Monday, January 29, 2007

Dismaying Story #107: The Sponge Lady

Dear Andrew,

I am a forty year old woman with a husband and three small children. Though my husband is a very nice man, we used to have disagreements over the division of household tasks and the issue of him and the kids being messy. We stopped having disagreements because I gave up and just did everything myself. I see now that I shouldn't have done that, but to make a long story short, it was out of life-long habit that I did so. I have recently discovered how much I still resent the losing battle that led me to just give up like that. My husband and I have been discussing the topic recently and he is angry with me because I have resentment over that old situation. I think the only way to get rid of the resentment is to work something out now that would seem fair and reasonable to both of us. We are just beginning to talk about this and we have just started re-organizing some rooms in the house. Also, we don't have a lot of time to devote, so this will be a slow (agonizing) process. Now I see anew why it was so easy for me to just give up.

My husband feels personally attacked if I desire something that he thinks is unreasonable and he also feels this way when I bring up the previous pitfalls that made me throw in the towel. If I don't bring up what went wrong before, how can we avoid the same outcome?

I gave up my job to take care of things and became a homebody. After years of following my family around with a sponge, I just can't take it anymore. I'm tired, disillusioned and the house has become disorganized and it's starting to get messy. My husband does do some things now that he didn't used to do, like cook and wash the dishes and I appreciate it very much, but what I need most is for me and my husband to be able to work together to really set things right again in the house and come up with a fair plan that involves everyone.

I can't seem to help complaining to him about how I got into this mess - he's the person I talk to about everything! But, still - I don't want to fight about it.

What can I do? It seems that my choices are:

1) forget the whole thing, suck it up, be quiet, trudge along doing the best that I can and try to find a way to be happy with it (this doesn't work for me anymore); or

2) keep working with my husband on reorganizing and talk to him about my needs and feelings around this, let him get angry and defensive, endure the arguing (which we both hate) and then hope that something good comes of it.

The second choice worries me because we both have baggage and I'm afraid it will all come bursting out of the closets and bury us. He was raised and catered to by a Mrs. Cleaver type, while his father was demanding and disapproving. I was the 'Cinderella' of an extremely dysfunctional and abusive family. We are both dealing with the after-effects of abuse from my past, in the sense that any hint of physical closeness and sexual excitement can send me into a panic attack. I'm seeing a therapist, but still I'm afraid I might be like this the rest of my life.

Surely there must be other choices for dealing with our impasse. I would even be okay with a way to make choice #2 bearable. Do you have any ideas?

Signed, The Sponge Lady

Dear Sponge Lady,

You have many issues going on all at the same time, any one of which would be difficult to deal with on its own. I'm glad you're getting professional help.

It can be easy in your situation to come to the conclusion that your husband is lazy when it comes to housework or that he doesn't care about your needs. While I've seen those elements before, I think the dominant element for you is misunderstanding. Your husband's mother taught him it was "fair" for the woman to look after the house and the kids. Since you are a full-time homebody, he likely has the same understanding as many other men -- that you have plenty of time to do the housework. He undoubtedly figures that he has his job and you have yours. He doesn't ask you to help with his, so it isn't fair to expect him to have to do yours. He probably figures he is already going above and beyond the call by doing more cooking and dishes than his father ever did, and STILL you complain.

Men want to be appreciated and considered competent. When you ask for more, it is easy for him to hear, "You are failing me." If he already feels he is trying hard, this is an incredible turn-off for him. "Why should I try harder?" he thinks to himself. "No matter what I've done, she still tells me I am failing her." There is the source of his resentment. He doesn't resent the idea of being supportive, he just wants it to be "fair" and for him to be appreciated.

One fundamental problem is that he doesn't understand your need for more help. He doesn't understand that being a full-time parent and homemaker is more than a full-time job. If you can, get him to read this article about Traditional Work Sharing. Many men have the common misperception that it is fair to treat the housework as "her job" for the stay-at-home mom. In that article I explain why that is anything but fair. If you can get him to understand this one point, you will be a long way to resolving your issue. Thanks to his Mom you have an up-hill journey to reach that point.

The other thing you can do is adjust how you approach the issue when you discuss it. Be aware of his need to be appreciated. Which do you currently do more: tell him how much you appreciate the things he does, or suggest that it would be great if he could do more? You will help your own cause if you can get into the habit of loading up on the former, which will help pave the way for doing the latter.

