You know how when married or long-term couples talk to new couples about the courting phase in the relationship? The phase where everything is wonderfully romantic, sexy and polite? The established couples warn the newbies about how he's only like that when he's courting. Well, for me, it's true.
When I first met my husband, he was so thoughtful, romantic and engaging. After we got married, that period of romance lasted about six months. Ever since then I get remembered when he wants to have sex.
I've planned all of our date nights, anniversaries, and birthdays, otherwise we'd just sit at home all the time. Frankly I'm feeling a bit taken for granted. We've talked about my need for romance and feeling special, and his response is he's just not a romantic guy. Ok, fine.
I established with him only 5 days a year where I feel he needs to make the extra effort - Christmas, New Years, our anniversary, Valentines Day and my birthday. Not once in the last two years has any of these had any special-ness to them. His idea of planning ahead for one of those days is to buy the gift certificate the morning of, after I reminded him about it, so he has something to give me later in the day. I know we need to talk about this again but I don't know how to go about it so that I make sure he understands my need and he doesn’t feel defensive.
Signed, Is It So Much To Ask?
Dear Is It,
I'm pretty sure I know what's going on here and I've devised a questionnaire you can fill out to test my theory:
1. Say you want your bedroom painted. The colors are faded with age and don't match the new bedspread. He is more likely to:
a) Figure out on his own that you would like the room painted, suggest the two of you go to the paint store so you can pick the color, decide on his own initiative which day he will get the job done and actually follow through on his plan.
b) Ignore any subtle hints about the need to paint. Instead, let you pick a painting day and cajole him into stepping up.
c) Withstand in silence your repeated requests to paint, until he finally starts looking under "P" for Painter in the yellow pages.
d) Marvel at the hand prints he can make on the wall while you paint the room.
2. It's a typical weekday morning at your house. Everyone is running five minutes later than they'd like to be, as usual, and the kids' lunches still need to be made. (If you don't have children, just use your imagination -- work with me here!). He would:
a) Have the lunches made by the time you arrived in the kitchen, even though you never mentioned it.
b) Happily make the lunches, but only if you ask him to do so.
c) Sigh and make the lunches if you insist.
d) Complain that you put more Tootsie Rolls in Suzie's lunch than you did in his.
3. Your husband decides to rekindle his childhood interest in fishing.
a) You can tell he is interested but you have to convince him it's okay to take some time for himself occasionally.
b) He buys a simple fishing rod at Kmart and heads to a nearby stream on a semi-regular basis, but only when there's nothing much going on at home.
c) A fancy rod and full tackle box appear in the hall closet. His desire to take off most weekends starts interfering with other things that need to be done.
d) The shelves in your garage are suddenly loaded with the Binford 2000 series of sonar fish finders and nuclear fish de-boners, though these items are never there on the weekends or Wednesday evenings because your husband has them out on the lake.
As you can probably tell from these questions, I believe your issue is about more than just romance.
It is normal for you and your husband to care about different things. Decorating the bedroom is important for you, while he could live with the ugly beige forever. He'd like a big-screen TV for the rec room so he can watch the football games in style; you'd be perfectly content with a less expensive 19-inch model. In strong relationships, both partners care about the other's happiness. They each truly hope their spouse will have what they want in life. When there is a conflict, they look for win-win solutions as much as possible. Sure, you look out for your own needs, but compromises tend to be found more easily when both people are also interested in the needs of their partner.
In your situation, it seems your husband's needs for companionship and closeness are more easily met than your own. He is happy to simply hang around with you on a regular basis, with the occasional bit of intimacy thrown in. As you've described, you want and need more. Both sets of needs seem normal and reasonable to me. The issue is how you respond to them as a couple.
When he says, "I'm not a romantic guy," he is also saying, "Since this is something I don't need, I'm not going to bother taking care of it." In a sense it's like that bedroom you want painted. This is one of your desires, not his, so it is less likely to make his priority list.
Of course, the romance did rank high on his list for a while, back when it was new and exciting. He wanted something very much (that would be you, which is a good thing) and he was willing to put in the effort to make it happen. This just shows he is not lacking the romance gene. Instead the problem is a lack of motivation. He no longer perceives the romance to be as important.
