Monday, October 16, 2006

Dismaying Story #69: "I Shouldn’t Have to Ask"

Last week I published a post entitled How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help. Several readers left comments and I would like to respond to some of them today.

Cairogal wrote: Here's the rub, for me, anyway. I feel that when I have to ask my husband to share the responsibilities, that somehow that makes it a favor. I don't like to have to say, "Babe, would you mind taking out the rubbish?" because really, that sounds like I'm asking him to help me, rather than assume a shared responsibility.

This was followed by an anonymous comment: Cairogal's comment struck a chord. I have felt like that too. What softened it for a while was saying thank you to whatever help was given, but soon that took on the same feeling too, like it was still my responsibility but thank you for helping. Now I just don't say anything (which still doesn't feel good) but just quietly consider it a nice bonus when something gets done.

I have seen this type of dynamic before. "Why should I have to ask him?" many women will say. "He should just know the work needs to be done and pitch in on his own. If I have to ask, it ruins it."

There is no such thing as a "one size fits all" solution, so if Cairogal's approach works for her, then more power to her. I wonder if it truly does, though. She wants her husband to assume a shared responsibility, but it sounds like that has not happened. If it had, then asking versus not asking would no longer be an issue. Clearly the anonymous commenter is not getting the level of support from her husband that she would like.

The issue here is that we all tend to interpret the world in terms of ourselves, and women and men have different approaches when it comes to cooperating and helping out. Women are more likely to sense need in others and give without being asked. To them, this is a normal expression of supportiveness.

Men, on the other hand, like to view themselves as competent. An unsolicited offer of help is sometimes welcome, but also may be taken as an insult. Don't believe me? Wait until the next time your husband is struggling with some task. It could be anything -- assembling a toy, finding someplace while driving, whatever. Put on a sweet smile and ask him, "Would you like some help?" More often than not you'll get back a grumpy, "I can do it."

Okay, now put these two people together in the same household. Unfortunately society has taught many of us that housework has traditionally been the wife's responsibility. This is often no longer practical given that dual-income households are now the norm, nonetheless this historical bias remains. So the helpful wife starts off doing more than her share. She waits for her new husband to do like she would do -- to recognize her need for a full partner and to pitch in on his own accord.

He, on the other hand, interprets her actions on the basis of what he would do, which is to handle a task until he can no longer do so and only then ask for help. Since she has not yet asked for help, he assumes she neither needs nor wants it. He believes all is well, while her frustration is building. Eventually she explodes into the "criticize, blame and demand" mode I discussed last week, which puts him on the defensive and lessens his desire to help. She now concludes that nothing works. After all, she tried waiting him out and then asking him, and neither had the desired effect. So she gives up and "considers it a nice bonus with something gets done."

Men are more likely to ask for what they want, while women are more likely to offer help to others without being asked. Men assume women will ask and women assume men will offer. The result is an impasse. You can’t fight Mother Nature – just ask him! The keys to doing this successfully are how you ask and how you react to his various potential responses. Some people seem to intuitively know how to do this effectively (and perceive their spouses as helpful), while others struggle with these skills and achieve less satisfactory results. I'll post more on this later.

Finally, Walker wrote: I have noticed that gender doesn’t matter anymore especially with more women in the work force.

True, my articles about equitable sharing of housework do have a gender bias, but there is a good reason for this. I have met couples where the husband does most of the work. Statistical studies continue to show, though, that women still bear the brunt of the domestic workload in our society and that this is a source of marital strife in many homes. The guys will have to excuse me while I address these articles to the majority.


  1. Hi Andrew! Thanks for letting me know this was up! I think I'm battling normal male tendency and cultural tendencies, as well. My husband, an Egyptian, has never said that keeping house is "women's work" because he knows what sort of argument that would incite.

