Thursday, August 31, 2006

Dismaying Story #43: The Not So Handyman

Dear Andrew,

My husband and I have been married for six years and our house is a mess. From the outside it looks like we are always in the midst of a yard sale. Many repairs are needed but nothing gets done unless I roll up my sleeves and do it myself.

My husband says all the right things when I go to him with my problems. He agrees to comply with my requests. He agrees to clean up his messes and give me my own set of tools (like I used to have before he took over). He agrees to stop spending money on foolish things and instead put the money in house repairs and badly needed upgrades. He agrees to a lot of things.

His job is seasonal, so he promises that when winter comes he will get projects done around the house. Instead, he spends money (that was supposed to help us make it through the winter) on eBay for his expensive hobbies. Three winters in a row he has done this. He lied to me about the spending, finally confessed, and then continued to do it. No projects were ever done.

Then he will say, "When summer comes and the days are longer, I will get the projects done." In other words, they will never get done.

This has been going on for our entire marriage. I noticed early on that he didn't pitch in and help me with projects like painting or yard work. Yet, I helped him with things that are typically considered man's work. I assumed we were a partnership and we would help each other. In fact, he never even gave me a word of appreciation.

All the while his demeanor is so sweet and kind. His voice is always sounds caring. He portrays to the world the image he wants them to believe.

So, when he does not follow through on what he says he is going to do and I approach him about it, he lies, pouts, or leaves.

Finally, I got an answer from him as to why he is that way. He said, "I don't want to do things on your timetable." In my opinion, he resents me and is taking out his anger by NOT doing anything. He won't confront me because that might make him look like the "bad guy." It is so confusing because, as I said, he says the right things and he appears outwardly to be caring. He hugs me and tells me he loves me but his actions say otherwise. (By the way, he does not demand anything of me. He couldn't care less if I do any housework. He doesn't even eat dinner with me. He eats a bag of popcorn or candy. So I feel that I have no value in his eyes).

I thought we were making progress in counseling, but then he decided he wanted a motorcycle. That would be fine if the clutter was gone and we had the money, but none of that is true. I became so angry that I cut up the carpet, which was badly in need of replacement anyway. The next weekend, I painted the living room, bathroom and bedroom -- no easy task. When my husband came home I told him I was able to move all the furniture, but was not able to move the bed back in place. He said, "That's ok." That's ok? I wasn't asking for forgiveness or approval. I would have liked him to say: "Wow, I can't believe you moved the furniture in the first place. And the paint job looks great! Thanks for getting that done for us. I know it wasn't easy." Just half of that would have made my day.

He doesn't get it from my point of view, which leaves me with anger issues toward him. Sometimes I feel like the marriage is probably over. Can you tell me what is wrong with this guy?

Signed, Feeling Useless and Ignored

Dear Definitely Useful,

I would have to talk with your husband to get the full picture. I can draw a few conclusions, though, based on the following facts from your story:
  • Your husband is willing to live in a mess, while you are not.
  • He is aware of your needs and yet he does not step up and take care of them, despite promising to do so.
  • He does a poor job of making you feel valued and loved.
  • You exhibit considerable anger toward him.
All of this is so problematic that the two of you are in counseling, which sounds appropriate for your situation. When angry emotions make it difficult to make progress by yourselves, it can be good to have an independent third party to help smooth the way.

I suspect several factors are at work. The first is what I would refer to as a maturity issue with your husband. When we are young we often are free to dedicate much of our time and energies to playing with hobbies. As life progresses, however, we must learn to balance these activities with adult responsibilities. Your husband consistently chooses to have fun without taking care of business first. Money and household repairs are obviously large issues for the two of you, yet he plays the winter away without first addressing either of these problems. He could help your situation tremendously if he learned about "work before play."

He sounds as if he is able to do the household projects. He has the tools, is able to hold down a seasonal job, and shows enthusiasm and energy when it comes to his hobbies. The question, then, is why he doesn't want to take care of the house repairs. Part of it might be simple laziness but I don't think that is the answer. Like I said, he shows plenty of energy for the activities that interest him.

