Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Care, Give, Repeat

Dear Andrew,

You know how when married or long-term couples talk to new couples about the courting phase in the relationship? The phase where everything is wonderfully romantic, sexy and polite? The established couples warn the newbies about how he's only like that when he's courting. Well, for me, it's true.

When I first met my husband, he was so thoughtful, romantic and engaging. After we got married, that period of romance lasted about six months. Ever since then I get remembered when he wants to have sex.

I've planned all of our date nights, anniversaries, and birthdays, otherwise we'd just sit at home all the time. Frankly I'm feeling a bit taken for granted. We've talked about my need for romance and feeling special, and his response is he's just not a romantic guy. Ok, fine.

I established with him only 5 days a year where I feel he needs to make the extra effort - Christmas, New Years, our anniversary, Valentines Day and my birthday. Not once in the last two years has any of these had any special-ness to them. His idea of planning ahead for one of those days is to buy the gift certificate the morning of, after I reminded him about it, so he has something to give me later in the day. I know we need to talk about this again but I don't know how to go about it so that I make sure he understands my need and he doesn’t feel defensive.

Signed, Is It So Much To Ask?

Dear Is It,

I'm pretty sure I know what's going on here and I've devised a questionnaire you can fill out to test my theory:

1. Say you want your bedroom painted. The colors are faded with age and don't match the new bedspread. He is more likely to:
a) Figure out on his own that you would like the room painted, suggest the two of you go to the paint store so you can pick the color, decide on his own initiative which day he will get the job done and actually follow through on his plan.
b) Ignore any subtle hints about the need to paint. Instead, let you pick a painting day and cajole him into stepping up.
c) Withstand in silence your repeated requests to paint, until he finally starts looking under "P" for Painter in the yellow pages.
d) Marvel at the hand prints he can make on the wall while you paint the room.

2. It's a typical weekday morning at your house. Everyone is running five minutes later than they'd like to be, as usual, and the kids' lunches still need to be made. (If you don't have children, just use your imagination -- work with me here!). He would:
a) Have the lunches made by the time you arrived in the kitchen, even though you never mentioned it.
b) Happily make the lunches, but only if you ask him to do so.
c) Sigh and make the lunches if you insist.
d) Complain that you put more Tootsie Rolls in Suzie's lunch than you did in his.

3. Your husband decides to rekindle his childhood interest in fishing.
a) You can tell he is interested but you have to convince him it's okay to take some time for himself occasionally.
b) He buys a simple fishing rod at Kmart and heads to a nearby stream on a semi-regular basis, but only when there's nothing much going on at home.
c) A fancy rod and full tackle box appear in the hall closet. His desire to take off most weekends starts interfering with other things that need to be done.
d) The shelves in your garage are suddenly loaded with the Binford 2000 series of sonar fish finders and nuclear fish de-boners, though these items are never there on the weekends or Wednesday evenings because your husband has them out on the lake.

As you can probably tell from these questions, I believe your issue is about more than just romance.

It is normal for you and your husband to care about different things. Decorating the bedroom is important for you, while he could live with the ugly beige forever. He'd like a big-screen TV for the rec room so he can watch the football games in style; you'd be perfectly content with a less expensive 19-inch model. In strong relationships, both partners care about the other's happiness. They each truly hope their spouse will have what they want in life. When there is a conflict, they look for win-win solutions as much as possible. Sure, you look out for your own needs, but compromises tend to be found more easily when both people are also interested in the needs of their partner.

In your situation, it seems your husband's needs for companionship and closeness are more easily met than your own. He is happy to simply hang around with you on a regular basis, with the occasional bit of intimacy thrown in. As you've described, you want and need more. Both sets of needs seem normal and reasonable to me. The issue is how you respond to them as a couple.

When he says, "I'm not a romantic guy," he is also saying, "Since this is something I don't need, I'm not going to bother taking care of it." In a sense it's like that bedroom you want painted. This is one of your desires, not his, so it is less likely to make his priority list.

