Thursday, July 13, 2006

Dismaying Story #6: The Permission Paradox

Dear Andrew,

I'm frustrated. My husband says he doesn't mind doing things for me but then he gets angry when I ask him to help out. He says I make him feel like he doesn't have any choice, like I'm trying to boss him into doing things. Well, which is it? Either he wants to help or he doesn't. If he's so anxious to help, I don't see how asking him to do so should upset him.

Signed: Ready to Throw in the Towel

Dear Frustrated,

Don't toss that towel just yet. It sounds like you are running into what I call the Permission Paradox. I have good news for you; the problem can be relatively simple to fix once you realize what is happening.

Let's back up to what you want. Your goal is to get your husband to help out once in a while, and to do so willingly, repeatedly and happily. You want some way to ask for help that will avoid creating all the conflict you are currently experiencing.

Your husband wants to feel like he is pitching in of his own free will. He doesn't want to feel like you are bossing him around. Like it or not, most men will hate being told what to do. He wants to be your partner, not your subordinate.

Imagine the exchange goes something like this:

Nicola: Will you clear off the table?
Sam: No, not tonight.
Nicola: Why not? It won't take long.
Sam: I don't have time right now.
Nicola: Fine. Be that way.

Nicola is obviously not happy with Sam. His excuse may be lame and she is certainly justified in feeling frustrated, but her own behavior is making it less likely that she will get what she wants. Her message is: "You must do what I want or be prepared to deal with my immediate disapproval." By not accepting his refusal, she has turned her request into a demand. Sam will likely feel insulted because she is telling him what to do.

By definition, your husband can only pitch in willingly if he feels free to decide. Therein lies the permission paradox; if you want him to choose to help you, you must allow him to refuse. By definition, giving him the freedom to choose means that more than one option must be open to him. If you will accept only a yes, then he doesn't really have a choice. Nicola is better off with this approach:

Nicola: Will you clear off the table?
Sam: No, not tonight.
Nicola (smiling): Okay, I understand.

By reacting with love and understanding, Nicola has shown Sam that her request was really that: a request, not a demand. She has taken the pressure off and made the experience, brief as it was, as positive as possible for Sam.

"Wait a minute," you might say. "Am I supposed to let him get away with that? What about my needs? Won't this just teach him that he doesn't have to help out?"

Those are valid concerns. You must realize, though, that Nicola is looking out for her own needs. The next time she asks for help, Sam will remember that she was willing to let him make his own choice. As a result he will feel more like an equal partner in the marriage. He will tend to feel better about himself, you and your relationship. This will allow his natural desire to be the household problem solver to emerge. Nicola may end up clearing the table tonight and possibly for the next few times she asks, but in the process she is dramatically increasing the chances that Sam will clear the table thousands of times in the future. Furthermore, he will help out because he wants to, because he gets rewarded emotionally for doing so. In my books that's a good deal for both of them.

Of course, this will not necessarily handle all possible contingencies. There may be further issues underlying his refusals, which you would then have to deal with separately. But that is a topic for another day.


Do you and your husband ever disagree about work sharing issues around the home? Drop us a line if you would like some advice on how to handle your particular situation.


  1. Anonymous9:39 AM

    Gee. That conversation sounds just exactly like what used to happen in my first marriage. I did that, you know. I was kind and supportive, and very, very patient.

    And he never picked up anything.

    So, what do you do if you've asked him to put his dirty underwear in the laundry basket at the foot of the bed instead of the floor at the side of the bed. (The two being separated by, oh, maybe four feet.) He ignores you. You don't persist, but every morning, there's the dirty laundry on the floor.

    Every day. For three months. No exaggeration.

    So what do you do when being patient and calm simply doesn't work?

  2. This is such a great question that I have answered it as Dismaying Story #7: So THEN What Should I Do?

  3. I find it hard to accept this approach when I don't say no alot, and I get an even more emotional response when He asks for my help and I turn him down. But i'll read #7 also

  4. It was always expressed in my marriage that I wanted my husband to contribute to household chores.

    I acknowledged early on that everyone thrives with the power of choice, but could not passively ask for his assistance. Instead of simply giving a yes or no question, I often listed two household chores that needed to be done and asked him which one he would do. The expectation that he will contribute is reinforced, but he still has a choice. If he didn't like either choice, then usually he would offer up an alternative chore that needed to be completed so he felt he had additional input - but he was still contributing.

    Once he's committed to completing a chore, then get him to give a specified time frame that it will be completed. Make him own his contribution. You do your chore and trust him to complete his in the time specified.

    It was a great strategy for chore sharing.