    We come from very different backgrounds.My parents were both non-traditional, in that my mother was raised by her single mother when divorce was unheard of, and my father was raised in a family of boys and girls who were not defined by gender roles. The boys knew how to fix dinner and the girls learned to fix the toilet-no excuses. My husband's parents were very much the traditional Egyptian family. The mother stays home, has children, rules the roost, and waits on her children's beck and call. The kids were not spoiled, perse. They had chores, were held to high expectations in terms of their behaviour and academics, and the like. However, mother considered (considers) it her obligation, duty and pleasure to wait on her children (all adults now) hand and foot. My husband would not need to get his own glass of water, since his mother would be there ready to offer it.

    So fast-forward to our shared responsibilities. It has improved in our first year of marriage, since my husband now recognises that the rubbish needs to go out, that sheets and towels do need to be washed regularly, and so on. We were in the car the other night discussing his sister, who has a university degree like many Egyptian women, but stays home with kids. The conversation evolved into a discussion about Egyptian women that have to work to help support their families and then go home and still bear the brunt of responsibility around the home. He said something to this effect, "Well, Egyptian men don't have to put up with the shit American men do." Aha. That about said it all. He probably thinks he's doing a lot around the house.

    I reminded him that American women did not have to put up with the "shit" that Egyptian women continued to tolerate. It was very hard for him to conceive of an American culture in which women did all the housework and having children was par for course. I think that comment spoke volumes for our housekeeping dilemma!

  2. interesting

    that you look at this situation/problem

    by making men and women's thinking different -- kind-of like the venus and mars connection

    i think the frustration for me is when i have to ask and ask and ask - time and time again...

  3. You have, as usual, hit the nail on the head. I tend to let things get overwhealming before I'll ask DH for help, then I blow up and cry, and yell and he seems suprised that I can't do it all myself. I don't know whether to be flattered or frustrated sometimes. I've goten better about asking for his help, but there are still times (like when the trash bins are over-filled, and I've got boxes piling up in my laundry room, and HE'S the one with the truck and the legs long enough to drive it to the dump) when I get frustrated that he won't see what needs to be done (trash hauled to the dump) & just do it.

    But it IS about finding that balance. It took my hubby about 8 years to realize that unlike his mom, who loves cleaning her house, I'm not terribly inclined to clean my house as a hobby (I would rather read a book -which MIL has never done- or crochet or sew). Much less holding a full-time job, and coming home to clean. And DH's dad thinks this is the way things should be, and sees nothing wrong with doing more thank fixing dinner once a week & hauling trash every Sunday. And DH is finally, in just the last year coming around to see that in my family it was more equal, and in our family it needs to be more equal. He's getting there, and I'm getting there (expressing my needs), but it takes time & patience. ;) Not always the easiest thing to remember (that patience) when the house is a mess & I'm sick & the house is a mess. LOL

    Thanks for being a voice of reason, as usual! (Do you EVER give bad advice?!?!?!)

  4. Ahhhh Cairogal, I am sooooo glad that my Dh insists on helping! He also insists that women are "better" at home things and working with babies.. until he lived with me some.. then he said fine... you take care of the babies and I'll take care of the house work! LOL! Try piling your guy out :) Mine couldn't take it :)

  5. Andrew, this is a great topic. My own sister harbors tons of resentment because her husband won't help out more. Know how she asks? "I'm tired of doing this all myself!" or "Why don't you ever get up and help around here?" It's very clear to me that she's not asking at all. If she wants him to take the kids to track practice, then she needs to say, "Could you take them to practice tonight so I can make dinner/study/finish a client project?"

    In fact, Deborah Tannen had it right - we women don't ask directly enough. Men don't hear indirect questions (hell, we don't even hear them ourselves sometimes!). We aren't assertive enough in our requests. It's no wonder we don't get the responses we hope for!

    That being said, if he says no to your request, don't get angry. None of us like to be hounded and guilted. Just ask if there's something else he could help you with instead, and have options ready. If he's too tired to help, why not agree that you're also tired and just let the small stuff go?

