A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer
There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.
As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”
If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.
How Men Process Complaints
Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.
For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)
Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?
But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.
An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”
Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.
For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.
Turn Complaints Into Requests
Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.
What’s important is how you phrase the request.
Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.
I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.
I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:
- What you need from your husband and
- How his action will benefit you.
Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.
Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:
“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”
You could voice the same need in a very different way:
“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”
Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.
This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!
If you and your husband are interested in learning more about gender and communication, check out Deborah Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Communication or That’s Not What I Meant, You’ll also find many more ideas about understanding and connecting with your husband in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
If you were a mirror reflecting back to your husband who he is, what would he see?
Would he be bathed in a flattering glow — or would his reflection look more like a Photoshopped image distorting his worst features?
It’s not something we think about much, but spouses are mirrors to each other — we look to each other for feedback about ourselves. Psychologist Dr. David Wexler notes many men fear looking in the mirror and seeing a highly flawed reflection.
For your husband, you are the most potent mirror, so feedback from you has the emotional capacity to build him up or injure him deeply. He may fear looking in the mirror and seeing that you are unhappy with him or view him as weak and incapable. Your importance in his life is why he might seem quick to bristle at anything he thinks might be criticism from you.
Keeping your power as a mirror in mind will help your marriage. Do you mainly reflect back to your husband the ways that he is falling short? Or do you balance criticism by also reflecting back to your husband everything that you love and appreciate?
None of this means you have to butter your husband up with fake or exaggerated praise. But it does mean that it’s important to notice his good qualities, and all he does right, and sincerely express admiration. (If you’re having trouble with this, think about the qualities that attracted you to him when you were dating. They’re probably still there!)
As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love:
Most people are starving to be noticed and appreciated. Look for chances to express admiration, appreciation and fondness to your spouse with comments such as the following:
- You make me happy!
- Thank you.
- You are amazing.
- I really love spending time with you.
- I appreciate your taking care of me like you do.
- I’m so lucky to be with you.
- I trust you completely.
- You’re perfect for me.
- I admire how you handled that situation.
This week, pay attention to what you reflect back to your husband about himself, and seize opportunities to reflect good things.
Strong Women, Strong Love is thrilled to be featured at The Good Men Project with an excerpt from Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage. Click HERE to read more about how you can make your marriage better by understanding what you’ve been taught about men or read the excerpt below:
Men and women can have better relationships, but we need to start by critically examining the messages all of us have been given about what it means to be a man or woman in American society. This chapter sheds some light on the ways both sexes are socialized and how such experiences commonly affect how they behave in relationships. It offers effective relational strategies for reducing tension that arises from gender differences.
Are we from Mars, Venus, or Planet Earth?
The topic of differences between the sexes is highly complex and emotionally charged. Even in academic circles, people have very strong opinions about whether differences between men and women are biologically based or stem from learning. If you start exploring the possibility that one sex might be better at something than the other, things get heated even faster. John Gray, author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, has been ostracized professionally for exaggerating sex differences, although he continues to be extremely popular with the public.
Please note that in this chapter, I speak in generalities, not because I think people fit into neat little boxes, but because boxes sometimes help us organize and understand information. I will be discussing the most common ways men and women behave, not the only ways. The research literature clearly shows that there are many more differences within groups of men and within groups of women than between the sexes, which is why it is inaccurate to say ALL women are like this or ALL men are like that. Remember that there is tremendous variability among people and that not everyone fits my descriptions (e.g., think of role reversals). Also, even if a person is born with certain natural tendencies, it does not mean that they cannot learn how to behave in new ways.
So, as we move forward, I encourage you to consider whether my descriptions fit your individual situation. Sweeping statements made about men or women may be highly inaccurate when applied to your partner because other factors, such as cultural upbringing, personality, or level of education also influence development. Details matter tremendously when relating effectively to the person you married.
Understanding how your partner learned to be a “real” man
Men are commonly exposed to some distinct messages about masculinity. Awareness of these messages can help you understand frequent ways men interact in relationships, thereby reducing your misinterpretation of their behavior in relationships.
According to psychologist Dr. William Pollack in Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, males still clearly receive the message that they must never be perceived as weak. Pollack says the “Boy Code” essentially teaches them, “Be a man, be strong, be brave, don’t be a sissy, don’t show your feelings.” In other words, don’t ever show your vulnerability, and whatever you do, never be perceived as feminine. Think of how rare it is, even these days, to find a parent who is comfortable allowing their son to play with dolls, cry profusely when he is hurt, or tell everyone his favorite color is pink, and you can see how “The Boy Code” is still alive and well.
