Wednesday, November 15, 2006
How to Ask My Husband for Help
This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. Last month I posted on the topic of How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help, which looks at some of the natural tendencies people have when they try to ask for help from their spouse. In particular, last month's post examines why these approaches often backfire.
Today I begin looking at a more effective approach by examining several subtle variations of stating requests for help, and the hidden messages you should avoid delivering.
This is what it should look like:
NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: Sure, no problem.
Short, simple and to the point. Your husband, on the other hand, might have other ideas:
NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: You normally do the floors. Why are you asking me to do it?
Your request is not finished until the conversation is over. For the time being, stay away from the broader issues. They lead to immediate negotiation and possible confrontation. Keep the focus on the single task you are asking him to do. Restate your request and end the conversation as quickly as possible.
NICOLA: It'd just be great if you would help with the floor. Will you do that for me?
As Sam has done above, your husband might ask: "Why should I help?" or "Why are you asking me now?" or "Is this because you don't think I do enough?" In other words, he might try to steer the conversation toward the larger long-term issues. Your first instinct might be to answer his question directly, like one of the following:
NICOLA: Because you never help out and I want you to start.
NICOLA: Because I really need more help around here.
Both of these responses make it clear that Sam's performance to date has been substandard, which he will take as a criticism. This is likely to lead to an argument about whether he already does his share. Avoid this by responding in a positive way, as Nicola does above: "It'd just be great if you would help..." Instead of criticizing past poor behavior, predict wonderful consequences (your happiness and approval) when he supports you in the future.
Avoiding Hidden Messages
Ideally you would like your request to leave your husband inclined to be supportive. You want him on your side, feeling good about himself and about you. Since supporting a wife and family is a natural role for a man, you can typically accomplish this by keeping your request simple. The idea is to avoid giving him an opportunity to read more than you intend into your words. Simply ask; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, it can be surprisingly easy to give him a reason to object to your request. Here is an example:
NICOLA: I need you to sweep the floor for me.
At first blush this might seem like a reasonable way to ask. Nicola has stated her need simply with the implication that she would like Sam to respond to that need. Many men, however, will not see it that way. Notice that she has not asked a question; she has made a statement. Men will often interpret this as a demand rather than a request. Sam is likely to resent the idea that Nicola feels free to tell him what to do, that he has no say in the matter. Nicola, of course, was not trying to tell him what to do. That was the furthest thing from her mind. She will probably be surprised and frustrated by his resentment, which is the exact opposite of what she was trying to achieve. "Why," she thinks, "do men have to be so touchy? Why should I have to be so careful how I choose my words?" That's a fair question. In this case the issue is that most men hate feeling powerless in a relationship. Being told what to do evokes exactly that feeling. State your request as a question or you risk getting the same reaction from your husband.
The following variations tend to have similar negative results and should be avoided:
NICOLA: You need to sweep the floor.
NICOLA: The floor is dirty. You could get the broom and take care of it.
Another common mistake is to unwittingly include a criticism, like this:
NICOLA: I know you probably don't want to do this but would you sweep the floor?
You might be nervous or unsure of yourself if you are not used to asking him to pitch in. In that circumstance you might try to soften your message, make it seem like less of a demand with something like: "You probably don't want to do this but..." Unfortunately this opens the door for him to hear: "I expect you to refuse. I don't have any faith in you as a supportive husband."
Now this might be true. His past behavior may give you plenty of reason for doubting his willingness to help. Before you ask, you might even be fully convinced he will refuse. It is important, however, that you hide any such skepticism. If he gets the sense that you doubt his worthiness as a husband in some way, then he will be less inclined to support you and the whole deal can spiral downward. You are trying to move past all that mutual doubt and get to a place where you both have faith in each other as supportive spouses. You want to express optimism, which makes him feel good, then he wants to make you feel good, and so on. Now your spiral has a chance to shoot upward.
The key to getting that started is to state your request in a positive way, leaving out any potentially negative commentary. Here's another variation to avoid:
NICOLA: You don't have to do this if you don't want to but will you sweep the floor?
This carries the same implication; she doesn't think Sam will support her. A further problem with this type of request is that Nicola is telling Sam she is not serious about wanting him to help. She is offering him an escape route, practically begging him to say no. You could do the same thing like this:
NICOLA: I'm sorry to have to ask you this but would you sweep the floor for me?
Please. That just about sums up the entire myth of the helpless husband, doesn't it? You might as well say: "I know husbands aren't supposed to sweep floors and I really shouldn't be asking you this. You'd be well within your rights to refuse but would you sweep it anyway?"
Don't go there. You must cast off the myth and stop being apologetic about your need for support. It is right and natural that your husband should have a role in maintaining the household. Your words should reflect that. I'm not asking you to be aggressive or confrontational but you must find the courage to ask for help with some degree of confidence.
A lack of confidence can also make you want to explain your request:
NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me? I have a ton of stuff to do because I have to pick up the kids in an hour and I need to have the kitchen straightened before then or I won't have supper ready before Emily's soccer practice.
Nicola has just delivered a couple of messages she should really avoid. First, her words make it clear she doesn't believe Sam wants to be supportive. If he wanted to, she wouldn't need the detailed explanation to try to convince him. As I explained above, men often perceive this as an insult. Even worse, she has implied that the circumstances are extraordinary so her need today is especially strong. In other words, Sam ordinarily shouldn't have to help out. Her request is just an exception and any help he provides is unlikely to become part of a regular pattern. This message is exactly the opposite of the direction in which Nicola should be trying to move.
To avoid these hidden messages, resist the urge to explain why you need his help. Keep your request short and to the point.
Of course, this is only one small part of the picture. You want your partner to pitch in willingly and repeatedly, to be a partner in taking care of the mundane household maintenance work. To achieve this, you might also need to watch out for body language, respond to his reactions in effective ways, and work around any objections on his part. I will examine these and other topics in future posts.