By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
I don’t mean to stereotype (too much), but do you think that husbands or boyfriends come in “types”? Although I not a fan of labeling people, I do believe that there are categories of issues that people struggle with. And by taking a look at and understanding a type, which in this case is just a description of a cluster of issues, we can gain perspective on our spouse and we can learn how to be involved in their lives in more helpful ways. My goal is not to start a bash-fest on certain husbands, but rather to equip wives (and girlfriends) to be able to engage with their partner in a way that moves him towards his best self. You see, it is true that you cannot change another person directly and that we cannot control people. But, it is like my friend says to me, “Yes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it. But you can sweeten the water.” Let’s see if we can understand what would be ways to influence a certain type of husband so that you both get to experience what you long for.
One of those categories that I have noticed is of men who don’t want to grow up. This type can sometimes really look the part, in that they want to sleep late, play video games all the time and whine about doing chores. But often they seem more grown up, although in your interactions with them you likely feel like you are being pulled into parenting them often enough. Maybe it’s the way they have excuses for everything? Or the way they seem to get out from under responsibilities? Or maybe it is their irritability or defensiveness to requests? Or that it seems they often just aren’t able to follow through, or remember things, or be on time, or keep track of money? And how do they do at taking care of or being involved with the kids? How are they at managing and expressing their emotions? How are they at apologizing and offering forgiveness? How do they do at affection or romance (rather than sex)? Do they have personal goals? Are they self motivated? Can they persevere? Do they have integrity?
First off, what is going on here? Are they just lazy and spoiled? Are they just freeloaders? Are they just Momma’s boys looking for a wife to mother them? It may seem that way, but I don’t believe that really gets down to the core of it. I believe that it is more likely that these types of men did not have a dad who modeled to them how to be a man; no one who spoke into their soul as a young man and gave them a sense of identity and purpose and who believed in them and challenged them. I believe that this lack of identification and modeling from a parent or caregiver of the same sex is integral, foundational. I do believe this is true for both men and women. Although, in our culture, I propose that there is more of a dearth of it among boys than girls. And, girls, being more socially wired, are better able to connect with others and process their thoughts and emotions than boys. It is also more culturally supported for girls and women than boys and men.
Our culture still generally teaches that emotions and emotional processing are feminine or weak. And that boys are to deal with the challenges of life by gutting it up and being strong, tough, and determined. The acceptable emotions for men are anger and … well, being “cool”. So, most sons these days have Fathers who are either rather frustrated, angry and disgruntled, or easy going, passive and “cool”. When these boys grow up they then enter a world in which women will ping pong them back and forth such that when they are laid back, they will be challenged about why they don’t get some gumption and when they are aggressive they will told to chill out.
When you have Dads who didn’t know how to be men, you’ll get sons who grow up to be boys.
It’s really hard to be in relationship with this type of man. You will try till you are blue in the face to get him to become responsible. It will drive you crazy! That is, if you even try that hard. Because these types of men will attract a certain type of woman, won’t they? They will attract the woman who wants to care take a man. Oh, she probably wouldn’t actually say that she does. She probably had secret visions of “’helping” the man to become all he can be. (This had to do with her own plan of finding self esteem and identity.) But after a bunch of years she will likely find herself doing almost all the work and wondering where to go from here. She thought that by helping him he would appreciate her and return the help. She didn’t expect to be taken for granted and used up end up more entrenched than ever. Because now she can see that her man is not going to be motivated by her serving him; instead he is going to suck it up and wait for more, like the baby bird sitting with its mouth open to be fed.
What’s the Answer
What’s a woman to do? Well, I am going to tell you. But you might not like it. Because it won’t just be hard for your man, it’s going to be hard for you too.
Stop Rescuing him
You need to identify that part of the problem is you. Your husband cannot grow up as long as you have the perspective that you can care take or hold his hand into adulthood. Because as long as you believe this, he will ‘hear’ from you, in all the ways you interact with him, that you don’t believe that he can be an adult. You need to identify the ways that you are rescuing him and decide that you have to let go of your fears and trust that he can be an adult, but only if you start treating him like one.
- Be More Overt
Most likely a lot of your dealings with your husband have been covert. This means that you have been working behind the scenes to get him to grow up, to get him to take responsibility, to motivate him, to cajole, frankly – to manipulate. You’ve told yourself that it is for his own and your good. It has probably backfired many times, and yet you continue in the same approach. You have been afraid to be more straight forward. You didn’t believe he could handle it or that he would respond in the ways you’ve wanted. Now, it is time to come clean. It is time to let go of manipulation. You will feel better. And you may gain a partner in the process, instead of working at cross purposes.
- Give and Expect Respect
Letting go of rescuing and being more overt are actually about giving respect to someone. You see, your husband is a man. He may behave like a boy. He may not know how to be a good man. But if you believe that he wants to be a good man then you need to treat him like a man; like a person who can be responsible and self controlled and trustworthy. How did you ever think that you would get a responsible man while you treated him like a boy? You see, you need to begin to expect that he can be a man. This is very different that condemning and shaming him for not measuring up. When you treat someone that way you are again treating them like they are one-down to you – and so like he is a little boy. But if you expect him to be a man of character, then when he doesn’t measure up you can talk to him about it like two adults. You can express your disappointment with him, but you realize that it is not your place to shame him or control him into doing better. If you respect someone, you tell them how you experience them and trust that they will respond accordingly.
- Develop Healthier Self Care
I am guessing that since you got into a relationship with a boy that it tells me some things about you also. And so I believe it means that you would benefit from making some healthier connections with others and exploring what you believe about yourself. Maybe you have a weak self esteem, or struggle with insecurities? We all have them. But have you been looking to quiet yours and fulfill yourself by either serving your husband or by being able to change him? I encourage you to step back from trying to manage your relationship and take a look at yourself. How do you feel about yourself? How do you get your needs met? How do you manage your upset or your disappointments? How do you get deposits in your emotional bank?
I assume I didn’t get it past you that none of these 4 points have much to do with directing changing your man – but instead they are about changing you, your thinking and your approach. I am not in any way suggesting that he doesn’t need to change. However, anything I would say about how to change him would be feeding more into your issues and would not be healthy, and would not be successful anyway. No, I can best help both of you by the application of these points.
Now, I know what you are saying. Everyone says it. What if he doesn’t change?! This is the thinking and the fear that has kept you on the track you’ve been on. It is why you try to control and why you rescue in the first place. So, no, there is no guarantee of him changing. There’s just changing how your relate to him, which is inviting someone up to a mature relationship.
Remember the horse analogy!