(Author’s note: I realized after writing this piece that it needs a bit of context and preamble. In this essay, I offer some pointed thoughts about female tendencies in relationships. I mistakenly assumed that this needn’t be said: some men are lazy and inconsiderate, and no amount of effort from their partners will fix that. I don’t discuss male problems in this essay, but I fully realize that they exist. Also, this essay critically examines the actions of one woman who made her relationship behavior very public. Her story is a useful example of a common pattern. I do not think she is a bad person, nor do I believe her behavior is representative of all women.)
Do you feel like your husband or boyfriend has become lazy and uncaring? That he has stopped listening and no longer does his fair share? Are you two becoming increasingly irritated with each other over simple tasks?
It’s a common pattern that can feed on itself and grow like an ugly weed. “I love you, snickerdoodle” turns into “you never help me anymore,” followed by “maybe I would if you’d get off my back.”
Let’s talk about three of the most important things you can do to gain more cooperation out of your man. But first, an example of how not to motivate most members of the male species.
At The End of Her Rope
In a recent Parenting Magazine article, Martha Brockenbrough vented her abundant anger about the bumbling, lazy, irresponsible behavior of men in general, and her own husband in particular. This is the first impression she paints of the man with whom she has vowed to spend her life:
“Once, when I was dangling at the end of my rope, I insisted he go to the doctor for a hearing test. I was quite certain the man was deaf. How else, for instance, could he have taken my grandma’s books to Goodwill instead of the antique-book dealer, as I’d asked when he was cleaning out the basement?”
Mrs. Brockenbrough’s article included survey results of 1000 mothers. Among the results, “46% of moms get irate with their husbands once a week or more.” Not angry or frustrated, but irate.
Magazine surveys are notoriously slanted and unreliable, but Parenting Magazine nevertheless found 460 women who admitted to becoming irate more frequently than I fill my gas tank. It’s a pattern that I’ve seen countless times in my clinical practice.
Both partners lose when this type of interaction becomes routine. The woman ends up feeling perpetually disappointed, and she’s resentful that she has been put in the position of a nag. The man feels belittled, and he’s weary of being on the defensive against his wife.
They find themselves wondering how their relationship came to this. Where is the kind and nurturing woman he married? Where is the dependable, stand-up guy with whom she fell in love?
Since I’m writing to women right now, I won’t offer advice to men except this: if you make a promise, then man up and keep it. If you have no intention of doing what she has asked of you, then say so. Don’t avoid things like a 10-year-old boy trying dodge his homework.
Now, back to the women in the room. Mrs. Brockenbrough demonstrated some common tactical errors that create resentment and discord in a marriage. If you want a man who won’t lift a finger but will instead focus his energy on avoiding and undermining you, simply follow this recipe.
1. Loss of Perspective
The first error is a loss of perspective. Mrs. Brockenbrough got so upset about how her husband helped her that she seems to have lost sight of the fact that he did, in fact, help her. He cleaned the basement and, at her request, made a special trip to dispose of her grandmother’s books.
Yes, he made a mistake. Here is my suggestion for coping with the disappointment: thank him for the clean basement, retrieve your books from the Goodwill store, and go out for a nice dinner together. Life is short, and your time with him will be over soon enough. Until then, you can choose to behave like the bright and shiny center of his world, or you can be the poo in his punch bowl.
(Another author’s note: after posting this essay, I received some feedback that the above advice is insensitive and perhaps sexist. Rest assured, it is the same advice I would give a man. I understand how easy it is to interpret mistakes as a lack of caring: Grandmother’s books were special to me. If you loved me, you would have understood that, and you would have done what I asked. Even if that is true, it is more useful to discuss the underlying issue (I’m worried that you don’t care about me) than to go to war over the particular incident.)
Rather than maintaining perspective and behaving graciously, she seems to have fixated on his mistake and committed a second strategic blunder…
2. Exercising Aversive Control
“Aversive control” refers to the use of repeated punishment to manage behavior. It works only as long as the oppressive agent is present. As soon as the prison guard steps out for a cigarette break, the inmates begin to mutter their discontent and plot their revenge. Speeding tickets are an example of aversive control. How fast would you drive if you knew that you could never be fined?
Mrs. Brockenbrough responded to her husband’s mistake with severe retaliation: a demeaning, publicly-humiliating essay. I cannot imagine treating my spouse with such hostility.
