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.

About the author

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.


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  • Hi Patty,
    Great post. I particularly enjoyed the paper plates option for someone who doesn’t get the hopes-for help with the dishes.
    Your moves require courage and imagination. Very nice.

  • Patty, each of your articles I’ve read I’ve quickly devoured because you give such clear and useful reminders of how healthy a relationship can be. It doesn’t seem to be the norm, though I’d like to make it more of that in my world.
    Thanks again

  • I like your comment that you and your husband don’t agree on much. I often laugh about how many things my husband and I don’t have in common. Too many people seem to be looking for a clone of themselves, and are bitterly disappointed when that doesn’t happen. But I suspect that if they actually could find that clone, they’d soon learn that’s not the key to happiness. Accepting that we don’t like all the same things and don’t always agree on everything frees us from petty expectations and makes it possible to live on a deeper level of love and respect.

  • Thanks, Rosemary. It’s one of the best parts of this relationship. At first, we kept a notebook on the coffee table in our living, just so we could jot down those rare moments when we discovered we agreed on something.
    We’d probably have more to write these days, as we’ve both introduced each other to so many different ways of seeing the same things, a blessing I can’t imagine having received any other way.
    But it really does require that we set aside expectations, check for alternative, loving explanations of unexpected actions or words, and let go of what we disagree on long enough to find the things we can agree on when we need a joint decision.

  • Thanks, Sophie. And what you say is so true. Husbands are not robots we can reprogram. There are many reasons they don’t do some of the things we want them to do and have seen other husbands willingly do, even if they love us dearly.
    It took me losing my first husband to realize that if I can handle not controlling the weather, I can handle not controlling my husband’s choices. Just as I turn on a fan on hot days or wear a rain hat on rainy ones, I now buy myself flowers and exchange gifts with women friends who actually enjoy shopping for or making gifts. I find it allows me to enjoy a lot more the massages, hair stroking, playfulness, and humor husband #2 gladly brings to our marriage. He retired early, and I sometimes envy his free time, but I keep working to afford our dinners out, and I appreciate all those nights he cooks our dinners.
    In so many affairs of the never intended and quickly regretted sort, the genesis was focusing too much on those few things a spouse never does, which leads to overlooking and discouraging all of the others.

Patty Newbold

I am a widow who got it right the second time. I have been sharing here since February 14, 2006 what I learned from that experience and from positive psychology, marriage research, and my training as a marriage educator.

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