Although humans by nature are interdependent, men are asked to function in a largely self-sufficient manner. The traditional world of men is highly competitive, placing tremendous pressure on men to perform and appear strong at all times. Competence, emotional control, rationality, and the ability to overcome challenges independently are revered qualities. Expressing feelings, seeking reassurance, or acknowledging difficulty may be perceived as signs of weakness that place men at risk of being ridiculed, criticized, or shamed by others. The status of being a “real” man is something earned, not something given to a man simply by virtue of his sex. Men must demonstrate that they can hold their own to be respected by others.
Men who attempt to take on less traditional roles may experience considerable confusion and frustration. The expectation that a man provide financially for his family is still prevalent, and men are often judged negatively if they depend on their wives for financial support. Think of the challenge a full-time, stay-at-home-dad faces. Although society encourages him to be an involved, loving father, he is not considered to be a “real man” if being a full-time father interferes with his ability to bring home a paycheck.
Shame is a powerful tool used to socialize men into traditional roles. The normal human reaction to excessive shame is to pull away from others and hide vulnerability. Out of necessity, men frequently appear tough, and some of them have become so adept at walling off their emotions, that expressing feelings actually feels strange. Psychologist Dr. Ronald Levant notes that some men cannot even identify what they are feeling, something he calls “normative male alexithymia.” All too often, men attempt to escape intense feelings through the use of alcohol or drugs, or they physically exit the situation generating strong emotions. Research shows that men tend to be much more emotionally isolated than women and have higher rates of suicide and chemical addiction.
The only emotion that men do not have to suppress is anger, as American society does not consider anger to be an indicator of weakness. From what I have seen, some men definitely have an intact ability to experience a wide range of emotions, but don’t always feel safe enough in their relationships to do so. Even in a therapist’s office, where one of the explicit goals is transparency, the vulnerability associated with such an endeavor can be disconcerting for many men.
Psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister openly questions how “good” men really have it. In a 2007 speech to the American Psychological Association entitled “Is There Anything Good about Men?” Baumeister discusses both the social rewards and costs of being male and the dangers of assuming one sex always has it better than the other:
When I say I am researching how culture exploits men, the first reaction is usually “How can you say culture exploits men when men are in charge of everything?” …The mistake in that way of thinking is to look only at the top. If one were to look downward to the bottom of society instead, one finds mostly men there too. Who’s in prison, all over the world, as criminals or political prisoners? The population on Death Row has never approached 51% female. Who’s homeless? Again, mostly men. Whom does society use for bad or dangerous jobs? U.S. Department of Labor statistics report that 93% of the people killed on the job are men.
The broader culture reinforces roadblocks to men’s full engagement in relationships, by portraying them as immature, incompetent, and emotionally unaffected (i.e., think Homer Simpson, Al Bundy,or most men in sitcoms). No doubt, we have all heard that:
- Men are little boys.
- Men are unemotional.
- Men are clueless about women and children.
- Men have a one-track mind.
“Who needs a man? They are good for nothing” is a prevalent attitude. Sometimes people jokingly count the husband when tallying up how many children are in a family. Male bashing among female friends is even a legitimate form of bonding. Needless to say, all these ideas are ultimately destructive to intimacy in relationships because they erode respect and trust. Rather than create an environment that allows men to become more familiar with emotional intimacy, American society assumes men lack the innate capacity to relate well and promotes incredibly low standards for men in relationships.
What women unknowingly do that triggers most men to get defensive
The male mandate to conceal vulnerability often leads men to become highly defensive and uncomfortable when women push them to be more transparent and to engage at a more intimate level. When women openly point out mistakes in an attempt to be honest, men often get their feelings hurt and respond by becoming irritated or retreating into silence. Women often have no idea how sensitive and vulnerable men often are under the surface.
Because they are under constant social pressure to be competent and have all the answers, men often take complaints very personally. Psychologist Dr. David Wexler notes that relationships serve as a mirror, reflecting back how we are perceived by others. Many men fear looking in the mirror and seeing a highly flawed reflection. For most men, their partner is the most potent mirror, so feedback from her has the emotional capacity to injure him deeply. Men fear looking in the mirror and seeing an unhappy wife who sees him as weak and incapable.