Couples who are locked in a cycle of aversive control can look forward to two problems. The first is an exhausting battle for control in which one person tries to dominate while the other tries to avoid being controlled. Each behavior increases the other. The more one partner tries to dominate, the more the other tries to avoid, which leads to increased efforts to dominate, and so on.
The second problem is that they will lose respect for one another, and that is a difficult thing from which to recover. Human minds never forget an injury. We can learn to look past them, but history never goes away, and so it pays to choose behaviors wisely.
Mrs. Brockenbrough is probably a lovely person who has simply allowed her frustration to overtake her. Patterns like this are so insidious that even lovely people can become enmeshed in them. Let’s look at some alternatives.
1. Offer Reinforcement
Guys are relatively uncomplicated. Most of the time we want to make you happy. Each time you tell us what makes you happy – for example, by thanking us when we’ve done something you appreciate – then you’ve just increased the odds that we will do it again.
This is not rocket science, yet so many women I have met insist on telling their men what they don’t want. They don’t want him working past 6:00; they don’t want his friends marking up the coffee table; they don’t want a repeat of last year’s vacation at that cheap resort.
A man who cannot please his woman will stop trying. And you probably don’t want that. So do tell us what you want, and do express some gratitude when we hit the mark. (Bonus tip: express your gratitude with more than words if you want serious results.)
2. Attack Patterns, Not People
If you and your fella have fallen into a pattern of tug-o-wars, power struggles, or pointless arguments, avoid the temptation to pin all the blame on either him or yourself. Instead, tackle the pattern that has cropped up between you.
Relationship problems are like snowflakes. Each one is unique. Together, you and your man will create relationship patterns – both good and bad – that would be impossible to precisely replicate with another human being. So when the destructive patterns crop up, attack those patterns as a team rather than focusing anger on each other.
Here’s an example. Suppose that a couple has regular shouting matches over household chores. She wants more help; he wants time to relax after a stressful day. The temptation is to focus on the surface behaviors: she doesn’t like what seems like a lack of concern; he doesn’t like what seems like domineering behavior.
Instead, develop some curiosity about the pattern. When did it start? What happens in the days before the arguments? What goes on in each of their heads before the shouting starts? What happens during and after an argument that sets them up for another one? Looking at patterns of interaction rather than targets of blame diffuses some of the emotion and focuses attention on a shared problem to be solved.
It takes mental discipline to step away from blame and anger, and the process requires mutual commitment, but attacking patterns is much more productive than attacking each other. In my clinical experience, most men are willing to communicate and sink their teeth into a problem if they have some assurance that they won’t simply be a target for anger.
3. Behave Respectfully, Even If You Don’t Feel Like It
One of the truly unfortunate aspects of Mrs. Brockenbrough’s essay was the profound lack of respect for the person she once admired enough to marry. In essence, she called him an idiot. Publicly. It was downright rude.
Mutually respectful behavior is important because it sets the tone of the relationship. It is like the strings section of a symphony. The music simply cannot be complete without it.
I know what some of you are thinking because I’ve had similar thoughts. Why should I make the first move? HE is the one who is uncaring. Frankly, I’m just too angry to be respectful.
Refusing to make the first peace offering in a relationship may feel righteous in the moment, but it is one of those behaviors that almost always achieves the opposite of our desires.
The Danger of Quick Fixes
The motivations of men are generally less complex than women and that is to your great advantage. We tend to respond fairly directly to incentives, which means that you have a great deal of influence over our happiness. That in turn gives you a great deal of influence over our behavior.
Destructive patterns are so tempting and ensnaring because of their payoff ratios. Becoming irate or exercising aversive control can feel quite satisfying in the short term. Let’s face it: sometimes it feels good to vent anger. It’s a quick fix. The downside doesn’t show up until later.
On the other hand, thoughtful, constructive responses pay off in the long run but feel ever-so-unsatisfying in the here and now.
The desire for quick fixes comes naturally to humans and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The drive for quick fixes is simply one of the mind’s strategies for solving problems. When the mind identifies a source of discomfort (such as a husband who appears to be disengaged or uncaring), it wants to fix the problem as quickly as possible. Luckily, we don’t have to obey every emotion that comes along.
If you’ve already traveled down the path of power struggles and aversive control, don’t despair. If you married a real man he should be more than willing to help improve things. Most men don’t want to feel like children in their marriages, and most women certainly don’t want to feel like mothers to grown men. Identifying the pattern and resolving to change the day-to-day behaviors that cause it can be the most difficult but important step.