Wednesday, October 11, 2006

How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help

This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. This series uncovers the many excuses we use to perpetuate some old-fashioned stereotypes. Many people believe it is normal and inevitable for women to be responsible for the bulk of the housework and parenting within their household. This series includes motivational posts that argue "why" these beliefs are largely unfounded, as well as instructional posts that move on to discuss "how to" effect change in your household. Previous titles in this series are listed in the sidebar under Supportiveness.

Today's entry is the first of the "how" topics, or more accurately it is a "how not to" topic. This article looks at some of the natural tendencies people have when they try to ask for help from their spouse. In particular, you should understand why these approaches often backfire.

Approaches that Don’t Work

Criticizing, blaming and demanding:
Let’s face it, people commonly put off asking for help until they are completely fed up. Suppose you’ve had a long day, you’re exhausted and you’ve just finished feeding, bathing and putting your two young children to bed ... alone. You emerge from your daughter’s bedroom to find toys everywhere, a dirty kitchen and a husband who, as usual, is making no move to deal with any of it. Something snaps inside and you feel a surge of outrage. Suddenly you couldn’t care less whether he likes it or not—he’s going to start pulling his weight, dammit!

So you launch in. “I’m sick and tired of you just sitting there while I do all the work around here. You never do anything and that’s going to change starting right now. Get up off that couch and help me with this kitchen!”

Ouch. Yes, you are undoubtedly justified in feeling frustrated and your reaction is understandable. Unfortunately, your husband is now about to do several things that are the exact opposite of what you want.

First, you have just told him that his performance is inadequate. He is failing you. This is a huge insult to a man, who tends to measure his self-worth based on how competent people perceive him to be. A natural reaction to criticism is to start arguing why you are wrong in your assessment of him. “Hey,” he says, “it’s not like you do all the work. I do my share.” Now you’re into an unproductive argument about who does what and how often, all the while reinforcing how poorly you feel about each other.

Second, you have just implied that his laziness is to blame for the situation. As some of the other stories in this series show, the true causes for a workload imbalance are often more complicated than that. He will almost certainly feel it is unfair of you to blame him and will resist even more.

Finally, you didn’t ask for help; you demanded it. Again, this is a natural thing to do. You want to leave no doubt in his mind about how badly you need his support. Unfortunately, he just heard you say: “You have no say in what goes on around here. I can boss you around whenever I want and you darn well better do it.” Trust me, few messages are less welcome to the average husband. Men truly hate feeling powerless in any relationship, which is why your husband will often push back if you tell him what to do. He might cave in to your demands for a while to smooth things over but I guarantee some part of him will begrudge doing so. If he feels he has lost a contest of will, he will want to reassert his place in the household pecking order. He will wait for you to calm down so he can eventually stop helping out. This is hardly the outcome you want.

Business-style negotiation: At the other end of the emotional spectrum is the “sit down calmly and discuss the situation” approach. The idea is to propose to your husband a new deal for his consideration, discuss the relative merits of his inevitable counterproposals and eventually settle on some agreement that both of you can live with.

Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately this approach is littered with land mines. First, the prospect of such a conversation can be stressful for you. By the time you screw up the courage to broach the subject, you may be considerably less calm than you had originally hoped. In such a state, it’s easy to present your proposal in a manner that sounds remarkably like the “criticize, blame and demand” approach discussed above.

But let’s assume you get over that hurdle and manage to state your request in what you believe to be an objective, nonthreatening way. There is still a good chance he will hear this as a criticism. After all, you are asking him to change; his current performance must not be good enough. Moreover, you are talking about him doing more work in the future. Regardless of how detailed your discussion is, he will wonder just how much “more” will really turn out to be. What if he comes out on the short end of this negotiation? What impacts will this have on his lifestyle? The prospect of change is stressful and his fear of the unknown will come into play. He may build up a contrary position in his mind and arrive back at the bargaining table emotionally prepared to do battle and defend it. Now you have additional barriers to overcome.

Okay, suppose you work through all that and reach an agreement. You’ve succeeded, right? Well, maybe, but not necessarily.

Business agreements tend to be binding on both parties because they are backed up by some formal mechanism like business laws or terms of employment—you might be fired if you don’t perform. Short of divorce, there are no such formal consequences for deviating from an agreement between spouses. You can get angry and insist he should live up to his word, but those are the same inducements that proved to be ineffective in your earlier efforts.

More than that, you and your spouse will immediately begin renegotiating the new agreement. Maybe he puts off doing some task he agreed to take on. Do you say something? If so, you risk nagging and criticizing him, which might tempt him to reconsider how anxious he is to be supportive. Say nothing and you teach him that the agreement has changed; it is now okay for him to avoid that chore. In short, just because the two of you state your intentions doesn’t mean things will work out that way.