Even if you are just trying to be “open” and let him know you have unmet needs, if he believes you are miserable, he may feel he has failed you. As corny as it may sound, he wants you to see him as a hero and needs to know he can make you happy. He has been taught to use your happiness as a measure of his success in a relationship, and much of what motivates him is the desire to meet your needs.
I can recall numerous marriage therapy sessions in which a wife attempted to build intimacy by disclosing all the ways her husband was not meeting her expectations, while he sat and listened in complete silence. From a male point of view, her publicly noting his weaknesses (and so many of them at once!) is an act of aggression and disrespect. His response of silence is simply an attempt to retreat from what he perceives as an “attack.” Having seen this pattern many times, I often intervene quickly to move the couple into a more constructive stance by acknowledging both his position and positive intentions. I usually say something like:
I can see by the fact that you are here that you must love your wife deeply. You seem like a really competent, smart guy, but here’s the deal: Most men are told they need to keep their wives happy, but are simply not given the tools to accomplish that. It takes guts to come in here and openly discuss the ways the two of you are struggling so that you can figure out how to make your marriage stronger. I really admire you for that. The good news is that you already have the most important part down—you care. All we are doing here is fine-tuning.
I find the average wife is surprised to learn her husband is actually upset when he is quiet because she was fooled by his appearing so emotionally composed. She is usually quite relieved that his behavior is not due to a lack of caring and approaches him with much more compassion and realistic expectations, once she understands what is happening. So, the lesson here is to be careful about assuming a man is emotionally unaffected just because you don’t see an obvious display of feeling. There is still a human being on the inside who can be terribly hurt by cruel words, even if he has learned not to show it.
Given the tendency of most men to act tough, you may think that women love men who are actually comfortable with emotional expressiveness and vulnerability. Although the party line is that men should be more open, the response to such transparency is not always positive. Surprisingly, many women say they are turned off by a man who is “too feminine,” and feel most attracted to the strength and confidence of a more dominant man. So, the double bind for men is that women may actually reject them if they seem too vulnerable. The current social environment is truly confusing for everyone.
What about you? How much of a woman are you?
As women, we face our own fair share of pressure to conform to society’s expectations of what constitutes a “real woman.” Dr. Warren Farrell, author of The Myth of Male Power, points out that men are treated as “success objects,” while women are often treated as “sex objects” by our society. The ideal woman is physically attractive, emotionally supportive, and a good listener. She can have a husband, children, and a career, but must successfully juggle all these roles, so no one is inconvenienced by her choices. A woman can do anything a man can do, but has subtle pressure to always be mindful of her partner’s ego, making sure she is not too outspoken, competitive, or perceived as more successful than him. Society says a real woman is adaptable and eager to put the needs of others, especially her children, ahead of her own.
If her marriage is struggling, kids are misbehaving, or house is not well-kept, the woman will be judged, not her partner. Many high-achieving women fear falling short of social expectations and spend all their time trying to live up these unrealistic standards. This can cause considerable strain in a marriage, especially when her husband does not understand her pressures and may not be so “cooperative” when she asks for his help in achieving goals he considers unnecessary.
Tapping the power of diversity
In addition to individual expectations of men and women, there are also some new mandates for relationships. We have all been challenged to become more “equal” partners in our marriages. I personally believe that the term “equal” is often misunderstood in the context of relationships. There is an assumption that for a woman to be equal to a man, she must be just like him. Equal has become equated with “same.” As a result, many women feel pressure to actively reject traditional feminine ideals such as being sensitive, accommodating, or gentle in favor of traditional male qualities like independence, dominance, and competitiveness, especially since these behaviors are revered in the workplace. Women were historically trapped by the expectations of traditional femininity; now, they are often bound by the pressure to be more like men. In the end, most people are not exercising real choice about how they define themselves.
Equality in relationships is not about men and women having the exact same characteristics; it is about each individual having the same worth. We need to stop aiming to be cookie-cutter replicas of one another and embrace the differences that will inevitably exist between any two human beings, regardless of their sex. Diversity is strength. We need all the qualities human beings can express, from dominance to vulnerability or from independence to connection. The more diversity we embrace, the greater flexibility and choice we all have in defining ourselves. Having a range of ways we can respond increases our effectiveness in relationships.