I suspect you came very close to answering your own question when you suggested that he harbors resentment. The incident with the carpet shows that you sometimes express your anger in demonstrative ways. I'm guessing he has probably heard plenty of loud and angry words from you. He, on the other hand, has difficulty expressing himself freely and truthfully. He bottles up his feelings and says mostly nice things, even though it is clear there are issues between you. The two of you have considerably different personalities when it comes to resolving conflict, and you have yet to find a way to make these different approaches work together effectively.

I get the sense you feel like you have little control over the relationship. He "inherited" all the tools, which wasn't by your choice. The projects didn't get done, though you would like that to happen. Money is spent in ways you would not choose. You feel powerless.

The first thing I would like you to come to grips with is that you have considerably more control than you realize. You are half of the relationship. He acts, you react, then he reacts to what you just did. In other words, you have just influenced his actions. Unfortunately you don't seem to be influencing his actions effectively, in directions that would strengthen your marriage.

For instance, you express plenty of anger and frustration. What has that bought you so far? Does it elicit the behavior from him that you want? Obviously not. Instead you get a passive aggressive response where he says all the right words but doesn't follow through.

So it's time to put on your thinking cap. What actions on your part might encourage him to respond differently? For example, what if you calmly suggested making an action plan to take care of a specific household project? Pick a task that is obviously doable, pick a date or timeframe when you know he is available, and ask him if he thinks that would work.

Based on your history, I understand how you might feel you are way beyond asking. You might feel that demanding is more appropriate at this late stage, that he has not earned anything better. Asking is almost certainly the only way, though, to get the result you want. You need to empower him, to make him feel valued, like you think he is competent. You need to stroke his male ego. Let him know that despite all that has gone on, you still have confidence that he can do a good job on these projects. If you give him a demand, he will resist as a way of retaining his place in the household pecking order. Instead, ask his opinion. "What do you think dear? Which day would be better for you, Wednesday or Saturday?" Then, when he suggests next Tuesday, give him some enthusiasm. "Sure, that would be great!"

Find ways to "catch him being good" so you can heap praise on him. Show him how much you appreciate his efforts. He must do something around the house, like taking out the garbage. Start the process of change by reacting positively to his efforts. Do more than just say "I appreciate that." Give him a smile, a hug, a bottle of beer -- whatever will make him feel good in some tangible way. In cases like this, actions speak louder than words. (You already know this; his supportive words have meant little compared to his unsupportive actions. Don't make the same mistake in the other direction.)

"Wait a minute," I can hear you saying. "You mean after all he has put me through, I'm supposed to be nice to him? How is that even remotely fair? Why should I have to be the one to fix this? He's the one who wouldn't do the projects. He's the one who lied to me. He should be the one to change, not me."

Sure, that is the result you want. The problem, though, is that you can't control his actions. You do, however, have complete control over your own actions and can use that to influence him. In every problematic relationship, someone has to be the one to step up first. Someone has to say, "This isn't about who is right and wrong anymore. I just want things to change, so I'll start by changing my own behavior."

More than that, you need to accept responsibility for your role in creating the mess you are in. He has been reacting to you. You chose your own behavior, so in a sense you chose his reactions as a consequence. If you accept this as a problem with "us" instead of simply a problem with "him" then you will be closer to the positive mindset you need to work toward a more effective solution.

This might sound like a knock on you but it really isn't. You are in a tough situation and have reacted in an understandable way. Don't give yourself a hard time over what you may or may not have done in the past. Instead, take this as an empowering message -- there is something you can do.

I feel like this discussion addresses only one dimension of your complex situation, but it is a critical aspect of your relationship. He obviously doesn't react well to anger and criticism. If you can recognize that, I suspect you will be closer to identifying and using more effective motivators for his personality type. Hopefully that will open the door for him to reciprocate and to start making you feel valued as well. Kindness and supportiveness tend to be contagious. By showing appreciation toward him, you may find the same thing starts to happen in the opposite direction.

All the best and good luck,

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  1. The way I see it there are 3 ways to approach this sitation. The first is to give up and just do what needs to be done yourself. This might make for a nicer house but is sure to evenutally destroy the home. The second would be to give up entirely and leave. How much you value your partner and your marriage will decide whether this option is acceptable or not. Finally you can take Dr. Andrew's advice and give it a go. I honestly believe that if you want to preserve your home and your marriage that it's your very best shot. I know it sounds like advice you'd get on how to deal with a moody teenager or recalcitrant toddler, but if you think about how much a few kind words from him would mean to you it only makes sense that same is true for him. Best of luck!

