Sunday, March 04, 2007

Not Really Trying

Dear Andrew,

I recently read the story you called "Missing the Game of Life." I agree with your response to the woman who was writing but have a related question to your answer.

How do you insist that your husband change? I mean, I would love to just go to my husband and say – you need to do more around the house, I am not happy with our current situation, etc. and believe me I have tried that in the past but I only come away feeling guilty for even bringing up the subject to begin with.

A little history . . . my husband is 12 years older that I. We have been married 18 years. He has a definite problem with clinical depression – in fact has been diagnosed as bi-polar with depression being predominate. To add to the mix he is a licensed counselor although he does not do that currently. He has a definite tendency towards being a hypochondriac and often acts like a chronic victim.

In our marriage it has meant that often I pick up the slack and do “everything” other than have a job outside the home. We have 3 children one of which is special needs and I have been a SAHM for a long time now.

In the past 7 years he has lost 3 jobs – one of which was a dream job – due to his depression, being “victimized” by his bosses, etc. It has been a horrible roller coaster ride with health and financial losses.

We attended counseling about 6 months ago and it was somewhat helpful at the time. He also sees a psychiatrist for the bi-polar/depression and takes medication for it.

When he is having a “hard” time at work, etc. he comes home and doesn’t do much of anything but talk with the children (he is a good dad) and watch TV. I do everything else – clean, cook, laundry, grocery shop, do household repairs, take care of the cars, plan for the kids and their needs, home-school my special needs son, take my girls back and forth to their extra activities, handle the finances, pay bills, etc.

He will help if I ask him to do something and is supposed to have the regular job of taking out the trash but if he is depressed that will get ignored unless I point it out.

My problem is that when I approach him about either helping me – like please put your glasses and dishes on a certain side of the sink so the other side can be used to fill glasses, etc. – he makes me out to be some weirdo for even asking.

If we sit down and I try to bring up issues he gets extremely defensive and says things like ‘I am doing my best’, ‘I am depressed’, etc. and has this way of turning the issues around so that I am the bad guy and I am picking on him. I tell him sometimes that he puts on his “counselor” voice and says “I am doing the best I can.”

We learned in counseling that I have a tendency to be too harsh (according to him) when I bring things up but when I try to soften it, rephrase, etc. the result is always the same . . . He says he will TRY to do his best and sometimes things improve for a few days but it does not last.

I know that I enable him to “be depressed” and just not do anything because I will do it (I learned that from my counselor) but how do you get a depressive person to want to change and how will the household continue to run, if I don’t do it?

I wish it was just as easy as saying – gee, honey I need more help and need you to be more involved and take responsibility and keep a job – but it does not work that way for me.

I am at the point of thinking of leaving him simply because I am tired of having my life (housing, income, health insurance, etc.) being decided by someone who is just going to TRY to do his best. I would rather succeed or fail on my own merits than be dependent on him.

There really is a long, long history here that I can not really get into but I feel sort of desperate. He has once again “lost” a job in that he has been demoted and has to take a pay cut. He knows how this is like the last straw to me and when I tearfully asked him if he would promise me to not lose the current job his response was “I will TRY to do my best.” I want to scream: "Obviously your best is not enough, don’t just try to do it, do it.”

We tried to talk last night about the situation and I tried to bring up how I feel and how I don’t trust him to keep the current job and think of his family first. I know that it was not fun for him hearing that from me. But he turned it around again and said how I was getting off topic and how much humiliation he has taken from his superiors in the past and his current boss and how he has stayed with the jobs “because of the family.” But he then loses the jobs or just quits (he once just quit a job because his boss “yelled” at him too much).

How do I approach this? How do you insist that someone change? How do I express what I need and get his cooperation in fulfilling my needs?

Signed, More Than Just Trying

Dear More Than Just Trying,

Simply insisting your partner should change is effective only when the problems are relatively minor. For example, if a husband is merely unaware of how much his wife needs his help, then her insistence may bring this to his attention. That might be enough in that instance to prompt him to respond to her needs. That can only happen, though, when a relationship is generally robust, with many other positive characteristics. The scenario I described only works if both people are generally predisposed to be supportive of each other and the husband merely needs a nudge to bring this to the fore. If, on the other hand, trust, closeness and supportiveness tend to be in short supply in a relationship, demands for change rarely have any long-term effect.

Telling the chronically unsupportive spouse to step up is similar to informing the long-term smoker they should quit, or the chronically overweight person they should lose weight. People in these types of circumstances are already aware of the issues. They already know their partner is unhappy with the status quo. Informing them yet again about this fact does little to change the situation.

Generally the answer lies in developing your relationship to the point where both of you feel good about doing nice things for each other. It's about developing an attitude of mutual supportiveness in all aspects of life. This is made more difficult in your case by your husband’s personal life challenges. He is incapable of meeting even his own needs for fulfillment and achievement, which makes it even more difficult for him to provide for others.

It is good and necessary that he is seeing a psychiatrist for his bi-polar symptoms, but the results prove that is not enough to address all of his needs. He also needs a life skills coach. Many people might assume that would be part of the service when seeing a psychiatrist, but often this is not the case. The psychiatrist’s focus is on responding to the acute depressive symptoms; the response usually comes in the form of medication. Assuming the prescription is effective, the result is typically a person with a somewhat improved ability to respond emotionally to life’s challenges. As you can attest, though, your husband still has bi-polar symptoms, though hopefully less severe than they might be otherwise.