Of course, the romance did rank high on his list for a while, back when it was new and exciting. He wanted something very much (that would be you, which is a good thing) and he was willing to put in the effort to make it happen. This just shows he is not lacking the romance gene. Instead the problem is a lack of motivation. He no longer perceives the romance to be as important.

I think you have recognized that his needs in the romance department are different from your own. You have acted on that knowledge in a giving way by allowing him to ignore the issue for most of the year. You have also asked him to step up on certain occasions, which means you have tried to look out for your own needs. By looking for middle ground and offering a compromise, your actions line up well with the sort of ideal approach I discussed above.

Your husband, though, could use some remedial help if he hopes to achieve a passing grade in Caring & Giving 101. He must realize that your desire for loving and recognition is not some frivolous thing; your needs are real and tremendously important. They are important because the bond of closeness between the two of you will never be as strong as it can be until they are met. This part is about being empathetic, being able to view the world through someone else's eyes and realize that viewpoint matters.

Then he must move beyond realization to the point where if something is important to you, that is enough to make it important to him. You want him to care about you, which means caring about what you need.

Finally, it's not enough for him to carry all those warm and fuzzy messages around inside. He must care enough to actually do something about it. That includes taking the initiative without being prompted or reminded. This is true whether we're talking about painting the bedroom, supporting you in your decision to take that Monday evening creative writing class, or bringing home flowers once in a while just because he thinks you are special.

Such behavior is not innate; it is something we learn to do, that we choose to do. Your husband has not yet fully stepped up to the level of caring and giving that can make a relationship so rewarding for both partners. He can do it -- we all can -- but so far he has chosen not to do so. I don't blame you for feeling like you are taken for granted.

Okay, so what can you do about it. There are at least two approaches you could try. One is simply to be honest and up-front. Explain your position in as even-handed a way as you can. You realize he doesn't understand how important your needs are in the caring and giving department. Tell him why your needs truly are important, not just for you but also for the two of you. This "why" part is critical; he must be sold on that or he is unlikely to change.

Then state as simply and as specifically as you can what you want him to do. Avoid saying general things like, "I want you to be more supportive." Such generalities often leave guys feeling frustrated, like they don't know what they're supposed to do. Get specific on the man, even if it means repeating what you have already told him. "I want you to put in some effort. That means remembering my birthday is coming (put it in a day timer if you have to), figuring out what I would like (ask if you need to, but don't wait for me to bring it up), buying it ahead of time and without being reminded, wrapping it and delivering it on time." Be firm without being argumentative. This is what you need and you want him to step up. As we have seen from the comments in response to the last few Dismaying Stories, simple honesty is often the best way straight through a problem.

Unfortunately many obstacles can trip you up along this road. You are correct to be concerned about possible defensiveness on his part. No matter how nicely you try to state a request for change, it can be easy to sound like you are criticizing, blaming and demanding. Most people hate being told what to do, and will dig in their heels stubbornly when made to feel that way. Obviously you would like to avoid that.

Other potential land mines include his fear of the unknown. When you start asking for change, he is unsure exactly what these changes will entail. What if this is going to mean a lot of extra work on his part? What if he hates it? The prospect of change can be stressful by itself, prompting many people to get busy proving why things are just fine the way they are, thank you very much.

To avoid all of this, another approach you might try is to gradually show him that good things come from being caring and giving. (This is a topic we will get into in depth as The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene progresses.) Catch him giving to you or the kids in any way you can (even if it's only taking out the garbage) and show him how much you appreciate that sort of thing.

Ask him to give in small ways, tasks that are less of a stretch for him than being proactive about Christmas. Do you find yourself taking care of all the little things that need doing around your house? Well maybe you ask him to run and get the milk once in a while. Remember the Permission Paradox and, again, show appreciation whenever he steps up. Over time he should begin to understand and trust what your reaction will be to this sort of thing. It will likely be easier and easier for you to ask him to care and give in larger ways. Eventually the idea of giving in the romance department should feel like less of a stretch for him.

