Last week I talked about the Biggest Mistake a Husband Can Make. I started out by saying that the only problem couples ever have is defensiveness, and that’s as true for us women as it is for men.
We feel anxious, and we try to protect ourselves from anxiety. Sometimes we deny there is a problem – at least outwardly. Denial is the classic defense.
But our propensity for self-protection kicks in.
Whether we can admit to feeling afraid or not. Worry, anxiety, nervousness. Call it whatever you like. Each is an expression of fear as one level or another. And fear automatically triggers our defenses. Fight, flight, or freeze are our default survival strategies. But they often fail to elicit the response we need from our mates.
Most women use their words to express their anxiety, which sounds like a good thing, right? Aren’t we supposed to talk things through? Isn’t that the healthier way to deal with worries? Talk about it and find a solution together.
But men have a different take on anxiety.
In fact, for the vast majority of men, most emotions are a signal that you need to take action. For a woman, talking is the action. For men, it’s usually not. A man will tend to talk less under stress, turn inward, and try to figure out a solution. If his wife continues talking, he experiences it as a distraction to his problem-solving endeavors. So he learns to tune her out.
As he tunes her out, she becomes more anxious.
So round and round they go in a never-ending cycle that escalates their emotions and keeps them locked in position. But you don’t have to stay there, making the biggest mistake a wife can make – trying to take the lead.
The quieter your husband gets, the greater the temptation to take the lead.
Because it seems like he isn’t doing anything. Maybe he’s not doing anything. Maybe he’s just trying to slow down his own fight-flight-or-freeze response so he can think more clearly. So he can get to a solution.
Hopefully, you are aware of the many ways the expression of your own anxiety makes you sound angry. Much of what you say comes across as attack, blame, and criticism. But there’s another mistake we often make, and that is to think we know what’s best. Any solution he suggests or tries is met with – you guessed it – attack, blame, and criticism.
So you try to get straight to the point by offering your own solution.
But that backfires, too. Because when a woman gives a man advice, he will rarely pay attention. When you sound like a mother, he feels like a little boy. In other words, it’s emasculating.
Instead, you want to say and do things that will empower him. After all, you need him on your side, don’t you? No, you don’t have to remain silent and hope he’ll say or do something. Your input is invaluable to him. He needs it. The problem is your delivery. Because men are more sensitive to criticism from their wives. More than anything, he wants to be your protector and your provider. That’s hard to do when you’re telling him how to go about it.
Let me give you an example.
Many years ago, my husband and I were moving about an hour away so he could take a position at a larger branch of his company. Since the move was such a short distance, the guys decided they could do it with their pickups. Needless to say, it took longer than they thought it would. To top it off, not all of our stuff would fit into the small apartment we’d rented. So his boss offered to let us put some of it in his own rec room.
Still doesn’t sound like much of a problem.
However, one item was a 1952 Rock-ola Jukebox. It must have weighed at least a ton. Well, maybe just 500 pounds. But it was big and wide and had a rounded top that flipped open to add the 45rpm records. Digital hadn’t been invented yet. The bottom contained the motor, the machinery, one huge speaker, and neon lights. Steel, wood, and plastic.
She was a monster.
It took four men to lift her. As they started down the basement steps, Joyce, the boss’s wife, stood at the top, shouting directions as the men struggled under the awkwardness and weight. She kept telling them they, “better not scrape up the walls!”
I was only 24 years old at the time, and I was more aware of Joyce’s impact than she was, and she was in her 50s. These guys were exhausted from lifting stuff all day and multiple trips, driving back and forth between the two cities. She was acting like they were stupid, brainless bums who didn’t care about her home. I was shocked by her demeaning behavior, right in front of her husband’s employees. I’m sure it wasn’t the first time she did that. Or the last.
That may not be your M.O.
But I use it as a prime example of how demeaning a wife’s instructions can be to her husband. Joyce was worried about her stairwell, of course. I understood that. But trying to take the lead in the operation wasn’t helping. She was making matters worse. It didn’t take a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology to figure that one out.
So what could Joyce have done differently? What could you do differently?
First of all, trust that he’s a smart man. If the wall gets scraped, it can be repaired. Admire his willingness to do a tough job, to help out a young family, to set an example for his employees.
And if you have a suggestion, be thoughtful about the way you offer it. And when you offer it. Make sure he isn’t in the middle of something difficult, like carrying an oversized, 500-pound antique jukebox down a narrow stairwell. Be kind. Be patient. When he’s not moving, say, “I have a thought. Not sure if it will work, but what if you __________________?”
If your situation allows more time for processing, you could say, “What are your thoughts about __________?” Then listen. Play back what he says and ask if you got it right. Affirm the parts you agree with.
If you have a suggestion for him, just say, “I have an idea.”
Then wait for him to ask you what it is. He’ll be much more open to your input, won’t feel like you’re trying to take over, and will feel like a strong man with a strong partner. You’ll both be the happier for it.