I would stay completely away from bringing up the past failures. I disagree that this is a necessary step to future success. Instead, it merely re-opens old sensitivities and makes him feel attacked.

Start the conversation by giving him a gift instead of what he perceives as an insult. Maybe you could explain that you now have a better understanding of the situation from his point of view and you're sorry that the way the two of you have dealt with the situation up until now has made him feel criticized. Tell him how much you appreciate what he is doing. Offering an olive branch is often the best way to start a dialog, since this sets a tone of conciliation, goodwill, and cooperativeness. Often your partner will be prompted to respond in kind.

So in short, you need a way to get him to alter his "Mrs. Cleaver" view of the world, and you need a more effective way of communicating so you don't unintentionally insult him and make him defensive. Often the key to the communication is having an empathetic understanding of how stressful the situation is from his point of view. Get him to have the same empathy for your situation and you should be well on your way.

I have focused on your housework question, but I'm also aware you have larger issues stemming from past abuse. No doubt it is more difficult to work through supportiveness and communication problems when your closeness is compromised as you describe. I'm sorry to hear of all your struggles and I wish you and your husband all the best as you work through them.

With warm regards,


  1. Anonymous12:51 PM

    Me and my man have had similar arguments like this lady has had. I don't know if it will work for her, but what I have started to do is just ask for help in a manner that makes him feel needed not demanded upon. He has even said that by making him feel needed more, that I am making him feel inspired to help more. It still drives me crazy sometimes to have him sit there while I fold laundry, but I figure I have come a long way with him and will work on it as we go along.

  2. Thanks for visiting my blog. I checked out your archives a bit and I found them pretty interesting! Good luck!

  3. Great advice. The key is to remember that change is a process not an event. Change takes, this will not happen overnight.

  4. Anonymous7:38 PM

    Hi again! Andrew asked me to come by and give an example of how I ask my man in a way to make him feel needed...Well, of course it depends on the man, but mine has made it a point to WANT to feel needed. So, let's take organizing his closet for example. I will go into the abyss and tool around for a few minutes. Then I will come out and say just simply, "Honey, I need your help for a minute. Would you mind?" I try to be as sweet and sound as needy as possible :) He may scoff, but will come help me. Usually I will say something like, "I know you like this organized a certain way and I want to make sure it's done right so I thought you could help me do that." That usually does the trick. Or, if I need him to help me make the bed, I will go in, start and then come out and say, "Honey, I just can't get these sheets on right. Would you please come help me, I know you have the hand strength to get the sheets tight." that usually does the trick too. Same goes with just about anything I need him to do. OF COURSE there are things that I figure I'm better off doing by myself just to keep myself from getting annoyed. But, like I said, I try to make him feel needed. Kinda like he is rescuing his little woman :) I hope this helps and doesn't sound too weird!

    thanks for stopping by my blog Andrew! I hope you visit often!

  5. Thank you, Andrew. There are several things in your response which would definitely benefit our situation, some of which I have already begun doing (I dug around in your archives).

    The bad news here, is that the way our household functions has to change for my own healing. I am DONE with the way things were for us. It took a confrontation that turned into a major meltdown to even get him to really see that there is no going back to the 'old way'. I stood my ground and I will defend it, but I will do it kindly and with respect for my husband's feelings. We have to keep working until we both can say, "That sounds fair enough." The good news is that we both are committed to the marriage, even if things are hard. Apparently, like many other things, this is a process which will take some time and patience.

    Some things are slowly improving a little already. My husband helped me sort through the children's clothing today. I can tell this whole thing has him out of his comfort zone, but I give him credit for having the guts to make a move for change. I KNOW how difficult that can be, especially when it means having to take a good, hard look around.

    I appreciate the thought you have put into your response and your willingness to have a feel for both sides. After all, a marriage IS about two sides AND the space in the middle. Thank you, Andrew. It's sweet of you to care.

    Lynn -- The Former Sponge Lady

  6. I usually avoid "lovey" books like the plague, but have recently been reading "The Five Love Languages" by Gary Chapman. This sounds just like many of the couples he counseled. Maybe her/your husband needs to understand that his helping around the house would communicate love to you in a powerful way, just like some things communicate love to him more than others. At least, that's what Mr. Chapman would say. . .