as a behavior of the traditional bullying conservative male, that he is aggressive and authoritative. She does not seem to see emotional manipulation as a behavior of the traditional bullying female. At a minimum, this question should show how deeply thoughtful a man I am; I’m not saying I’m perfect or don’t have plenty of room for improvement. Further, because she’s so politically and diplomatically deft she treats my yelling as a kind of trump card. “Oh, you yelled, that means you’re wrong and you lose.” It doesn’t matter that I see emotional manipulation and playing loose with facts and truth to be unforgivable and, somehow, incredibly hateful. In the end I see her as quite a big bully, one who avoids discussion and resolution more than anyone, under the guise of being a “progressive” thinker, “a woman who is finally standing up for herself.”

She’s a nice person. We’re both nice people and devoted parents and spouses. The experts say that yelling is not OK behavior to use in an argument but conversely, emotional manipulation is not destructive as a tool, it is OK. I think that’s crazy and I don’t agree but would like to hear what you have to say.

—Parents Who Fight

Dear PWF,

Hmm.

What I hear in this letter is “I’d like to be able to yell at my wife while also looking for evidence that she’s emotionally manipulating me,” and, my man, I can tell you that’s no good at all. I heartily encourage you to a) abandon this line of thinking; b) abandon it quickly; and c) also, get help.

Look, it’s entirely possible that your wife doesn’t operate with 100 percent emotional honesty. That does not strike me as a far-fetched notion. But has it ever occurred to you that she might not be completely forthright with you because … you are yelling at her? You do not know, nor will you ever know, what it’s like to be a woman alone in a house with a man who is yelling at you. I, a man, don’t know what it’s like either, which is why when women tell me what it’s like, I assume they’re probably right. This matters because half of the premise of your letter is that your yelling is not that bad, and I just don’t think you can determine how true that is for another person.

The other half of your premise is that your wife is emotionally manipulating you, and although you can’t prove it, you know it’s happening. I have absolutely had partners who were untrustworthy and harmful in ways that did not involve anger or yelling. In each of those cases the way I knew that I was really experiencing something untoward was that I was able to explain what was happening, using concrete examples, to other people—especially women—and they were able to say things like “Yep, that sounds like your partner is behaving terribly,” and “No, I don’t think you’re missing something here.” I don’t claim to know what conversations you’ve had otherwise, but your letter lacks those concrete examples, which is noticeable to me.

I have been dating and/or marrying women since literally the George Bush Sr. administration, and while many of the women I dated have behaved regrettably at one time or another, I have never come across a “traditionally bullying female,” except in the imaginations of men. I have come across women who were insecure, or dishonest, or just lacked the ability to healthily express love. I’ve met a few who were downright assholes, and even one or two who were, in fact, bullies. But not a single one I could look at and say, “Yeah, this is ‘traditional female bullying,’ ” and that is because there is no tradition of women bullying men who, on the whole, enjoy much greater physical and cultural safety.

None of this is to say that your partner is blameless. But let’s put things in order here, chief. You’re yelling at your wife, and yelling is bad. It happens to many of us, but what we must never do is justify that it’s “fine.” We must always remember that it is emotionally harmful and, unless you’re doing it to save someone from being hit by a falling safe, entirely inappropriate. And when you do it—which, again, we all have—you should immediately apologize, and you should work to make sure you don’t do it again. Because it is not a good way to treat people you love. Period.

Do yourself a favor and stop worrying for a minute about what you imagine to be going on in your wife’s brain. You really gotta clean up your own side of the street first. You need to talk with a therapist about your anger, you need to stop patting yourself on the back for being so “thoughtful,” you need to refrain from ever yelling at this woman because you are setting a terrible example for your children, and you need to let go of the idea that you’re somehow a victim here. Maybe things will improve in your marriage after that, or maybe you’ll realize that she is, in fact, the problem. But no truths can be seen, and no resolution can be found, until you move out of self-justification mode. Good luck.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I come from a fairly devout (but not particularly conservative) Catholic family, and my fiancé was raised as a Reform Jew. As a couple, we’ve been attending Sunday services in a nondenominational Christian setting; I attend Mass a few times a year with my parents, and my fiancé has not been to temple in over a year. Recently, conversation among the parents has swung toward how we will raise our theoretical children.

We presented our plan, which we worked out years ago, knowing it could be a question—our children will be raised to know their Jewish heritage and history, but the actual religious upbringing will focus on more of a nondenominational Christian teaching.

The response from the parents was less than ideal. My mother, a devout Catholic, seemed to think our kids would be strictly Catholic; meanwhile, his parents say that raising their “Jewish grandchildren” as Christians would be a betrayal to the “bloodline.” My father expressed concern that raising a child in two religions could be confusing for a kid.

Personally, I find the all-around reactions to be melodramatic and, in the case of my future in-laws, a bit offensive. Still, I have to wonder about my father’s point—are we setting our theoretical kids up for failure and confusion in their spiritual identities?

—(Not So) Good Little Catholic Girl

Dear (NS)GLCG,

It is disappointing but not surprising that your plan has received a less-than-enthusiastic welcoming. Faith and culture are both deeply embedded and intensely personal, and people understandably feel some type of way about these issues. But I hope you already know that just because your parents and in-laws have these feelings doesn’t mean that you’re responsible to them. The best part about being a grown-up is making your own decisions, and if you and your husband have agreed on a satisfactory way to deal with your interfaith family, then more power to you—go forth and be happy.

But this other issue you bring up—whether a child will be confused about being of two religions—is one that at least deserves some thought. It is wonderful that your children will get to have the experiences of multiple paths of faith. Yet one of the difficult parts of this, depending on where you live, will be the feeling they may have of being alone. They may not know many kids who are being raised in a way that is primarily Christian and secondarily Jewish. It may be occasionally difficult for them at summer camps, after-school programs, or even regular school discussions. It may be sometimes hard for them when they go to spend time with your husband’s family and find that they don’t quite know how to handle High Holiday rituals and traditions, or they can’t discuss an upcoming bar or bat mitzvah. Differences such as these are magnified in the minds of kids and can quickly be spun into full tales of never fitting in.

This isn’t to suggest your plan is wrongheaded, because it is not! But it does mean that it could present some difficulty and that your children may need some support as they go through life, support that will have to come from you and your husband. With that support, they’ll find their own way. They may grow and seek out a closer connection to Jewish faith; they may move into your parents’ Catholicism; they may become proud atheists! Your only job is to give them an opportunity to experience what is meaningful to you, and to support them as they find what is meaningful to them. Your theoretical kid is lucky to have you.

—Carvell