So your spouse still has emotional challenges and must try to deal with a plethora of ineffective life skills and habits. For instance, he seems to have a habit of turning your requests for change into discussions about how you request change. This means you spend all your time talking about how you fight, rather than the issue you wanted to address. This is a classic mistake. A more effective strategy is to ban this as a discussion topic when attempting to resolve conflict, and to consciously keep the discussion on the underlying issue.

Your husband would benefit greatly from working with a life skills coach. He could use help with developing strategies for meeting challenges rather than running away, resolving conflict, and no doubt a number of other strategies and skills. At some point it also makes sense to involve you so ineffective patterns of communication and interaction between the two of you can be replaced. At the beginning, though, the primary focus should be on helping him learn to cope. Such skills can be taught, and they most certainly don’t come out of a medication bottle.

If interested, he could talk to his psychiatrist or other health care professional about where to find such a coach in your area. I suspect this could make a significant difference in your lives. Good luck!

All the best,


  1. All mental health issues aside, was this man raised by a mother who did everything for him? My husband's mother used to have him fully dressed for school before she ever woke him up! It has taken YEARS (27 to be exact) for us to come to a "happy medium". He helps, but I HAVE to request it. This is unlikely to change, because of the way he was raised, so when I need help...I ask. He's willing to vacuum, fold towels, load/unload the dishwasher, and so on, but he wont't just think to do these things. He cannot "see" that something needs to be done, because everything was alwasys done for him! And his father STILL to this day expects his mother to cook and then fix his dinner plate!

  2. Holy Cow! I am so happy that I am not a therapist! I cannot believe that anyone would not see that their mate is doing all the heavy lifting! Your mate is a human being, too and deserves to have help if you are not doing anything.
    Too many people are relying on crying about how tough their life is. Work is something we do to put a roof over our heads and food on the table. If you love your work or like your boss, then that is a bonus --- but these are not necessary ingredients to doing your job. The paycheck is what enables you to stay alive and do things you enjoy in your free time.
    If I were in her shoes --- I'd be out the door. No, I'd throw him out, then he would really have something to whine about.

  3. Yes on the life skills coach. Yes on his learning to manage the long-time habits produced by the disease.

    But also, I find lists written on a white board help a lot with a household of men who don't "see" the work that needs to be done (one husband, four boys). Depressed or not, (and I do understand), it isn't a physically crippling disease. If he can get up and go to work every day, drive himself back and forth through the traffic and order food in a restaurant, he can help around the house. None of it is rocket science.
    Some of the issue is depression. Some of it is selective blindness combined with the sure knowledge that you will do it if he waits long enough.

    Make lists. Follow up. Don't listen to to excuses. "Oh you didn't get laundry done today? No problem--why don't you get it started now while I make dinner? You can fold it while we watch tv or something."

    1. Anonymous2:41 PM

      I am totally going to try this. There is alot of "selective blindness" at our house too. Eventually, after asking nicely a few times, I will just break down and do it. Ugh! At least when I had a room mate I had 50/50 help on everything! I didn't signup to be the mother and maid to a 40+ year old guy.

      My "free" time is no less important than his endless list of hobbies. I haven't had enough time to have an immersive hobby in years!

  4. Anonymous10:26 AM

    Before we all condemn this man, we must look at the reality of the bi-polar condition. Manic depression is a genuine mental illness and when a person is afflicted with it, just the act of getting out of bed is a major chore. Once medicated, the drugs create a false stability that often robs the taker of all motivation. A friend once described it as feeling like a man without a soul. Demands, shame, begging and berating do nothing but create more internal struggle for the victim of this condition, thus making them less capable of doing much of anything. My colleague who suffers from this often reminds me that you cannot have a rational conversation or expect rational behavior from someone who suffers from chemical irrational. It is not their fault. Many stop taking their meds as to struggle with the downs and pray for the highs as to feel, well, anything that resembles normal energy levels. More than medication and therapy, internal communication coaching helps enormously. As manic depressives go through life they spend two thirds of their existence in depression or somewhat normal mindsets feeling guilt and shame. By turning the lens around, examining the driving negative voices in their minds and learning to forgive their past, they can create a better future. Don’t nag; support them getting this kind of help. I have had many successes working with depressives and b-polar sufferers by helping them stop the vicious cycle of self-condemnation and steering them to healthy self-understanding. The meds are crucial, but so is taking responsibility to stop the victim mentality. -

  5. I second what Mary Paddock said...

  6. This is a tough place to be. I hope that this person sees some improvement with the advice that you have given. My heart goes out to her.

  7. I like comment #1. It is certainly possible that there is more here than the bi-polar and depression. My husband's mother catered to his every whim and I am paying the price right now. She was a nice lady and all -- but damn!!

  8. jackie12:49 PM

    I feel a desperation in this woman's story that I'm not sure was addressed. It sounds really scarey and really frustrating that he has more than once lost a great job. She's probably not only scared for her marriage and her husband's health, but the roof over her family's heads. I hope the life coach idea helps, and I hope she can work through the bad times and see some light at the end of the tunnel.

  9. He is incapable of meeting even his own needs for fulfillment and achievement, which makes it even more difficult for him to provide for others.

    doc this was right-on!!

    some great suggestions already given and i've just got one comment -- my daughter is bi-polar and she sat around the house for years before i had her 'trained' (i guess i was her life skills counselor - grin) and it was frustrating as hell but
    now she can exist on her own, working a job she actually likes and taking fairly good care of my grandson

    so i'm wondering where his parents fit into this picture? i bet they were enabling of his behavior...