Finally, perhaps some of the Faithful Readers have had to deal with similar issues. How about it folks -- can any of you suggest an approach that worked for you?

Hopefully the end result will be a husband who gets it ... and acts accordingly.

Best of luck!

P.S. I have this sudden urge to go check out one of those atomic-powered fish thingies.

Is something missing from your relationship? Tell me about it and your submission just might end up as a Dismaying Story.


  1. If not handled right the male/female relationships can become battlegrounds. I really enjoyed your advice. :-)

  2. The courting phase of any relationship is always more intense and concentrated especially for a young couple with little or no responsibility outside of themselves.
    But after both have settled in together other things start emerging.
    More responsibilities more time at work less time together.
    Throw in a couple of kids and then you have more mayhem.
    I don’t think the love and affection fall off but I do think the intensity subsides.
    You can’t have a Brady Bunch existence (I don’t believe I referred to the Brady Bunch) life is just not that way.
    A common plane has to be reached and the husband has to be a little more sensitive to his partner's needs.
    Romance and affection is an important thing in a relationship and should be displayed in private or public.
    I don’t mean get naked and roll around on the front lawn but holding hands while walking down the street and not shying away from the other if someone is looking.
    You should never be ashamed to be seen in public kissing you partner.
    I know a couple who can't stop kissing each other any where and the have been married for 20 years and are as intense today as they were when they were first married.
    Taking expensive trips to be together on some romantic island but they are also childless and with less responsibilty.
    I don't know if they would still be living the lifestyle that they do today had they the added resposibilities.
    Men do tend to be more self-centered, layback and forgetful, women are more sentimental to certain things.
    “Today is the first day we kissed”
    Her partner has his eyes glazed over because he can’t remember what he ate for breakfast let alone the date he first kissed her.
    I bet he remembers where it was though.
    I suggest for Christmas she gets him a Palm and program in all the events that mean something to her on that note maybe get two and have him program in some of the important things for her to remember, even if it’s when the Super Bowl is played if that is important to him.
    A relationship is work for both not just one person and you never get it right, you just do the best you can.

    I have a question for the author.
    Is he there when you need him the most?

  3. Romance diminishes as the need for reaffirmation subsides. When a man has been a loyal husband and provider for ten years, then twenty, then fifty --- you know you have the best of marriage --- true love. I have the urge just to reach out and touch my husband's arm sometimes to feel the connection between us.
    One thing your #28 can do is to make up a chart like the one on "The Price is Right". Then grab his credit card and ask him to stop the rising bar on the chart when she has reached the level he wants her to go out and spend on buying her own present. (Somewhere between $100. and $5000.), or would he rather pick it out himself and surprise her?

  4. I loved this question and your advice!
    I think it is a familiar pattern couples find themselves in. I know that I may get upset when my husband doesn't do something I would like whether it is "romance" or something else....I actually expected him to be a mindreader! :0
    Once I got over this fact that he cannot read my mind, and I ASKED for what I needed...low and behold, that is all it took!
    BTW: I am going to blogroll you...under my medical blogs, because you aren't a mommy blogger! Heehee... I am enjoying your blog.

  5. I have to thank you for commenting on my site, because now I have found yours!

    I really enjoy reading the advice you have written here. It is terrific to see someone with your educational background and intelligence offer pointers on marriage to us married folks who sometimes cannot see the forest for the proverbial trees.

    I especially like the fact that you put the answers/solutions back on the shoulders of the person who asks the question. It is very empowering to realize that we have the ability to change our lives.