Protecting your marriage from gender expectations
In the midst of all the changes in men’s and women’s roles, what I see in my office is increased fear, competition, and confusion in relationships. Couples are often lost in power struggles, aggressively vying for control and demanding love in an attempt to get their needs met. Insecurity is prevalent, while deep trust is conspicuously missing. Loneliness and a sense of failure exist on both sides of the relationship.
Women hoping to successfully engage men must remember that underneath the composed exterior of any person is the vulnerability that is simply part of being human. Everyone fears being judged when they let the world see who they truly are underneath that layer of protection. Because of socialization, the stakes may be higher for men, yet the most emotionally-rich marriages are ones where it is safe for both men and women to be real with one another.
If you seek to improve your marriage, I challenge you to keep your own ego in check and to draw on traditional feminine qualities, such as gentleness and emotional sensitivity to approach your husband. For him to fully engage, he needs to feel you believe in him, are generally happy, and want to improve the marriage, not place blame on him. Consider some of the following strategies for facilitating connection:
- Assume the best. Remember that at one point this was the man you loved enough to want a lifelong commitment. Start with the assumption that he loves you and look for common ground, responding kindly and generously whenever you can.
- Embrace differences in styles of relating. We all grew up hearing different messages about how we should relate, so don’t assume that because your husband’s style is different from yours, that it needs “fixing.” One approach is not “superior” to the other. Get curious and learn more about your individual styles. The larger the difference, the more open, respectful, and flexible both of you will need to be.
- Turn complaints into requests and directly negotiate for what you need. Minimize how much you complain and dare to directly ask for what you actually need from your husband. Remember that he wants you to be happy, but cannot read your mind. For example, instead of saying, “You don’t love me anymore,” try, “A big hug from you right now would really lift me up.” If something feels unfair, negotiate with him to change that. If you are clear and motivated to create a win/win for both of you, he will be more responsive to you. So, instead of wishing he would help with the dishes, say, “I find it really helpful when we can share the task of washing dishes. How about we take turns every other day? That would really lift some stress off me.”
- Make sure there is space for him in your life. As the list of responsibilities grows, it is all too easy to relegate your husband to the bottom of your “to do” list. Spending too little time with your husband, or engaging him only when you need help with other priorities can lead a man to feeling like he is only a means to an end, an observer in your life, or simply dispensable. It is important to convey how your husband’s presence and actions add value and meaning to your life, and keep him high on the priority list.
- Understand that his priorities and timelines may not be the same as yours. Men face different pressures from women. This means you will need to be direct in helping him understand why something is SO important to you and why it needs to be done right now. Even then, remember that he is an adult and has the option to say “no” after you make your request.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that you abandon your own needs and absolve your husband of his responsibility to work with you to strengthen your marriage. Men are not children and should never be treated as such. I am encouraging you to factor in whether gender differences are possibly the reason behind some of the difficulties you may be experiencing in your marriage.
If you are seeking emotional intimacy and find yourself consistently running into barriers, you must realistically assess whether your partner will be able to meet your needs. If you are married to a man who has exhibited emotional vulnerability in the past, but has merely distanced from you, it may be possible to reengage him. If your spouse is the stoic cowboy type whose whole identity centers on this persona, you may need to readjust your expectations.
Being well-versed in the common pressures both men and women face puts you in the position of being able to develop more realistic expectations for deepening the emotional connection with your partner. As I said earlier, it helps if your default is to believe that your partner’s intentions are positive, and that his love for you is real, especially when misunderstandings occur. I have personally witnessed hundreds of situations in which a woman assumed her partner was intentionally withholding what she needed, and it turned out he was just completely unaware and did not mean to upset or hurt her at all.
The larger the differences between you and your spouse, the more mindful you will need to be about potential miscommunication. When misunderstandings do occur, the same kindness and respect you would extend to a close friend become vital tools for preventing a rift from developing.
Men and women are much more alike than different inside. Anyone can appear invincible on the outside, but none of us, including men, are immune to the self-doubt or worry all human beings experience. These vulnerabilities are present within each of us and will either be revealed when communication is good, or hidden when it is not. So, be constructive on your end by treating your spouse with compassion, understanding, and respect. Always remember to clearly ask for what you need, and generously extend good will to each other.
All of us have a need to be understood, appreciated, and cherished.
