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Coming in from work one evening a mother notices a bicycle left in the driveway.
“Did you forget to put your bicycle away?” she asks her thirteen year old son, Jeremy, who is plopped on the couch watching television.
“No, I don’t think so,” he answers, eyes still glued to the television.
“Well, you bike is in the driveway. Please get up and put it away.”
“I didn’t leave it there,” the boy protests. “Kenny (his brother) must have used it.”
“I didn’t use it,” Kenny shouts from across the room. “Don’t try to blame it on me.”
Becoming increasingly exasperated, the mother feels angry with both boys.
“You were riding it this afternoon, Jeremy,” Kenny says smugly.
“Why didn’t you put it away then?” his mother asks.
“Well, I was going to, but I forgot. I’ll do it later.”
“Jeremy, it’s your bike. Please get up and put it away. And do it now!”
These kinds of conversations happen every day, in every family. Sadly, they don’t just happen between parents and children. They also happen between adults. Too many people avoid taking responsibility, causing chaos to erupt.
Here is what one woman wrote recently:
Dear Dr. David,
I feel like I am raising three children, instead of just our two adolescent sons. My husband won’t take responsibility for anything. I’m the one who has to pay the bills, keep the checkbook balanced, and generally keep the family running fairly smoothly, all while holding down a full time job. My husband goes to work, which I appreciate, but that’s about it. When I ask him to help around the house, he complains, makes excuses, or simply avoids doing anything. When he reluctantly agrees to help out, he usually forgets.
Dr. David, I am sick and tired of being the responsible person in the house. I’d like to take a vacation from the whole family. I’m starting to question whether I even want to be married if all it means is another kid to raise. I’m not trying to bash my husband. I love him and I know he loves me. But, I’m just plain tired. What can I do to raise healthy boys who will be responsible, and what can I do to get my husband to do his part in raising these boys and in caring for our house and duties around the house? Please help.
I have received many complaints like yours. There are far too many women who take on the lion’s share of caring for the family and home, with the husband feeling like he has done his part by going to work. Unfortunately, with more and more women in the workplace, this is no longer an equitable arrangement. You echo the sentiments of thousands of women who question the value of marriage if it simply means another set of dishes to wash and more laundry.
But, thankfully, it doesn’t need to be this way. However, for things to change you will need to sound the alarm, indicating that the way the family has been running is coming to a screeching halt.
So, ready yourself. Prepare for a change. Pull back, take a few hours or days, and get a broad perspective about what is happening. Here are a few critical questions to ask yourself:
1. How does the family function at this time? Who does what?
2. What are your various roles in the family?
3. How would you like things to change?
4. What, specifically, would you like your husband to do? What would you like your sons to do?
5. How have you enabled things to continue this way?
Once you have a handle on these questions, you’re ready to have a summit. You will need to call the family meeting and explain that you’re no longer going to be cook, housecleaner, bill-payer, laundry maid, etc.
Begin to place responsibility on your children and husband for working out the details of roles in the family. You’ve been doing all the thinking, while they’ve been allowed to drift. This must stop. They must now engage not only their brawn, in doing household chores, but their brains, in deciding how this new family is going to function.
Your main challenge is to stop doing what you’ve been doing. Make it clear what you’re willing to continue doing, but that even doing those things means they must do their part as well. This will be a “give and take” system—everyone does their part, and failure to do their part means you stop doing some things for them.
If you’ve followed any of my writings, I’m a big fan of “no excuses.” I’m also a proponent of not engaging in verbal power struggles. Make it clear that your husband and sons must assist in the household chores—you’re not going to manage everything any longer.
I suggest you give your husband and sons time to think things over. Talk to your husband alone, and then the family all together. Agree to have another meeting a few days later. Develop a system where everyone pitches in, with very clear expectations. Determine what happens if someone “forgets,” which is likely to happen at first. What will the consequences be of failing to carry out their part of keeping the family functioning?
Your biggest challenge may be learning not to bale people out. You have been the overly responsible one for a long time, and it may be harder than you think to give up some control. The end-product of role clarification, with consequences for failed responsibilities, will lead to greater respect within the family and especially your marriage.
I’d like to hear from others on the issue of responsibility within the family. What would you say to this woman? Are there other ways women enable men to be irresponsible within the family? \
This article was originally published in March 2008.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of The Marriage Recovery Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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