Am I saying you should avoid talking to your spouse to work through issues? Of course not. Communication is essential in any relationship; couples discuss issues and agree on solutions all the time. Suppose you and your husband are going out to dinner. You discuss which restaurant to choose, who you should call to baby-sit, and so on. The difference in this case is that you are dealing with a major lifestyle issue charged with emotional considerations, such as your husband’s supportiveness and competence at everyday tasks. Obviously some couples talk their way successfully through this minefield and, as we will see later in this series, discussion and explicit negotiation sometimes turn out to be unavoidable. There are alternatives, however, that sidestep many of the pitfalls ... but that is a topic for future articles.


  1. Andrew, I am riveted by your post. I know that approach number one doesn't work, but I certainly have TRIED approach number two.....and now that you mention it, it WAS startlingly unsuccessful!

    So is the answer is to calmly, without giving reasons/justifications, simply *ask* "Would you help by reading to Johnny" or whatever? Or are we supposed to come to our husbands and explain how we are feeling overwhelmed and hope they offer something in the way of assistance? Please tell us soon! I for one am waiting on tenterhooks!

  2. Much of what you say is true but what I have noticed is that gender doesn’t matter any more especially with more women in the work force.
    I have seen some really messy women to and I mean REALLY messy.

    You would think while people dated they actually saw how the other person lived and if they were a PIG when they were single that wasn’t going to change much after they hooked up.
    I have always done my best to keep my place relatively clean( Not according to my mother of course) but that’s mostly due to my parents always insisting I vacuum or wash the dishes after dinner from an early age.
    My brother on the other hand never did and his wife is always fighting with him because he does nothing around the house.
    He was a spoiled little bastard and still is.
    I think it all starts at home at an early age.
    Teach then to clean up after them selves at an early age and they will carry that into the future and their homes.
    You know the saying you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

    In most cases it doesn’t matter what you negotiate the partner will agree just to get you off their back and temporarily satisfy you and then fall back onto their old routine.
    What I do see as a problem is that if they do agree and the work is being done the quality would bring up problems.
    If he does what he is supposed to do and does it faster and is sitting down in front of the tv while his wife is still doing house work she isn’t going to feel any better then she was while he wasn’t helping and she may not like how he did his chores, up to her expectations.
    My parents have always done housework together from start to finish and when it is all done they both sit down.
    BTW I am still looking for that self cleaning house but if you hear anything don’t forget to tell me right?
    Cleaning house sucks.

    Have a nice day

  3. good start - - can't wait to find out what you SHOULD do!!

  4. You new-age counsellors... always rejecting the tried and true knife methods...

  5. I just say what I want. People aren't mind readers. I tell my husband what I want, and why it's important to me. If it's something he can do, he'll do it because he loves and respects me. But remember, love and repect is a two-way street. You don't always get what you ask for.

  6. Anonymous3:55 AM

    ...and you've read my mind again. just last night me and my boyfriend had a fight about this. amazing! and, yes, i was angry, and yes i used approach number one, and yes it didn't work. you are so spot on!

  7. Mother jones has hit it on the head, ask, BUTT, be prepare if the partner doesn't jump up and immediately get into it. If you ask, and say something like "Dan, can you help me do the housework by cleaning our bathroom before lunch" is bound to be better than "Dan get offyour butt and clean our bathrroom"

    I think you can guess what responses those two approaches will get, however one does involve a bird being flipped.

    Communication and compromiise, not an order that must be obeyed immediately

  8. I have to say my husband is very helpful. It wasn't always that way but he has come a long way.

  9. Andrew, here's the rub, for me, anyway. I feel that when I have to ask my husband to share the responsilities, that somehow that makes it a favour. 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 share responsibility.

  10. I just stopped asking my husband for help. He's a wonderful man and he works hard at his job. However, we would always fight over the housework. Now I don't ask and he doesn't complain if things are on the messy side.

    Works for us.

  11. Anonymous12:17 PM

    cairogal's comment struck a chord. I have felt like that too. What softened it for a while was saying thankyou to whatever help was given, but soon that took on the same feeling too, like it was still my responsibility but thankyou 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.

  12. Hi Andrew,

    I too have tried both sollution no. and no. 2 and neither have worked out at all.

    Now I am a homemaker and sometimes he feels more like a roommate than a husband, but I can only get him tp do two chores for me the folding of the laundry which he is good at better than me actually, and the garbage which to me is non-negotiatable I refuse to do it. In fact I usually have the attatude what garbage?