Men and women may seem quite different from one another. Although there is much confusion about gender roles and whether men and women differ in their capacities for engagement at a more intimate level, remember that we are all human and have similar core emotional needs.
Whatever is on your holiday gift list for your husband, there’s really just one thing that he desperately wants from you.
It’s not for you to lose weight, to cook more meals at home or to surprise him with some “mind-blowing” sex tip from a magazine.
What he wants from you is admiration. He wants to look in your eyes and believe that he is important, special, and necessary in your life. That’s it.
Men have a deep need to be needed, to feel like they are doing their job as your partner. While some couples are letting go of the assumption that the husband should be the primary breadwinner, boys are still raised to take care of people, to be confident, to be “the strong one.”
They get these messages from an early age. And what they come away with is the belief that their worth depends on being of some value in your life.
It might help you understand where your husband is coming from if you consider what women are taught about the importance of our physical appearance. Even if our parents didn’t raise us to believe we “have to” be pretty, even if we live our lives based on very different values and priorities, expectations about women and beauty are so pervasive in our culture that it’s difficult not to be affected by them to some degree. Being told we’re ugly can hurt in a way that other insults do not.
That’s how men feel about being useless.
‘Why Should I Stroke His Ego?’
Some of you might be thinking things like this:
“Why do I have to prop him up?”
“So now I have to flatter him all the time?”
“It’s not my job to give him self-esteem!”
Let’s be clear. It is your job to boost him — and it’s his job to boost you. You both signed on to care for each other emotionally. Expressing sincere admiration is part of that. We all have the need to feel valued and appreciated. Sometimes we overlook the fact that men have this need too because there’s still the societal expectation that men are supposed to be self-sufficient.
The keyword here is sincere admiration. We’re not talking about flattery, fawning and fake enthusiasm. But your marriage will be better when you make an effort to notice your husband’s contributions and to praise them.
Whether or not you realize it, research shows that for many husbands, their wife is the main source of emotional support in their lives. How you look at your husband has a huge impact on how he feels about himself.
When he feels valued in your eyes, he’ll feel good about himself and much closer to you. That can lead him to give you some of the things you’ve been needing emotionally too.
The Most Vulnerable Times
It’s especially important to understand your husband’s need to feel useful and admired by you when he’s going through a circumstance that could make him feel useless and not very admirable.
For example, a job loss or layoff is painful for anyone, but can be especially difficult for men. If you respond by panicking and “managing” his job search, you could be magnifying his shame and guilt. On the other hand, reminding him of the special value he has to you and expressing confidence in his abilities, regardless of his paycheck, can help him come through the crisis more quickly.
A Holiday Wish
Think of some of the ways your husband makes the holiday season a little brighter for you. Is he always patient with your talkative dad during your family gatherings? Does he go out of his way to create special moments for the kids? Does he give you gifts that melt your heart? Let him know how much it all means to you.
You’ll find many more insights that will help you understand your husband and deepen your relationship with him in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
I wish you both much joy and closeness this holiday season and into the coming year!
If housework is a sore spot in your marriage, you’re far from alone.
According to one poll, dividing up household chores was outranked only by fidelity and good sex on a list of issues associated with a successful marriage. How you and your husband share, or fail to share, housework can have a big effect on your marriage.
To be sure, men are picking up a greater share of chores than they did in the past, but studies show that women still do more housework than their husbands. And that’s true even when wives work as many hours outside the home as their husbands do — or even more.
Wives, as you’ve probably guessed, aren’t too thrilled about that. When household chores aren’t divided equitably, women are less happy in their marriages. (Husbands, though, aren’t affected the same way.)
But housework doesn’t have to be such a source of tension. Read on for some ideas to stop the squabbling — and make sure the dishwasher still gets loaded.
Why Isn’t He Taking Care of Tasks that Clearly Need Doing?
Picture this: You get home from work one evening a little later than your husband does. He’s relaxing and watching television — even though you see as soon as you arrive that the kids have left the living room a mess, a pile of mail on the counter needs sorting, and a basket of clothes is still not folded.
What do you think about your husband when you notice all of the tasks he hasn’t done?
