"She does this a lot," he says. "She's rushing around doing stuff, and then she starts fussing at me and complaining. Its like she's trying to start a fight. I don't know what she wants from me and I don't like being griped at."
This man and his wife are sitting on my couch and we're in the middle of a couples counseling session. I've already met with them on several occasions, and unlike many of the couples I see, they aren't so distressed that they're ready to call it quits. They're trying to navigate some typical difficulties related to having time for each other, communication, and expectations. They're seeking healthy ways to manage the time and energy depletion that goes along with having young kids, dividing up household tasks, keeping track of finances, work responsibilities, and maintaining relationships with family and friends.
Neither of them have been married before and neither has had an affair. No one is being abused, and no one is addicted to anything. Any of those additional complicating factors would make my work with them more of a challenge, so its nice to mark those off my list of possible issues. They're not in constant conflict or "crisis," which makes it easier for all three of us to work together in counseling. They still love each other and want to keep it that way.
"What do you do when she starts fussing at you like this?" I ask him.
"Well, usually, I tell her that she's being ridiculous and could at least say things more nicely," he says. "I remind her what you said about us speaking in 'I messages' and how you told us not to use words like 'always' and 'never.'"
"So, what happens then?"
I'm pretty sure I know what he's going to say, and his response is exactly what I expected to hear. "She gets even more mad and starts crying and says I don't understand and that I'm not supportive and shuts herself in the bedroom."
"I know that's not the best way to handle it," his wife admits. "He's just sitting there and being so calm and I'm all flustered trying to get so many things done."
I wonder if she expects him to know what she wants him to do and take the initiative for himself. Many women will deny that they need or want help, or say there's nothing their husband can do, when in fact, they just don't feel they should have to spell it out. He should "just know," they say. Wives often complain that there husbands don't do "enough" to help them and then feel overburdened and resentful. They both work full-time, but she's the one who's supposed to cook, clean, and take care of the kids. If he does do something, its because she had to nag and beg and complain
For their part, men worry that they'll do "the wrong thing" and get fussed at anyway. Or, they say they're criticized if they don't perform a task exactly the way their wife would do it. She wants it done a certain way, and if it isn't, she'll go behind him and redo it. He figures it would be best to just let her do it so its "right" the first time.
Such patterns are common. I have a hunch that's not the case with this couple, though, based on previous conversations. She's one who is pretty clear about her needs most of the time and they have a pretty organized "who does what" system worked out. "So, its not about you being mad that you're doing everything and he isn't being responsible for his fair share," I say, for the purpose of clarifying. .