    His actions are not always selfishness. I'd bet the majority of women who can't get their husbands to help aren't asking directly.

  6. While I agree, since I am generally the prgamatic type, this is far from an ideal view. Why shouldn't men be held at the same standard? Why should we need to be asked to pitch in whereas it's simply understood the woman will take care of her work and more? I say it's about time for men to be men and pick up that dustbuster.

  7. I was folding laundry yesterday afternoon when my hubby walked by me after using the bathroom. I said, "Hey you! Trying to sneak by me or something?"

    He turned around came back in and gave me a kiss and I handed him a pile of his freshly laundered T-shirts.

    We talked while we folded laundry together. It was awesome.

  8. My husband has figured out that, when he helps out with the housework, I have more time and inclination to engage in other wifely activities. That motivates him. :-)

  9. Thanks for stopping by my venting/whining blog the other day!

    This was an interesting post; however, you didn't address the phenomenon of a man "fishing" for a compliment after doing something--without asking--that we women consider part of the "shared responsibilities" of a relationship. (And most often it's something that MUST be done and that we do EVERY day--without any thanks or compliment, such as putting on a load of laundry to wash or unload/reload a dishwasher.)

    I like your blog, and I may add a link to it! Seems to have some very down-to-earth discussion on it. Thanks, again.

  10. Andrew, your blog is on my blogroll now...thanks for coming by and hope to read more from you. Have a wonderful day!

  11. I used to stew in my own resentment everytime I felt my husband "should know" to do something. I felt "well, he lives here, too....why should I have to tell him that something has to be done? He should know...."

    That never worked for us. The fact is, he just thinks differently. He will do whatever I ask of him...truly. But, I have to ask.The sooner I realized that and accepted it, the better it was. I just look at that as the reality in my life. Now, if I asked him to do something and he said "No", that is an entire other matter.I can't see that happening, though.

  12. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Man and Woman shouldnt be dependent on each other too much. Lets be equal =\

  13. Great topic... I've been waiting most of my married life for my husband to take the iniative and just help out without being asked, and, as a result, I've done almost all of the housework for most of our marriage by myself. I agree, in part, with your assessment that we have different ways communicating, but I think you give some husbands (like mine), too much credit. After 17 years of marriage, I should not have to ask my husband to get out of the recliner to help me bring in the 20 heavy grocery bags every single week. After asking for help the first 52 times, I expected that by year number two he would have learned that I want/need help with the groceries, ALL the time! And yet, after 17 years of marriage, I still have to ask. I'm not sure who is the bigger dummy here. Him for not learning - or me??

  14. Well, I have to admit that I gave up asking long long long ago! (been married 20 years -- the kids are grown now!) But I DO wonder WHY we don't just sit down and divie up the work. Just make a list of all the stuff that has to be done on a weekly basis, daily basis and just let him PICK which ones he wants to be responsible for! I wish I had done THIS 20 years ago! Because my hubby would have looked over the list and said ... Okay... I'll do laundry... all except the diapers... I'll scrub the kitchen floor and clean up after dinner. He would have agreed to take the trash out ... and I MIGHT have even gotten him to do the grocery shopping. Well... okay... maybe NOT the grocery shopping... but STILL! If I had done that, he would have willingly CHOSEN jobs that would have helped me out immensely!

  15. Trust me, Julianna, I'm a TOTAL slob. Don't get me wrong: I'm untidy, but I'm not unclean. I understand that the toilet needs scrubbing, the floor needs washing, and all that other good stuff. But my clothes?? YOu should see our bedroom. I'm SURE this drives him nuts, but it's certainly not making him help out more around the house.

    For the women who said after 52 times of being asked to help, hubby should know to help: YES! Why do I constantly feel like I'm either nagging him to do stuff, or trying to set an example that he rarely follows? I think there's a point where ignorance and inconsideration met.