Women often default to assuming the reason their husband is ignoring housework is because he’s lazy or uncaring. This is partly due to a mental bias all people have called the fundamental attribution error: When we’re explaining someone else’s actions, we automatically assume their behavior is caused by their internal qualities (like their personality or character), rather than circumstances. Think of the last time someone cut you off while you were driving. Did you assume they made a mistake, and forgive them? Or did you decide that they’re just a lousy human being, and curse at them? (Be honest!)
The problem is that when you believe the worst about a person, it’s easy for blame or resentment to follow. So, before you leap to a conclusion, consider other reasons why your husband hasn’t folded the laundry yet:
1. He can’t see it. If your husband doesn’t take care of chores on his own, but does them cheerfully when you ask, it’s possible he just doesn’t see the mess as clearly as you do. Research shows that people have different thresholds for noticing when something needs to be done around the house. If you’re the one who has a harder time tolerating clutter, you’ll also typically be the first to notice it and take care of it.
To make sure you don’t get stuck with all the housework just because you’re the more orderly one, resist the impulse to take on new chores, and let go of tasks you wouldn’t mind your husband handling. Trust that he’ll do a good job, even if results aren’t up to your standards at first. As they say, practice makes perfect!
2. He doesn’t know how. Some men have never had to the chance to learn domestic tasks like cooking or cleaning, but wouldn’t mind picking up these skills. If you’re a pro in these areas, you’ll have to be patient and resist the temptation to micromanage while your husband expands his capabilities. No need to check on his progress or inspect his work. Only give him help if he asks for it, remembering that struggle is a natural part of the process of learning something new.
3. He’s busy. Perhaps your husband has his hands full with other ways of contributing to your family like working overtime, doing repairs around the house, servicing the car, coaching Little League, and so on. He may even be planning to load the dishwasher, but has other priorities he needs to take care of first.
No, he didn’t fold the laundry, but he definitely does his part. You just have to make sure you notice, and give him credit for his contribution to the household.
4. He’s a traditional guy. Men’s and women’s roles have gone through some huge changes in the last few decades. If your husband holds more traditional views on roles in a marriage, he’s less likely to consider housework his job. He may not help you with tasks around the house, unless you ask him, because he sees this space as your “turf.”
There is nothing wrong with a more traditional division of responsibilities in your marriage, as long as both of you agree. But if this way of splitting up chores doesn’t work for you, the two of you should definitely come up with a different plan.
5. There is a deeper problem in your marriage. Sometimes unresolved emotional tension is the reason you are not working well as a team. If your husband is upset, he could be checked out from the relationship and feeling unmotivated to be a true partner. That explains why he’s just fine letting you carry the extra burden of housework.
Until the two of you address what’s really going on, your housework woes are likely to continue. You have to look beyond the surface and be honest about the emotional connection between you. If you don’t know how to do this on your own, consider seeking the help of a professional to get you unstuck.
So, these are a few possibilities why you’re not getting the help you need, but certainly not the only ones. Did your husband have a lousy day at the office? Is he feeling ill? Is he stressed out and needing a break? Who knows! Yes, it is possible he is being lazy or doesn’t care about you, but the point is that you should not assume this without checking out other possibilities first. Instead of reading his mind, open your own mind, and see what you can find out.
Stop Resenting, Start Asking
The most effective way to decrease resentment about housework is to let your husband know the problem (you feel overburdened), and ask directly for him to do specific tasks. Then give him a chance to step up. Be sure to notice and appreciate other ways he is already sharing household responsibilities.
I can hear what you’re saying: I shouldn’t have to ask! I already do so much. Why do I have to tell him what needs to be done? And why on earth would I thank him if he never thanks me for what I do!
I get the frustration that you’re feeling. But keep in mind that you are two unique people who came into the marriage with different life experiences, priorities, and skills. It’s unrealistic to expect you to coordinate your complicated lives without clear, direct and respectful communication.
This week, resolve to stop simmering with resentment and to start asking for what you need. If you keep that up, you may end up with a much lower stress level — and a cleaner house!
You can find lots more advice about protecting your marriage amid the demands of daily life in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
As Halloween gets closer and we’re thinking about scary stuff, I want to let you in on your husband’s secret fears.
I’m not talking about zombies, vampires or other horror movie creatures. Or even everyday creepy-crawlies like spiders.
Here’s the twist: Some of the things that frighten your husband the most might be things you are actually doing.
Of course, you’re not trying to be scary. And you probably don’t see your husband expressing these fears. Guys get conditioned to appear strong and hide any sign of fear or vulnerability. But that doesn’t mean they’re not playing out in other ways in your marriage — for example, if your husband starts to seem withdrawn or distant.
