Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bad Advice from Carolyn Hax

Every once in a while an advice columnist misses the point so badly, I can't stand it. Carolyn Hax (Tell me about it) really missed it last week when she told an expectant woman to force the chore issue with her husband. Carolyn's bottom line, after suggesting quite direct requests and a chore strike:
But yours is a common problem, and it makes optimists pay dearly. He's going out of his way to show you that he refuses to be considerate. Resistance this stiff would be about more than chores, and so would get worse when the baby comes. Once you have tried every appeal to his conscience, you have no choice but to save yourself and your child. Please don't see continuing to serve him while your spirit dies as a legitimate choice.

There is more here than meets the eye. First, the woman's letter screams passive-aggressive: in fact, it is all written in the passive voice:
Any thoughts on how to get through to a guy that he really needs to grow up, now that his wife is expecting? Is it too much to ask that he put dirty laundry in the hamper and dishes in the sink? She's not even asking him to do laundry or dishes -- just not leave them on the floor, making her bend over when she doesn't feel well! He's become even more high-maintenance now than he was before. He simply ignores her requests.

She signs the letter, not with a description of herself, but with a perjorative description of her husband: "30-Plus Child, or Father-to-Be."

I see a very different "common problem" than Carolyn sees. A couple of them actually. I see:
1. A woman who won't speak directly about herself, her wants and needs, but hides behind describing herself in the third person.
2. A pregnant woman with a sense of entitlement.
3. Thirty year old parents trying to make the transistion from a sterile sex life that is all about them and how they feel, to a fruitful sex life, that is about something larger than themselves. Their lives, including their sex lives, are now about their child(ren) and their marriage.
These issues lead to the most immediate, very common problem.
4.The man feels he is losing his relationship with his wife. He is used to having her attention all to himself. She is now shifting her attention to her child. The husband is not entirely mistaken that he is losing his wife's attention.
The reason this is so difficult is that both of them are used to being focused on themselves. (See #3 above.) The woman appears to be focused on something outside herself because she is paying attention to the baby. But for many 30-something women, the baby is HER project, and therefore an extension of herself. She can be self-righteous about being non-selfish, while attacking her husband for being selfish. This leads to problem #2 above.
The reality is that they both have a big transition to make here, but they are focused on him as the person-in-the-wrong. The woman potentially has a head-start because the baby naturally draws a woman out of herself and into concern for others, if she allows it to do so. But there are other important values at stake here, including the marriage itself and the child's relationship with his father. Not to mention the obvious fact that if she kicks her husband out of the house over chores she won't get ANY help from him. And she'll be depriving her child of a relationship with his father. It is much too early to pull the plug on a marriage because the husband won't pick up his socks.
Here is my advice:
Take care of yourself. You don't mention whether you are working outside the home. Do less of whatever it takes for you to get the rest you need. Less work, less housework, less hobby time, whatever. When you take care of yourself, you don't need to hang on your spouse to build you up.
Assure your husband that you love him, value him and want him in your life, especially now that you are creating a new baby together. Ask him simply: what would make you feel loved? Then give him that, to the best of your ability. Most guys couldn't give a rat's behind over the condition of the house. But men certainly need attention, touching and affirmation.
Ask him for help directly, not in some kind of code. (See #1 above.) Don't appeal to his conscience or sense of fairness: marriage is not a political debating society. Marriage is a friendship. Say something like: "Would you be willing to help me with this? I would really appreciate it." Find things to thank him for. You'll be surprised how many more flies you catch with honey than with vinegar.
Once you've dealt with your real needs and his real needs, you can deal with the chores as a secondary consideration, which they are. Ignore some of them. Laugh over the mess.
I speak with some authority on this matter, for I made this mistake myself. It took me a long time to understand what my husband needed from me, and how I was contributing to the problems between us.
You have the potential here to move into the realm of pure gift with each other. You can take the lead in moving from a relationship that is based on tit-for-tat, you do for me, I'll do for you, to a relationship that is based on doing all you can for each other. Don't sell your husband short. The odds are that he is capable of making this transition from a relationship based on contract to a relationship based on love.
He just doesn't know it yet. Help him.


Anonymous said...

Many years ago I learned of a sociological study. They videotaped couples in regular living conditions. They found that ON AVERAGE WITH MANY COUPLES it took 5 "thank-you"s, "good job"s, etc. (ie compliments) for each negative comment ("you should..."s etc) for receipient partners to later register "1 compliment was said for 1 admonishment during the study time" when they filled out the debriefing forms later.

Now on my second marriage (2 years #1, 25 years #2) I will testify I used to think 2 compliments for one "pinch" was enough. Having used the 5:1 ratio for many years now on #2 I can only say I believe the study: my marriage is much happier.

Anonymous said...

You are right on here! Marriage is not something you throw away because one person is not perfect. And all children are entitled to two loving, married parents who demonstrate maturity and love (the verb, not just the feeling) to each other. Thanks for restoring my faith in sanity!