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April 8, 2017

What's Reasonable to Ask of Your Husband or Wife?

Back before my first husband died and I finally caught on to my real part in our relationship, this was an area where I made lots of mistakes. And as I moved on and got to know lots of recently divorced or separated folks my age, I discovered I was far from alone in not seeing this issue very clearly.

What Happens When You Don't Ask for What You Want?

If you don't ask for what you want, you're not likely to get it. Whether it's to be rid of your responsibility to pick up toilet paper today, to take a vacation trip this summer, or to try a new sexual position, if you don't ask, the chances are high you'll do without. Unfortunately, the chances are also quite high you'll blame your spouse. And not just today, but for a year or two or three after your divorce if too many of these unfulfilled wishes pile up.

And they are likely to pile up, just because you're blaming your spouse for your unhappiness, because this changes who you are and how you interact with this most important person in your life.

And all this could be happening even though your spouse wants to ask you for the same thing but is avoiding the possibility of rejection.

Ah, Yes. Rejection. How Can You Avoid Rejection When You Want Something?

You can't. Not entirely. But you can probably avoid the sting of rejection if you ask without expectation or insult. Here's an example of an insulting way to ask your spouse to pick up the toilet paper you were supposed to buy today:

Have you ever noticed how often I run errands for you, just to make your day easier? You never do that for me. But today would be a good day to start. We need toilet paper, and we need it before your parents arrive here at 7 pm.

Here's another insulting way to ask for something you want, robbing your spouse of any pleasure in doing something extra nice for you:

Just this freakin' once, could we please try something new in bed? I promise I won't ask again for at least a year.

But there are subtler ways to insult your spouse while asking for what you want, including any hint that you distrust their desire to be good to you if it's in their power to do so:

I don't imagine it's in our budget or anything you'd want to do, but I sure would like to see the California coast again.

And then there's expecting that just because you want it, your spouse can and must offer it up, which is both insulting to your spouse and unnecessarily damaging to your own enjoyment of your relationship:

You'll pick up Bob and Eleanor at the airport when they come, and I'll get their room ready.

Here's how to minimize the chances of rejection:

Are you available to pick up toilet paper before your parents get here tonight?
I read about something really interesting to try in bed. Would tonight after the kids are asleep be a good time to tell you about it while I give you a massage?
I've been daydreaming a lot lately about seeing the California coast again. I love it so much. Can we make some time this weekend to talk about how we could make it happen?
Bob and Eleanor are coming next Tuesday. Can we make a short to-do list today and decide who's doing what?

Now there's room for delighting each other and room to discuss Third Alternatives if you disagree.

And what if the answer is still 'no'?

The best marriages are safe places, our shelter from the rest of the world. We must be able to say 'no' to our spouse to feel that safety. And so must your wife or husband.

But when you have just one spouse to ask, 'no' can be pretty hard to take. For me, it wasn't until after my first husband's sudden death at age 35 that I began to understand what to do when the answer is 'no.' I learned quickly, because the answer is always 'no' from a dead husband, and while you're grieving (and getting used to being a single parent with a lot less income) is no time to be looking for a 'yes' man.

  • I learned there are ways to get things done that neither of you can do or wants to do. Move your prescriptions to a pharmacy that delivers. Pay (or barter with) a neighbor who likes cooking to cook enough for both families. Get TaskRabbit to deliver that needed toilet paper or ask someone at work going out for lunch to pick some up in exchange for help next week with a project. Use paper plates if you're the cook and hoping for help with the dishes that you don't get.
  • Learn new skills. If a new sexual position is more than your spouse is ready for now, master some new bedroom skills that don't require permission or find a great book that explains and shows some of your options.
  • Become more adventurous. I had no idea how many things I wanted to do that I insisted my first husband do with me. When he said 'no,' I was off the hook for figuring out the logistics and handling the awkwardness of being a first-timer. If you want to see the coast and there's not enough money for a family vacation, figure out how to get there inexpensively and on your own. Couch surfing? House sitting? A week of working for a dog walking service there? Join an online discussion forum with folks who live there, so you'll have company when you get there?
  • Make new friends, the sort who might actually enjoy picking up your guests at the airport or getting a room ready for them. Some won't even want you to do anything in return other than have an occasional conversation (something that takes a lot more effort for anyone without a spouse).

After years of finding my way through all of these solutions to getting what I wanted after my husband was dead and the answer was always 'no,' I met my second husband. We don't actually agree on much. Fortunately, I don't expect him to agree, because there's always a way to get what I want that doesn't leave me resentful or insulting.

If there's one thing I've learned from this journey, it's that the one thing to expect from marriage is love. That's the reason we marry. We all crave it. And all of our other expectations seem to push away love, that one thing we need most.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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