Let’s talk a little more about some of men’s most common fears in relationships and how you can help dispel them.
1. He’s afraid he can’t make you happy.
Men feel great when they can make their wives happy; it’s often how they measure their success as a husband. If your guy is making an effort to please you, but you tend to complain, criticize, or act lukewarm, don’t be surprised if his motivation eventually fizzles. If he sees you constantly down in the dumps and doesn’t know how he can change that, he may end up thinking he’s simply the wrong man for you, and then back off.
How to calm this fear: Assume that your husband cares about your happiness. When he does something to lift you up, let him know it! If he’s making an effort and simply missing the mark, be kind and clue him in on what would work better. There are some romantic but misguided, notions floating around in our culture that if he’s “the one,” he’ll “just know” how to make you happy. He may be fabulous, but I doubt he can read your mind! So, go ahead and tell him what you’d like to do for Valentine’s Day, what helps when you’re upset, even what feels good in bed. He’ll be grateful. And amid the daily stresses of life, don’t forget to flash him a smile now and then.
2. He’s scared that he’s useless. We women have so many more options available to us in our lives. Some of us are the primary breadwinners of the family. Others are choosing to be single parents. Marriage and involvement with men are becoming real choices. It’s not unusual to hear even married women openly say that they “don’t need” a man. As you can imagine, that attitude can do a number on a guy’s self-esteem. Men are still being judged by their ability to take care of the women in their lives. So, it sounds corny, but your husband really wants to be your hero sometime, to have you look you look at him with love and admiration because he brings some significant value to your life.
How to calm this fear: There is no need to suppress your competence or independence as a woman. However, please do remember to create room for your husband to feel effective too. Ask for his help, not because you’re a damsel in distress, but because no one should have to take care of everything by themselves! Let him know that he is of value in the relationship by noticing and appreciating what he provides, whether it’s financial support, practical help, or a shoulder to lean on: “Thanks for cooking dinner today. It really took some pressure off me.” Remember that a healthy relationship has room for both of you to need and depend on each other.
3. He’s terrified of being humiliated. Vulnerability is not something most men allow themselves to experience frequently. A central code of manhood is that a real man must appear strong at all times. You may want your husband to lower his defenses with you, but this may be really scary for him. After all, there is a real risk that if he opens up, you could hurt him.
How to calm this fear: Be extremely disciplined when your husband is exposing his softer side, recognizing that you have tremendous power to hurt him. Men are a lot more sensitive to criticism, disappointment, and rejection than you might imagine. Never insinuate that he is weak, especially when he is emotionally exposed. Otherwise, he may close the door to emotional intimacy permanently. Be respectful, kind, and affirming when your husband takes the risk to let you see parts of himself he seldom shares with anyone else. And then, watch the love and trust grow!
4. He’s worried that he’s not important to you. After being married for a while, you may start to take your husband for granted. Because you assume he’s not going anywhere, he may fall lower down on your priority list and he may truly get less attention. Men worry that they’ll fall off the radar for you after you have kids. And the thing is, they’re often right. I see this happen frequently in relationships. When you understand that for a man, their spouse is often one of very few people with whom he is emotionally close, it’s easier to understand why he may be upset with having less of your time and attention.
How to calm this fear: Make time for each other. In the early days of your relationship, it was easy to feel close. That love and passion don’t have to die now that you’re an established couple with a more demanding schedule. You just have to deliberately commit to making your relationship a clear priority. Remember that strengthening your bond is the best thing you can do for your family. So rather than just saying, “Of course you’re important to me,” go ahead and show it by scheduling some time just for the two of you regularly.
5. He fears being smothered. The opposite extreme — when you don’t have a life outside of your relationship — is pretty scary to men too. No one wants to be the center of another person’s world. It’s exhausting and way too intense!
How to calm this fear: Give your guy a little more space by focusing on yourself and the other important things in your life more often. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you both take time to cultivate yourselves, it will draw you closer together.
Remember, it’s never sustainable for either of you to be driven by fear in your relationship. Want to learn more about your husband’s perspective and what’s behind his actions? Check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. When you subscribe to the mailing list, you’ll get incredibly useful insights into the male mind with the free report: “10 Easy Ways to Get Him to Listen.”