I think you have recognized that his needs in the romance department are different from your own. You have acted on that knowledge in a giving way by allowing him to ignore the issue for most of the year. You have also asked him to step up on certain occasions, which means you have tried to look out for your own needs. By looking for middle ground and offering a compromise, your actions line up well with the sort of ideal approach I discussed above.
Your husband, though, could use some remedial help if he hopes to achieve a passing grade in Caring & Giving 101. He must realize that your desire for loving and recognition is not some frivolous thing; your needs are real and tremendously important. They are important because the bond of closeness between the two of you will never be as strong as it can be until they are met. This part is about being empathetic, being able to view the world through someone else's eyes and realize that viewpoint matters.
Then he must move beyond realization to the point where if something is important to you, that is enough to make it important to him. You want him to care about you, which means caring about what you need.
Finally, it's not enough for him to carry all those warm and fuzzy messages around inside. He must care enough to actually do something about it. That includes taking the initiative without being prompted or reminded. This is true whether we're talking about painting the bedroom, supporting you in your decision to take that Monday evening creative writing class, or bringing home flowers once in a while just because he thinks you are special.
Such behavior is not innate; it is something we learn to do, that we choose to do. Your husband has not yet fully stepped up to the level of caring and giving that can make a relationship so rewarding for both partners. He can do it -- we all can -- but so far he has chosen not to do so. I don't blame you for feeling like you are taken for granted.
Okay, so what can you do about it. There are at least two approaches you could try. One is simply to be honest and up-front. Explain your position in as even-handed a way as you can. You realize he doesn't understand how important your needs are in the caring and giving department. Tell him why your needs truly are important, not just for you but also for the two of you. This "why" part is critical; he must be sold on that or he is unlikely to change.
Then state as simply and as specifically as you can what you want him to do. Avoid saying general things like, "I want you to be more supportive." Such generalities often leave guys feeling frustrated, like they don't know what they're supposed to do. Get specific on the man, even if it means repeating what you have already told him. "I want you to put in some effort. That means remembering my birthday is coming (put it in a day timer if you have to), figuring out what I would like (ask if you need to, but don't wait for me to bring it up), buying it ahead of time and without being reminded, wrapping it and delivering it on time." Be firm without being argumentative. This is what you need and you want him to step up. As we have seen from the comments in response to the last few Dismaying Stories, simple honesty is often the best way straight through a problem.
Unfortunately many obstacles can trip you up along this road. You are correct to be concerned about possible defensiveness on his part. No matter how nicely you try to state a request for change, it can be easy to sound like you are criticizing, blaming and demanding. Most people hate being told what to do, and will dig in their heels stubbornly when made to feel that way. Obviously you would like to avoid that.
Other potential land mines include his fear of the unknown. When you start asking for change, he is unsure exactly what these changes will entail. What if this is going to mean a lot of extra work on his part? What if he hates it? The prospect of change can be stressful by itself, prompting many people to get busy proving why things are just fine the way they are, thank you very much.
To avoid all of this, another approach you might try is to gradually show him that good things come from being caring and giving. (This is a topic we will get into in depth as The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene progresses.) Catch him giving to you or the kids in any way you can (even if it's only taking out the garbage) and show him how much you appreciate that sort of thing.
Ask him to give in small ways, tasks that are less of a stretch for him than being proactive about Christmas. Do you find yourself taking care of all the little things that need doing around your house? Well maybe you ask him to run and get the milk once in a while. Remember the Permission Paradox and, again, show appreciation whenever he steps up. Over time he should begin to understand and trust what your reaction will be to this sort of thing. It will likely be easier and easier for you to ask him to care and give in larger ways. Eventually the idea of giving in the romance department should feel like less of a stretch for him.
Finally, perhaps some of the Faithful Readers have had to deal with similar issues. How about it folks -- can any of you suggest an approach that worked for you?
Hopefully the end result will be a husband who gets it ... and acts accordingly.
Best of luck!
P.S. I have this sudden urge to go check out one of those atomic-powered fish thingies.
Is something missing from your relationship? Tell me about it and your submission just might end up as a Dismaying Story.