Stop Caring So Much About Your Wife Thinks, According To A Marital Therapist

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couple looking at each other in dark room

Many women come into counseling upset that they have to make all the decisions in their families, initiate all plans, and even, much of the time, initiate sex. They want more of an equal partner in their marriages, but their husbands say this is impossible. The husbands tell me that they cannot assert their opinion with their wives or initiate any plans because their wives will not agree with their decisions. They feel that they get shut down when they initiate plans (or sex, even), and they feel that their wives are setting them up to fail by asking them to make decisions but never going along with them.

To some extent, this is correct. Some women do set their husbands up to fail by always criticizing or rejecting their initiatives. (To these women, I recommend The Surrendered Wife; even if you think you will hate it, it has many interesting points.) However, wives acting critical or even rude does not occur in a vacuum. It is both possible and necessary for a man to learn to power through his wife’s criticisms and take charge anyway. I have never had a female client who disagrees with this point, and this often surprises their husbands.

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Many men that I see suffer from tremendous insecurity within their relationships. While frequently highly successful at work, they turn into a different guy with their wives, constantly asking what she wants and how to make her happy. Their wives, far from being appreciative of this more “solicitous” (see numbers 1 and 2 below) version of their husbands, often are disappointed or angered at his passivity and reluctance to take charge. Read this post about the man who tries to take everything off his wife’s plate (but she’s still unhappy), this post about passive husbands, and this post about the dynamic I call The Ice Queen And The Martyr for more about how these types of couples interact.

Listen, I am the first to say that some people, wives certainly included, are never happy, no matter how their partner acts. Here in fact is a post on why “nothing is good enough” for certain women; this post is only about their internal reasons for acting constantly dissatisfied and not about their husbands at all. However, in the dynamic where a husband is always trying to do what his wife wants and she still isn’t happy, there are also many reasons that a wife is dissatisfied that DO have to do with him.

Here are 6 reasons why a wife is dissatisfied with her husband:

1. The man thinks he is being solicitous and kind but he is actually refusing to take any responsibility for the risk.

Here, the man constantly defers to his wife on all major (and minor) decisions because he secretly fears the consequences of making a bad decision and having to shoulder responsibility for it. This most often arises when the man is risk-averse and anxious in general, and often, this behavior is rewarded in his occupation (e.g., doctor, lawyer).

2. The man thinks he is being solicitous and kind but any outside observer would actually consider him to be acting passive-aggressive and sulky.

Here is the guy who says, “Sure, whatever you want to do,” but says it in a tone that suggests he would rather eat worms than do said activity and is only going along with his wife because she is so difficult and demanding.

3. The man has a preoccupied attachment style and constantly fears that he is not good enough for his wife.

He fears that she will leave him (even if these fears are not openly discussed), and so he subconsciously believes that by deferring to her on every decision, he is being such a good partner that she will never leave him. This man was often abandoned, physically or emotionally, by a parent in early life, or had a parent who struggled with emotional issues such that they could not be consistently present. He is terrified of abandonment and therefore tries to make himself so agreeable that he can never be left by his partner; ironically, this makes HER feel emotionally abandoned and like the only adult in the relationship.

4. The man feels he was constantly criticized.

Mostly for his decision-making earlier in the relationship and he has now emotionally checked out of all decisions in order to protect himself.

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5. The man is very conflict-averse.

(In fact, most men are conflict-averse; read this) and does not think that a discussion about their different opinions on some topic is worth the inevitable (from his perspective) fight that may result.

6. The man does not give a flying F about what the family does because he is depressed and dealing with his own issues that he is refusing to acknowledge.

He couches this total abdication of his life in the guise of being really “laid back” or “going with the flow” but his wife knows something is wrong with him and is furious that he will not deal with his issues and instead remains on the couch, sucked into his phone or video games, often overeating/overdrinking/overusing substances.

Note that by talking about decision-making, I am assuredly not talking about “emotional labor” in the catch-all way it is used now. For instance, I think it’s wonderful if the man gets up and cleans the garage, with a positive attitude, when his wife asks him to. I would take her four seconds of “emotional labor” aka noticing the garage is a mess over his four hours of fixing it up any day. (Of course, this changes if he is a jerk about doing it.) I am referring to situations where the man NEVER schedules a date night, never initiates sex (without his wife “pre-initiating” otherwise known as telling him it’s a go in some implicit or explicit way), has no short- or long-term goals for the couple or the family, starts no projects, has no initiatives, and basically acts like an executive assistant in the home, and often a low-energy, passive-aggressive one.