  6. Anonymous6:12 PM

    Wow! This was an awesome post! Is it a Venus Mars issue or is it society with it's fairy tale books about Prince Charming and having to be romantic 24/7. I am not much of a soap opera fan either. Those are just fantasy stories and women should not base their ideals and life on fairy tales. Relationships do take work and you have different stages and you can incorporate spontaniety. I found this out ladies we are emotional creatures and our beloved males are logical. They work, provide, and do their manly rituals and that to them is providing the foundation of a relationship but in all fairness, we women do need a chance to remind our hubbies that we need to still feel valued and marketable to them. So I am feeling both sides here.

    Being a Libra female married to a Libra male we are always searching for balance. Here is what works for us. Like all marriages due to careers, life changes, illnesses our romantic side of life became a small dim flicker on the back burner of life until one day I asked what in the heck happened here? I don't have a husband I have a roommate. I realized we had changed our priorities as a couple and there was no question of our love for one another but I did nottwant this dead zone thing to happen. We had become complacent. I changed all of that one night. Before he had a chance to sit down to watch television and vegetate from the day . I attacked him at the door with a sexy outfit, a bottle of massage oil and an evil grin. Let me just say it revved up our romance department. Once a week we have a date. Yes after 9 years I am dating my husband again and it is awesome! We may go out to eat at a new fancy place or go golfing which we both love or go to the movies and yes even parking once. I am 38 and he is 49 and yes this worked for us. The rest of teh week is all seriousness of work and family life but that one day is just for us as a couple and there is no question we have never lost the romance it was just hiding waiting for the cue to come out and play. I hope this works for any other couples. Be realistic in your expectations of one another. It cannotbe like on the movies and in the romance bodist busting novels. The real world has bills, kids, sickness, and jobs to deal with . Give each other a chance. :)

  7. i like the comments left here...some are really good and i'm gonna use them - grin!

    a thought i had was that she may be a doer and he may not S/O is so not and i'm a 100% doer...i love to be out and about and even sitting in my chair, i have to be doing something...

    so i understand she needs something from him however maybe she should try going out on her own - taking classes at the local community would get her out and she could make some new friends...

    just my thoughts...

  8. I guess I'm just fortunate. My darling is my knight in shining armour. Yes - he's very male as in he gets stubborn, he needs to be gently guided to some chores, he can be tactless and his wit sometimes seems a bit sharp but we communicate amazingly and thats how I can tell when he's said something and its come out wrong, I know when he's hurting, he can tell when I just don't want to cope with things and he gently steps in and takes over. He's loving, considerate and compassionate. I know he is very insecure about some things but he's never afraid to just talk to me. He has his own interests, I have mine. We share whatever we can and we move along if it doesn't seem to work. He takes an active role in fathering our son and he loves my older kids too. He's as loving and attentive to them as to his own son. Maybe I just lucked out but I think its because we actually discuss rather than I say and he pretends to hear. He is genuinely interested in my thoughts and opinions. But see - we're both geeks and we both went through a lot of heartache to get where we are today. Maybe all of that has given us a chance to appreciate what is truly important in a solid relationship.

    Hmm,..I think my comment maybe doesn't even fit the topic on retrospection but I can't help it. Rambilng is in my ADD nature.

    Great post Andrew as usual. I've moved my blog by the way. This time I am not moving again so drop by anytime. I appreciate your feedback & since you're a maritimer too - you can sometimes see the idiosyncrasies we easterners hide from the rest of Canada. Be well hun. Kiss the family & greetings from SJ


  9. This is very good advice Andrew! But the way I feel about it is...( and this is just me), no 2 people are the same. But when you feel your marriage is not working, it probably isnt. And I feel that marriage counseling rarely helps. Some people may get past their problems and just stick it out for the or whatever, but once that thrill goes it doesnt come back. It could come back...but it takes 2 people to work at it...and usually only 1 person is working on it. I would like to do a poll on how many married people are really happy with each other. How do you feel about this?

    I am going to link you on my blog.....

  10. Cynthia: I guess my goal here is to reduce the battles and increase the cooperation. Lofty goals, I know...

    Walker: Thanks again for all the input.

