Tim, it sounds like this hasn't been too much of an issue until recently. Even though it was present for many years, you weren't unhappy with it when you didn't recognize the process that was happening, but now that you do, you cannot "unsee" it.
This can create changes in how you listen to and respond to her. Until this, you were able to recognize that she often had valid points - even if she did personalize them or have over-reactions. You may find this harder to do now.
I can't entirely agree with the poster who said not to sympathize with your wife. We all need someone in our corner, and that's one of the biggest benefits of a good marriage. When she makes herself the victim in her interactions with other people outside of the family, be loyal to her. However, when she directs that behavior toward you, it might be beneficial to learn to step back and get some perspective. I'm a lot like your wife, though I didn't recognize it for a long time (in fact, it was when my children were grown and confronted me that I discovered that I was doing the same thing). Here are some suggestions that you might try that have been helpful in my relationships:
- Try to remember that this is her coping mechanism that she uses, and it's really not about you. Even though it sounds like she's criticizing you, what she's really doing is letting you know she is afraid of something. (This doesn't mean accept the behavior or cave into it, though.)
- Ask your wife to agree that your relationship will be a "no blame" zone. If either of you has a complaint, you're free to discuss it, so long as it doesn't turn into blaming or personal criticism. You can ask for a change, talk about how something has affected you, or simply acknowledge that something happened, but if the conversation turns to statements about someone's personal flaws or claims that he/she is doing something to intentionally cause a bad result, the person being targeted has a right to immediately stop the conversation. This means you, too, because telling her "You're being a victim" is criticism, too.
- Sometimes postponing a discussion can help. You can say, "I need some time to fully consider what you're saying. I'll take time to figure out what's right about what you've said, and I'd like to ask you to consider if you've approached me in the best way that you could."
- Sometimes reminders that you're a team, that everything will still be ok, and that you'd rather find a win-win solution than a win-lose result can work wonders.
- To get to the heart of the matter, find plenty of ways to ask, "What's important to you about that?" It takes as much as four or five times to get to the true issue. Here's an imaginary conversation that illustrates the principle:
Me: You act like I'm a piece of furniture these days.
You: Huh? What do you mean?
Me: You just assume I'll do all this stuff for you, and you act like you don't even notice.
(You think you have been appreciative, but before saying so, you decide to get to the real issue.)
You: What's important about me noticing what you do?
Me: Well, it should be obvious! Nobody likes to be taken for granted.
You: So you feel like I take you for granted. Are you saying you feel unappreciated?
Me: Well, of course I do! You used to notice when I got my hair cut, or made you a nice dinner, but now you don't.
You: So it's important to you to get compliments when you do nice things?
Me: Well, sometimes it is. I feel so unappreciated sometimes.
You: Why does that appreciation matter so much to you?
Me: I don't know. Just because.
You: I'd really like to understand how you experience appreciation so I can keep it in mind. What's important *to you* about feeling appreciated?
Me: Well, I guess I just feel like I don't matter much when someone doesn't appreciate what I've done for them.
(By now, you've shifted the conversation from your supposed flaws to the real issue - my insecurity.)
You: I'm sad to hear that you feel so unimportant when people don't appreciate something you've done for them, but you are important even if they don't show it. Do you know that?
Me: Not always, no.
You: Let me tell you some of the things I do because of how important you are to me. I work to bring home a paycheck for our family, and I take the cars in for maintenance, and I fix things that are broken. It sounds like you don't feel appreciated when I do those things.
Me: Not really. I'd rather hear it in words.
You: Ok. I'll try to tell you more often. At the same time, will you try to remember that when I do those things, it's my way of showing love for you?
This isn't necessarily an easy technique to learn and use, but I've found that getting to the heart of the matter and using principles from The 5 Languages of Love The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts
can eliminate an awful lot of problems.