Sometimes I am just astounded at what passes for helpful advice regarding marriage. In yesterday’s The Globe and Mail from Toronto, their advice columnist answered a letter from a woman married 35 years and on the verge of retirement. She wrote:
At dinner the other night he said, “I can hardly wait to retire.” With that I said: “Me too. I am tired of doing all of the house work myself.” He was shocked. Any advice?
The male columnist’s advice?
Basically, I think your husband needs to man up, grab a broom, and join the 21st century. Yes, I said man up…
Explain to him if he thinks you’re going to do the cooking and cleaning while he golfs, he can fuhgedaboudit.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but if he loves you, if he’s worthy of you, he’ll get up on his hind legs and grab a dishtowel.
If you ever get advice that starts with “if he loves you…” put in your earphones and turn up the music!
This is not about love. It’s about chores.
If his idea of retirement includes you doing the chores you’ve done for years and yours includes cutting your chores in half, an ultimatum is not what you need. You need a Third Alternative.
The woman asking the question, much wiser apparently than the columnist, offered one to her husband. She wrote, “He told me hiring someone to help clean our house is not an option.”
Rather than announcing a disagreement and proposing Third Alternatives, a much more effective strategy is to jump the net and start by agreeing with what your spouse wants.
He said, “I can hardly wait to retire.” She turned this expression of hope and happy anticipation into a disagreement and an implied criticism of him when she said, “I am tired of doing all of the house work myself.”
This is what marriage lab researcher John Gottman calls a “harsh startup.” She hasn’t opened a discussion. She has launched a complaint. Following it with “man up” or “if you loved me…” would take their relationship further in the wrong direction.
Here’s a script that might work better:
She: I’m looking forward to it, too. You’ve worked hard for so many years, and you’ve built up some nice savings for retirement. You deserve to take it easy.”
He: Thanks, hon.
She: I want you to have it easy in your retirement, and I want the same for myself, but it’s not as easy to retire from cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry, which make up the bulk of my work each week. Can we make some time to talk about ways I can cut back, too?
He: Sure. I’ll try to think up a few.
She: Think we can talk about it this Saturday, after lunch?
On Saturday, each of them could rate how important each chore is to them, how they feel about doing it, and what might reduce the need for the ones both of them dislike. And they could do it with the goal of getting her load down to the point where she’s comfortable, not with the impossible goal of getting his share up to the point where they both feel the split is fair.
With this opening, she’s done four things:
- She’s offered what researcher Shelly Gable calls an Active Constructive response to his delight in what’s going to happen soon. Gable’s research suggests this is even more important to marital happiness than being there to support your spouse through bad news.
- She’s avoided an unhealthy harsh startup to a discussion. She’s asking for what she wants without accusing him of being unfair to her even before she sees how he handles the situation. This keeps his blood pressure and defensiveness lower, and his creativity and trust greater.
- She’s put them both on the same side of the net. Her needs are not his losses. They are problems to solve with a valued partner.
- She’s opened the door to learning more about, and even changing, his picture of retirement without pretending her picture doesn’t matter or matters more than his.
Every transition in life requires updating our relationship with each other. We get to choose whether our working assumption going in is that we are still loved by a good person who gets a kick out of showing love or that we’re in a zero-sum game with a competitor.