  2. Wow, Dr. Andrew ~ will you marry me? Oh shoot, you're already married! I love your wife's sense of humor. She must be a doll.

    Great stories (I've only read a few) and I love your take on things. Truthfully, I find it a little despressing to read about marital problems. Maybe it's a phase I'm going through. I find myself disgusted by the human tendency to be so entirely ego-centric. *sigh*

    I once read that too often the wedding vows that people say are just disguised ways of saying, "I'm going to let you fill in all the empty places in my life." So it really turns out to be something akin to a tick on a dog. Unfortunately, there ends up being two ticks, and no dog! :)

    At any rate, I appreciate your site and will visit often.

  3. Hi Andrew,
    Like your response to this situation. I would've said the same, just not as eloquently.

  4. He just doesn't care, period.
    He is not a procrastinator, he is not lazy he just doesn't care to do it.
    My brother is the same way.
    He can spend hours hooking up a $5000 stereo in his van but wouldn't raise a finger to help his wife and there are many more like him.
    Lazy no
    Not caring yes
    In the end you're either accept it or move on because all the crying in the world is not going to change him if he doesn't want to and it doesn't look like he wants to.

  5. Excellent advice, Andrew! It's the old adage - we can't control other people, but we can control our own reactions. I think it's a great idea to have the wife approach her husband more positively. I think also there should be an agreement between them - if the project isn't completed by their agreed-upon deadline, she's free to hire someone to do it.

    Nice website! I'd love it if we could link to each other's sites.

  6. Excellant advice. so true If I cannot change him then I should start by changing myself and it has worked in my relationship with my husband.he does not do anything around the house. I stopped nagging. I do as much as I can and will call a handyman to fix stuff but I stopped telling him constantly to do things because he started to resent what i was saying.

  7. I completely agree with finding reasons to praise him. Numerous studies have shown that praise works wonders where "nagging" fails.

    Regarding home "projects", I give my husband two options, #1. Please do it yourself in a timely manner or #2. I am going to pay someone to do this if it isn't done by ....

    This doesn't always work for all men, but for my husband he HATES paying for something he can do himself so this is an effective tactic for me.

  8. The whole time I was reading her letter, I kept asking myself if this man is really a "girlfriend" Gal pals listen and offer verbal reassurance while a man friend will want to "fix" the problem. That is what most men are "wired" to do FIX problems. I find it odd that he doesn't want to FIX stuff...

    I agree w/ Dirty. set up deadlines, and FOLLOW THRU. Empty threats and promises are as DEstructive as the NAGGING! My ex told me while I was complaining about needing help around the house, (I was "asking" him to assist) that "house work is for women". He came home to a maid. When he questioned me about it, I responded, "you said it was women's work, so I hired you a WOMAN." I never heard another word about it.

    I am also concerned that he is IMHO obsessed with material objects. Its' as though he maybe getting some kind of gratification that is missing, buying these items. Let me guess, after about a week or so he doesn't use it or it sits in some box or container in your home, possibly he doesn't care about it, or loses intrest quickly? He might have a deeper problem than the surface of your marrital issues. Was he an orphan or suffer a great loss as a child? Often these "items" may fill a "hole" that he has from a tragic event in his life...

    Dr. Andrew is very wise!

    Good luck!

  9. Thank you for commenting on my Schoolyear's Resolutions! I usually don't participate in the ones on January 1, so this is it for me;)

    Home of Pass the Torch Tuesday

  10. This is a great example of the need for two people in a marriage to compromise (I mean, truly reach some sort of a middle ground - not just have him agree insincerely to her requests). HE could care less if his home is a pig-sty, SHE wants it nice.

    I think this is one of the toughest aspects of marriage - when our views differ widely, and we each want it OUR way.

    Andrew's advice is very sensible, and yet I can understand how it would frustrate the woman concerned, simply because (as Andrew himself points out) yet again she must do 'the work'. I guess it's the only option though, if she wants to be happy. I suppose ultimately she will decide if the rest of the relationship is good enough to make all the effort worth her while.

