Sunday, July 16, 2006

Dismaying Story #7: So THEN What Should I Do?

In response to Dismaying Story #6: The Permission Paradox, a reader wrote the following (slightly paraphrased) comment asking for advice:

Dear Andrew,

In my first marriage 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?

Signed: Tired of Being Patient

Dear Tired,

To him, whether the dirty laundry stays on the floor for a while or goes directly in the basket is no big deal. He drops it on the floor because that's the way he would do it if he were living alone. To meet his own needs, this is a perfectly acceptable solution. To you, however, dirty laundry on the floor is an irritant.

There are two possible solutions. Either he can start putting it directly in the basket or you can teach yourself not to care about skuzzy undies on the floor. If there were a major amount of effort involved, or if having the laundry on the floor offered any kind of benefit, then there might be a reason to consider the latter solution. Since there is neither a benefit nor any effort involved, it's a slam dunk easy call; he should change, not you.

I doubt you could shift his attitude about the issue. He's comfortable with the underwear lying in plain sight and that's not going to change. The change you are asking him to make is to acknowledge one of your needs and to take action to meet that need. You are asking him to give you a gift, plain and simple.

Since there is no effort involved in reaching four feet away, this gift would be simple for him to give. So why doesn't he? There are three possible obstacles. The first is that down deep he still believes the underwear on the floor is no big deal. It is not an irritant to him and he believes it is reasonable that it should not be an irritant to you. Therefore, his unconscious mind reasons, there is no pressing need to change.

The second obstacle can crop up if he starts feeling like he is being told what to do. I am married, his male ego inwardly grumps, but I am still an individual. This is my home too. Why should I have to do everything her way? The underwear by itself is a non-issue to him. If the situation were handled poorly, however, then it could become a symbol to him of his struggle for autonomy within the marriage.

The third possible obstacle is that some people have difficulty adjusting to the concept of giving within a marriage. Single folks can typically make many decisions based solely on their own needs. Considering the needs of another is a change in mindset with which some people struggle after entering a serious relationship.

You need to take all three obstacles into account when you ask for change. The good news is that you have begun handling the situation in exactly the right way. By being patient you have torn down some of the walls he might have erected to protect his ego. You have thus far given him no reason to feel he is being told what to do. Your problem seems to be that you weren't sure how to follow through and complete the deal.

It sounds like you asked once and then waited months for him to comply. Based on the results, this was clearly not enough to (a) convince him that your need is genuine, and (b) invoke in him the spirit of selfless giving. Your next step should be to tell him explicitly about your need and ask him to fill it, like this:

"I know the underwear on the floor seems like no big deal to you, and I understand that, I really do. But to me it makes the whole room seem messy. Maybe it's a girl thing, but it's important to me. I would really appreciate it if you'd help me out and toss your clothes in the basket when you take them off."

Get the important points in but keep the request as short and simple as you can. Notice you are not blaming him for creating a problem. You acknowledge that his position has merit and that your request stems from your unique need, not from a failure on his part. This is important; if you blame and criticize him then you bring the whole male ego thing into it again. (I know, I know. We men can be such tender hearts. But bear with me, we're almost there.)

Avoid the temptation to point out how easy it would be for him to comply. He knows how close the basket is and he's perfectly aware of his own ability to reach it. Pointing this out to him would seem needless and sarcastic.

It's not enough to simply state that your need is different from his. By saying "it's a girl thing" or something similar, you are explaining to him why you have different needs. This is something he can use as he tries to wrap his head around why there is a pressing reason to change. You've told him why.

Finally, how can you make selfless giving a part of your relationship? That could be a book all by itself, but here are a few pointers:
  • Be a giving person yourself. Kind deeds tend to draw similar responses. Based on your comment, I suspect you have no problem with this one;
  • Give him small, non-threatening opportunities to give. Ask for help with simple tasks (and remember the permission paradox); and
  • Show appreciation whenever he is giving and supportive. Do this whether you had to ask for the help or he did it on his own initiative. It's not enough to feel appreciative inside and assume he knows. He doesn't know. Show him by saying explicitly how much it means to you, how thankful you are, how much it really helps and makes a difference in your life. Act accordingly; give him a smile or a hug. Do something nice for him in return.

To sum it all up, he didn't take your hint when you asked initially so now your quest must become a negotiation. Even after you explain your need as discussed above, he may or may not change. If not, then you have to determine which of the three obstacles is still standing in the way and discuss it explicitly so the two of you can work past it. Each time you have to do that, maintain your calm, non-accusatory approach while asking for change.


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  1. Thanks for posting on my blog, Andrew -- pointed me to yours, which is really fascinating -- since my work is about relationships too :-). Stay connected! cate

  2. Ah. After 18 years of marriage, we have come to the agreement that if it bugs me, I will pick up his discarded clothes by the bed and toss them in the hamper. Sometimes, I do. Sometimes, the dog gets them first and drags them under the bed for a good chew. Doesn't bother me in the least about the dog, by the way.

    I decided I'd not become a nagger early on in our life together. His mom nags. Perhaps the husband, above, was also nagged by his mom to pick up his underwear? Issues can run deep. Perhaps the wife would like to borrow our dog. She's sweet and mostly housebroken but sheds. The underwear on the floor may be less work.

    Thanks for the visit, by the way.

  3. Hi Diana,

    I guess that shows there are often several solutions to any given problem, and no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution.

    Thanks for the input.

  4. Ahhh... a little reverse psychology can do the trick. Try investing in a inexpensive laundry basket that looks like a basket ball hoop! The husband or any husband would be shooting hoops and one may find him throwing in his wife's dirty laundry as well. A winning shot for both teams. :-)

  5. Now that's thinking outside the basket! How about a laundry basket that looks like a tub of ice cream or a keg of beer - then maybe he'd be tempted to take the clothes out and put them in the washing machine. (I wondered why the dirty laundry should be considered hers...)

  6. Hell, I say leave the clothes on the floor. He'll either get tired of stepping around them, trip on them after they pile up to high or he'll eventually run out of clean ones to wear and ask you where they've all gone to, to which you reply "I don't know, there weren't any in the laundry basket!".

  7. In my house I have a policy. If it's not in the hamper then it doesn't get washed. I have to be honest though, my husband leaves his socks on the floor and I pick them up and put in the hamper.


  8. That's another viable strategy - wait him out. That assumes two things, though: (1) That he will eventually mind the mess and do something about it (which isn't necessarily true with some people), and (2) that you can stand the mess in the meantime. When that's the case, I've had people tell it has worked for them.

    Thanks for chipping in.