Looking for Mr. Responsible
- Dr. David B. Hawkins Director, The Marriage Recovery Center
- 2009 27 Apr
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“I just want him to do what he says he’s going to do,” Ginger said to me forcefully, turning away from her husband.
Her husband, Kevin, stared at her with that deer-in-the-headlights look, fearing he would say the wrong thing.
“Why don’t you say something?” Ginger said, becoming more irritated, “I’ve asked you to be more involved with the children, and you give some lame excuse. I’ve asked you to be part of paying the bills, and you never seem to have the time. I ask you to spend quality time with me, and you’re not sure what to do. I’m just so frustrated.”
Kevin fidgeted, glancing down at the notes he’d been taking during our counseling session.
“I’m trying,” he said feebly. “But, I don’t think I can please you.”
Ginger turned again to me, throwing her hands in the air in exasperation.
“Am I asking too much? Am I not making myself clear? I start to doubt myself. I think we’ve made an agreement, and he says he understands, and then nothing changes. Nothing!”
I have been working with Ginger and Kevin for several weeks. I’ve written before about the over-functioning wife and under-functioning husband, and am noting an increase in marriage problems associated with this dynamic.
What is happening here? Why are so many women frustrated with their husbands? Are their expectations too high? Are men really engaged and trying to be the best husbands they can be? Certainly there is no singular answer to this issue, but many find themselves in Kevin and Ginger’s shoes, both equally frustrated and resentful.
Dr. John Gottman, famed University of Washington researcher, says couples like Kevin and Ginger are in trouble. When a relationship reaches the point where there is growing resentment, generalized feelings of contempt, and increasing distance, greater problems are likely to occur.
Can all the blame be put on Kevin’s shoulders? Of course not. Ginger recognizes her growing resentment, feeling guilt and shame over her attitude. She wants to love Kevin, but is tired of carrying the load of their relationship.
Kevin, likewise, feels exasperated. He feels Ginger’s increased disrespect. He feels the bite of her criticisms every day. He aches to be admired, respected and encouraged. Their bed is cold and the intimacy between them all but gone. The grass on the other side of the fence looks tempting to both.
Responsibility is a critical issue between many men and women. Responsibility—the ability and willingness to respond—is a key building block in marriage. We know the importance of keeping our word and the impact truth-telling has on respecting our mate.
Keeping our word is not only an emotional issue, but a spiritual one as well. Scripture is replete with instruction regarding keeping our promises, and the importance of being a man, or woman, of integrity:
- “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceedeth out of his mouth.” (Numbers 30:2)
- “Oh keep my soul and deliver me: let me not be ashamed, for I put my trust in thee. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me; for I wait on thee.” (Psalms 25:20-21)
Ginger struggles to respect her husband when he doesn’t follow through on his promises. She becomes irritable and critical, gradually losing respect for Kevin. Kevin feels increasing resentment, sensing his wife’s disapproval and criticism. He feels angry about her distance. They are caught in an increasingly serious downward spiral. What is the answer?
While there is no simple answer, I believe the solution begins with Kevin. What must he do to begin an upward, positive cycle?
- Keep his word. When Kevin agrees to do something, he must stay focused and ensure that he does exactly what he has agreed to do. He must keep every aspect of his word, without excuses, justifications or “crazymaking” behaviors;
- Win back his wife’s respect and admiration. Since Kevin has failed to keep his word, and has caused much distress, he must take the lead in winning back her respect. He can do this by not only keeping his word, but being sensitive to, and anticipating his wife’s needs, doing everything in his power to meet them;
- Appreciate and validate his wife’s frustration and anger. It will do no good to respond in kind to her frustration. He cannot retaliate with an irritable and resentful attitude. This is a time to exhibit emotional strength, rising to the challenge of winning his wife’s heart. He must be on a quest to be a man of integrity.
What is Ginger’s part in this downward cycle? What can she do to heal their relationship?
- Be very clear about expectations. Be clear about expectations and consistent in her expectations. She must be extremely careful not to give mixed messages.
- Catch Kevin doing things right. A critical spirit and disrespectful attitude won’t help Kevin. His efforts must be noticed and valued. She must remind herself of things he is still doing right, in spite of the things in which he is failing.
- Hold Kevin accountable for irresponsible actions. While this can be challenging, they must hold each other accountable for agreements. While there certainly must be times of grace, there must also be times of tough love.
- There must be consequences for irresponsible behavior. Irresponsibility cannot be ignored. A boundary without consequences is not a boundary—it is a wish and a hope. It is fuzzy thinking with fuzzy boundaries.
If you find yourself married to Mr. Irresponsible—or Mrs. Irresponsible, it’s time for a serious discussion. Don’t keep doing what you’ve always done, getting what you’ve always got. See my book, Dealing With the CrazyMakers in Your Life, exploring together how you’ve created chaos in your marriage. Establish clear expectations with clear consequences for any failures. Make room for times of grace, noting progress.
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.