  11. Personally, it sounds to me like this lady married a loser whose specialty is passive aggression. I don't feel too badly for her, though- she picked him!

  12. La BellaDonna6:50 PM

    You know, I actually followed Dr. Andrew's advice. I followed it for twenty-three years. I finally left when he couldn't be bothered to get me to the hospital for a life or death operation, in the car that I paid for.

    Actions speak louder than words. If the words say, "I care," and the actions say, "...not even a little bit!" believe the actions. Six years is long enough. I guarantee you, that the more you do, the more you will wind up doing. Take a toddle over to and read some of Sars' advice in The Vine; you'll find a number of letters like yours, and some very succinct advice. Hiring a maid isn't going to work if one of the problems is lack of money, folks. How much longer are you supposed to wait for him to - what, mature? You thought you MARRIED an adult - moreover, one who was supposed to care about you. I repeat, go to; look for the letter about "chain mail;" you'll recognize the similarities. He doesn't care. Even if the cleaning, etc. weren't important to him, if he cared about you, he'd do it because it's important toyou. He Just. Doesn't. Care. He's proved it over and over and over again. Six years has taught him that if he doesn't bother, you'll do it, and he can play when he wants, and spend his money as he wants. I guarantee you that this man won't change. Your choices will be to either live with it, or leave.

  13. Yes, it's true that we can not change someone else, that we can only change ourselves. When we change our actions, and reactions to other people, their responses quite often change. And perhaps one of the best things is to change the way we make requests for others' actions, for instance, directly, and immediately, ask a person for their assistance, in the moment of need. Not, "Will you take out the trash tomorrow?" or "Will you make it your permanent job to take out the trash without me ever needing to remind you?"

    More like, "I painted these rooms today. Please tell me how great it looks. And please take a minute here to help me move the bed back." Yeah, it galls me to ask for, or suggest, the praise that I need or want, but in some cases, that's the only way I'll get it. And asking directly is the only way I'll get the help that I need. Timing really is everything. I can't say to my husband, "Will you help me clean the kitchen after supper?" I'll always get a "sure", without the needed help. I have to wait until after supper and say, "I really need your help to clean the kitchen now."

    Good advice, Dr. Andrew. You have lots to say, but it's worth reading.

  14. I hate to flog a political hot potato but he sounds like he has ADHD. Typical behaviour: incredible focus and tireless dedication, even obsession, on what interests him and no idea how to begin, where to begin or even to remember to begin on boring gruntwork. Then again, it may just be immaturity. But the behavioral techniques and routines used on kids with ADHD to help them manage their lives and focus better could easily be applied to him if he were willing. He manages to hold down a paying job, so it's not that he *can't*, it's just that it's harder for him than most people.

  15. good advice Andrew. It would be hard to live with a guy who lets his yard look like a constant yard sale. And he lies.....not good.

    Come see my new template Andrew!!!!!!

  16. Anonymous1:32 PM

    Leave now before there are two children who love the both of you too death. I did this one for 22 years and he never ever complained he just up and found a younger woman who wasn't completly tired of him yet....she is now, and guess who he comes to for a hug and a kind word. He is showing you who he is with his actions and he is as angry and resentful as you are, but he'll never tell you out right.

  17. Whoa, there's a lot of passive aggresive behavior going on here. Accept what you cannot change. If there is a problem, the person who owns the problem has to deal with it. I think a lot of relationships go through this because they don't have good communication. First, the wife has to decide if something is important to her, then figure out what she needs to do to get it done. She can take care of her own need for order and repairs by doing it herself or hiring it done. Are these chores enough to break up the marriage? Did her husband's father neglect their home and his mother took care of everything? How about setting a budget for his toys? Yelling and bellowing doesn't cut it with this kind of man. I agree with trying positive reinforcement. I start a lot of projects then ask if my husband can get a part or tool or can he take out the refuse. That manages to involve him slowly. I'll ask, can you reach the ceiling, I can't do it. Give him a stroke for helping no matter how minimally. They have a pattern, but he can change if she changes her response to him. The wife can only change herself and once she accepts that, then she can decide if the grief is worth it. I also think visualizing where you want to be in 5 years, or 10 years, is a good way to realize whether you can see your husband in your future.