    Kacey: That's a brilliant idea. "I'll do it myself, but here's what it's going to cost you." Pity it doesn't cover the romance aspect, though.

    Domesticator: You are one of several commenters in the last few days to point out the power of asking with honesty. Thanks for you kind words.

    Sm: Thanks. And you're right; sometimes we forget how much control we have over our relationships.

    Raven: That's a great idea - dating your spouse. Good for you for initiating it.

    Azgoddess: That's something to consider. Thanks.

    Tragic: Sounds like you caught yourself a good one ... or should I say, it sounds like the two of you have found a way to work out a good relationship, because I doubt it was exactly this way from day one.

    Catch: I'd be a bit more optimistic in this case. I suspect his lack of attention is more of a habit rather than a reflection that the marriage can't work. I have a feeling these two will work it out in time.

    Thank you, everyone, for dropping by and for contributing. I truly appreciate it!


  11. Okay Andrew... I've been here for ... i dunno how many minutes ... your sitemeter will probably tell you... but I've read everything you've got up for the week... and I concede... you are ONE SMART COOKIE! If I find myself in need I will be happy to come lay on your couch! ;)

  12. Oh... and you don't even WANT to know about the relationship I had with my mother! LOL!

  13. Thanks! I learned a lot from your advice.

  14. Melli: Thanks, and that sounds like quite a challenge! :o)

    Ladybug: I'm glad.

  15. I think it's a learned behavior backed by a desire to achieve something (romance I mean). My husband is really romantic. But in speaking to him, it's exactly just that. A lot of it is culture and religion, the learned idea that this is what women want, this is what you need to do for them, and most importantly the learned idea that you have to find out your wife's desires and fufill them, because you owe it to her. But partly it is motivation too. He said his goal is for me to be happy at all times. So, this is part of the goal. he also acknowledges that over time, people grow complacent-- and part of his goal is to avoid this. So we'll see how this works :)

  16. Anonymous8:32 AM

    i am inclined to think the husband is not very satisfied of the marriage either. had he been truly attached to his wife he would want to spend more time with her.

    this reminds me of an old friend of mine. he dated the same woman for four years and lived with her for the last three of these four. and he was always telling me how annoyed he was when she kept bugging him about going out. he was always something like 'oh dear, not again'. he was very happy playing on his computer while she was nowhere near in his sight.

    this never remedied. he simply realized (pretty slow, if you ask me) that it's not working. they were way too different and he simply did not WANT to take her out. somewhere deep inside he was satisfied with her not being in his visual range. but because they had been together so long, he was hard on letting go until it all got too much to bare.

    maybe this is not the case. but if he keeps refusing to do the right thing and spend time with her, i'm sure this question should be asked: 'do you actually WANT to be with me or you just think that since we're married we might as well stick together?'

  17. *~*Is It So Much To Ask?*~*12:36 AM

    Thank you all for your comments. I love the credit card idea - I may have to use that one.

    We have had a chat based on Andrew's advice and there was no big blow-up, no immediate defensiveness about it like I had feared. My husband says he will work on his lack of effort and since my birthday is coming up in a few weeks, we shall see.

    I guess because I love my husband I feel the need to defend him a little by saying that part of his inability to see the need for romance came from learned habits from his father - thrice married, thrice divorced. My husband's recollections of his childhood were selfish inattentiveness, not only to his wives but to his children as well. He raised himself and his two younger siblings. This realization comes into play when I deal with his lack of romance but I do not excuse him totaly because of it. We may tend to follow in patterns our parents' examples set for us but it does not take away our ability to make conscious choices for ourselves - for the better especially.

    I think if the question of whether this is really working for the both of us were to come up, it won't be for a very long time. I believe in him because he's done so much with his life despite adverities and I can see the loving father he is to our child and the loving man he is to me (when it occasionlly peeks through). Call me deluded but I want our marriage to work and I'm not in a rush to break it up. I also believe that major change is possible in everyone when they really want to change.