In these situations, the wife feels completely abandoned and like she is the only adult steering the relationship and the family overall. The husband says that she rejects his attempts at taking charge, and he is right; she does in fact shoot down his infrequent, timidly expressed ideas the few times a year that he alludes to having any because she is used to being the CEO of everything and she has no patience anymore. She assumes that if he really thought his idea was good, he would express it in a strong and confident way, which, unfortunately, does not feel possible to most men in this dynamic.

To summarize:

The man starts out being scared of his wife’s rejection and/or of his decisions turning out badly, so, over time, he takes less and less risk and just follows his wife’s lead more and more. Instead of making her happy, she grows increasingly resentful and overwhelmed, yet, of course, more confident in her own decisions (practice makes perfect, after all) and rejects the few suggestions he does make, and this convinces him even more that she wants something impossible: a take-charge man who magically thinks of ideas that she already is enthusiastic about.

Here is the solution:

The man needs to immediately try to stop caring what his wife thinks about his decisions. This may take therapy of his own, especially if he saw a passive father figure or his relationship seems very tenuous to him. He needs to start thinking of what is best for the family and for his wife, and doing this even if she argues with him. Both men and women want to be taken care of, and a successful marriage “reparents” both partners. In a dynamic where the woman feels like she has to make all the decisions, she feels like the man’s mother, and she needs to see him step up and sometimes act as HER parent, in the most healthy sense, which means that she can trust him to do what is best for her in a long-term way. Often, this goes against what she wants in the short term.

Women who are sick of being the boss love this idea. They agree with me vocally and enthusiastically when I tell their husbands they need to start doing what is good for them versus deferring to them and wilting in the face of their every objection. The husbands say, “Yeah, she agrees with you in session, but if I tried to go up against her in private, it would be World War 3.” So, I rejoinder, “Try it. Don’t concern yourself with what she wants short term. Do what you think is best for her and for your couple unit and family unit long-term and big-picture. If she says no, oh well. What is the worst that can happen? A fight? Conflict is happening anyway.”

Of course, this will go best when the husband doesn’t just change how he acts on a dime, confusing and scaring his wife, but narrates his change of heart and empathizes with her. Here is an example of how this paradigm shift would look in practice.

Example 1 (THE BAD WAY):

Wife: I think we should start saving for the kids’ college. $100 a month. What do you think?

Husband: I think we should do that after I get my bonus but right now we should focus on paying down our credit cards.

Wife: DO YOU NOT EVEN CARE ABOUT THE KIDS? This is like your family. Nobody saved for you either. I am setting up autopay into their college accounts starting tomorrow.

Husband: Fine, do what you want.

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Wife: I think we should start saving for the kids’ college. $100 a month. What do you think?

Husband: I think we should do that eventually, yes, but right now we should focus on paying down our credit cards.

Wife: DO YOU NOT EVEN CARE ABOUT THE KIDS? This is like your family. Nobody saved for you either. I am setting up autopay into their college accounts starting tomorrow.

Husband: You asked what I think and I am telling you. Our interest rate on credit cards is high and it is not good for our financial future to keep paying the minimum. I want to help our kids with college one day, but right now, I think the best decision is to sock that $100 right into the credit card debt. I am going to set up autopay for that right now, actually. I know you’re mad, I see your face, but this is what is best for the family. You are right that nobody saved for me, and I want to save for our kids, but we will be able to help them more in the future if we get a handle on our debt.

Wife: This is all because you wanted too big of a house.

Husband: Maybe, but either way, we have credit card debt now, and I want to pay that down first, then start the college savings accounts, and you know what, we should sit down this weekend and talk about downsizing, that is a good idea and a good project for us.

Wife: Who even are you?

Husband: I am a man who subscribes to Dr. Psych Mom.

Men who can make this internal leap, and external behavior change, are often rewarded with happier marriages, and better sex lives (the wife who feels like your Mommy does not feel desire). Of course, agree with your wife whenever you actually agree (or when you don’t care either way). But stop agreeing with her about stuff you actually don’t agree about, and step up and show her the man that your coworkers see.

Send this post to your partner to open up a discussion about how to change your marital dynamic so that your wife feels taken care of, and you feel respected. Here is a secret mantra for you, by the way, to revolutionize your thinking:

I am smart at work and I can be just as smart at home. My kids should not see their male role model deferring, kowtowing, and abdicating. If my wife leaves me over not going along with her way of doing things, then we were not meant to be. I have tried agreeing and it doesn’t work; time to change it up.

And till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, I Have Yet To Meet A Strong Woman (Or Man!) Who Doesn’t Also Want To Be Taken Care Of.

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Dr. Psych Mom. Reprinted with permission from the author.