Cathy Griffin and her boyfriend recently got dressed to go to Drago, a Santa Monica, Calif., restaurant. She donned a leopard-print chiffon dress with gold-and-pearl earrings. His ensemble? Frayed khaki pants, a green shirt missing a button, mismatched socks and a safari jacket.
"Perhaps you'd like to wear something a bit more formal?" Ms. Griffin, a 53-year-old executive recruiter, asked hopefully.
Nice try. Ms. Griffin's partner accused her of treating him like a child. She countered that he was dressed like one. They bickered. And he went to dinner in exactly what he'd originally planned to wear.
Long after we've learned to compromise on everything in a relationship, from where to live to what to eat tonight, personal style can seem like the last choice we get to make all by ourselves. Yet our spouse or significant other—who admittedly has to look at us much more than we look at ourselves—often has a strong opinion about what we wear. As any couples' therapist can tell you, an innocent-sounding "Honey, are you really going to wear that?" often has the subtext "It's going to reflect badly on me."
Erika Chloe Grundland, 33, who runs a New York image- and fashion-consulting firm, wears designer clothes and coaches clients on how to improve their style. She's had no luck, though, with her fiancé, Brian, who works at a hedge fund. He wears workout clothes to work—sometimes with wingtip shoes. "I cannot take him to social functions or events," Erika Chloe says. "I am embarrassed by his personal appearance."
In desperation, Erika Chloe has hidden his sweats, shrunk sweaters in the dryer and cut holes in T-shirts. She has stocked his closet with custom-made suits and other new clothes—which he, for the most part, ignores. This has led to arguments. "I love him, but this makes things complicated where they shouldn't be complicated," says Chloe. Her fiancé declined to comment.
Relationships don't start out this way. At first, we're often attracted to, or at least tolerant of, a potential partner's style—a quirky tie, a beat-up jacket, even a confident obliviousness to fashion. But just wait. See what happens when we find a mate and feel we can relax—when we trade in the tailored shirts or stiletto heels for pants with expandable waistbands.
Ms. Griffin, of the safari-jacket episode, admits that when she first met her boyfriend, Peter Byrne, 85, a novelist and wildlife conservationist, she fell hard for what she thought of then as his "Indiana Jones look." Now, she says, he thinks she's a "control freak." "Bossy broad" is the term he prefers, yet he says he's accustomed to her nagging, which he often ignores. "I felt I was dressed comfortably and appropriately," Mr. Byrne says of the Drago evening.
We usually can trust our friends when they tell us they don't like what we're wearing. If they don't do it too often, it seems like they're doing us a favor, saving us from bad choices. But this isn't so true of a mate. In our minds, a romantic partner is supposed to love us unconditionally and find us attractive even if we're wearing a burlap sack. Criticism from a sexual partner can cut to the quick.
I will admit that there's a double standard when it comes to women and men: Women seem to be allowed—maybe even expected—to make over their men. It's a time-honored tradition. (Why else would my cousin, Allon, have shown up at a family event last week wearing a cowl-neck T-shirt?)
Debbie Moore, 53, a communications consultant from Mount Laurel, N.J., says her husband, Greg, needed "spiffing up" when she first met him. At the time, he was fond of old jeans, sneakers and a red sweatshirt with an American flag on the back that had once belonged to his daughter's boyfriend. Ms. Moore helped him pick out a new polo shirt, dressy shorts and his first pair of boat shoes when she brought him home to meet her family. "I was surprised he didn't mind it, and his positive response encouraged me," she says. His willingness to change "spoke to the kind of person he is—open-minded and willing to trust." ("I needed guidance," says Mr. Moore, 56. "I like to look good for my wife.")
Woe to the man, though, who tries to make over his woman. With rare exceptions, even the most fashion-challenged woman thinks she knows more than her husband does about style. We're often more insecure, and our memories for perceived insults rival those of elephants.
Don't believe me? Ask my brother-in-law, JJ. When my sister, Rachel, recently asked him how her outfit looked, he answered, "Like something a grandma would wear," and added that he couldn't picture any of his female classmates in law school wearing it. I wish you could have seen the look Rachel gave him. She didn't speak to him for the rest of the day—and brings this comment up every chance she gets. "So much for honesty," JJ says.
Therapists say that over time a partner's odd clothing choices may start to represent aspects of their personality that annoy us, whether it's laziness, carelessness or vanity. "The reaction to the clothing is a symptom," says Michael Zentman, a psychologist and director of the postgraduate program in marriage and couple therapy at Adelphi University, Garden City, N.Y.
Rob Wilson can tell you the exact item of clothing that helped end his 22-year marriage: the periwinkle capri pants his now ex-wife brought home for him a few years ago. "They didn't even look like clam diggers," says the 53-year-old motivational speaker from Atlanta. "They looked like girl pants."
In the early 1980s, when Mr. Wilson met his wife, who works in the fashion industry, he was sporting bell bottoms and floral shirts, and was happy to follow her advice. She introduced him to the color pink and taught him to wear suits with T-shirts instead of ties. "I loved her and wanted to please her," Mr. Wilson says. As time went on, though, he began to push back. "I felt like it was controlling behavior," Mr. Wilson says.
His ex-, Karen Johnson, 50, says she doesn't remember the capris but admits she did sometimes bring home "weird" clothing samples from work. "I was just trying to help him," she says. "I never tried to dictate what he should wear."
So what does Mr. Wilson wear these days? Bell bottoms and Birkenstocks—with socks.