Marriage panel members answer the question of what to do when your spouse bothers you.
This post is part of our ASK THE PANEL series where readers submit questions and our marriage panel answers them. As explained here.
Here’s the submitted question:
” . . . . I’ve been married a little over two years now and I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten down figuring out when I’m in the wrong and when my husband is. Our marriage is pretty good, but little things my husband does bother me all the time. Like, when he is oblivious to how messy our house is and leaves his stuff everywhere or when I want to just chill at home and he wants to go out or when he stays up really late and I think he should come to bed earlier. Stuff like that. I’m sounding like a real great wife right now . . . So my question is, is there a litmus test or someway I can gauge if something that bothers me is just something I should get over or something that I need to bring up and find a solution to? I know you guys do the whole companionship inventory thing, but whenever we have discussions like that I think my husband just feels like he’s under attack (maybe I’m doing it wrong?) and afterwards I’m always left questioning, “Gosh, am I the wrong one or him?” Like I seriously can’t figure out if I’m being selfish or if I’m justified in my thoughts and we’re just bad at communicating.
When we were first married my husband and I had big arguments about the video games. He stayed up super late playing them, I felt like he would rather play them than spend time with me, which made me feel unloved and pretty bitter. I thought that in his brain he had “won me” and now that we were married he could ignore me. Which is totally not what he was thinking. Was I right that he shouldn’t spend so much time on video games? Of course I was. He always admitted it, even then. But the issue wasn’t about right and wrong, it’s that his choices were hurting me and he felt like that was irrational.
Fast forward ten years. Now I know that if my husband is spending a lot of time on the computer it’s because he is overwhelmed by his life and is “escapisming” (not a real word). I have learned to let him play, unless I am feeling unloved or hurt. Then I tell him “I am feeling unloved.” I don’t say “you are playing too many video games.” My husband does love me and he wants me to know that, so when I am honest with him, he always finds a way to make me feel better.
I think it is really important to remember that we are not responsible for our spouse’s choices. It’s not our job to make sure that they are doing life “right.” However, if we are feeling hurt or lonely because of our spouse’s actions, that is something that we can communicate to them. Hopefully that knowledge will help him and you come up with a compromise that will address both your needs. I would really shy away from telling anybody that they are “wrong,” about things like recreation or housework. These things come from 20 odd years of history and family life that you weren’t around for. Communicate your feelings and let your spouse use his agency to make his own choices. It’s really not about who is right and who is wrong.
PS This is an especially good thing to learn before you have children, because it’s really hard not to tell your spouse how to parent “right.” 😉
If it is not very clear who is in the wrong, then probably no one is “in the wrong”–meaning, it’s probably just normal human weaknesses and differences that are not worth fighting over or even having a big discussion about. Early in my marriage, I think I started a lot of fights over things that bothered me about my husband or his behavior that weren’t really big issues. I’ve now learned to do a few things before I make an issue of something with my husband:
Before I nag, I try to ask myself, “If the roles were reversed, how would I feel if he bothered me about this same issue?” Would I be bugged if I came home from a long day of work and he immediately started harping on me about keeping the house picked up? Would I be hurt if he criticized the outfit that I chose to wear or encouraged me to exercise because I’d gained weight? Of course I would! Putting myself in his shoes before I start a discussion helps me decide which things to let go of and which things to address differently. For example, I might decide to wait and let him unwind a little after work before insisting that we clean the house. Or I might choose to shut my mouth about his odd outfit choice because he’s a grown man and doesn’t need fashion advice from his wife unless he asks for it. Another good rule of thumb here: If I wouldn’t say it to my best friend, I probably shouldn’t say it to my husband.
Ask him for help.
Instead of expecting him to read my mind and know what’s important to me (which always leads to a blow-up eventually) I’ve learned to just ask for the help I need. I will say to my husband, “Hey, when you are at a good stopping point with that book you are reading (or show you are watching or computer game you are playing), would you mind helping me pick up the house?” He may do so begrudgingly at first, but if I’m not nagging and if we start talking or listening to music together as we clean, it usually ends up being fun and bonding. If I do think something needs a more direct, serious discussion, I try to do it when we are both in good moods and the atmosphere isn’t heated, and I keep it brief. I might say, “Hey, I would really like to go to bed at the same time. I look forward to talking to you about the day, praying together, (fill in your reasons here). What do you think?” If he agrees, decide together on a time, but don’t nag him. Just say, “Hey, Hubby, it’s 10:30, and I’m heading to bed if you want to join me!” If he doesn’t, don’t pout or silent treatment him. It’s not like he’s committing a murder by staying up too late. And the less you nag over issues that aren’t a big deal, the more your husband will respect your requests and enjoy being around you.
A note about this: Asking for what you need requires a level of self-confidence. I think a lot of women don’t speak up for fear that their needs are selfish or unreasonable, so they just hint around or sulk or turn into martyrs who are always mad at their husbands for not reading their minds. Figure out what is important to you and trust yourself and your spouse enough to speak up. As long as you are respectful in how you ask and respectful of your husband’s needs as well, it will strengthen your marriage.
I learned a lot of this stuff from a book I read early in my marriage called The Surrendered Wife. The title is terrible and sounds so chauvinistic (and the cover art is more than a tad corny), but it had a lot of good advice about surrendering control in my marriage. I never realized what a nag I was until I read this book! Although I didn’t agree with everything the author said, it gave me a new perspective that I think changed my marriage for the better.
It’s obvious that you are a good wife who cares about your husband and your marriage. Keep it up! The more you reflect on how things are going and ask “Am I being fair? Am I in the wrong?” the better and better you will become at communicating and being a true friend to your spouse. My overall advice would be, neither of you is “in the wrong.” Neither of you is committing a crime by being who you naturally are and having different personalities and needs. As you practice asking for help respectfully and letting go of things that don’t really matter, your marriage will become richer, easier, happier, and more comfortable over the years.
I love Rachel‘s suggestions here, especially the asking for specific help in the moment that it’s needed rather than allowing resentment to build over time when your husband doesn’t (gasp!) read your mind. Learning to be more assertive has helped me a lot in our marriage, and frequently my husband actually thanks me when I’m up front with him and just point blank ask him to do stuff for me. I think he finds comfort in knowing exactly what he can do to help calm my internal crazy lady, who has been known to appear out of nowhere (from his perspective) and scare him very badly.
I felt similar to you when I was first married and it caused me a lot of heartache, but a couple of years into our marriage on a rough day it hit me. (I say “it,” but I really believe it was a revelation from God because it changed everything for me.) The thought occurred to me that this — this marriage between me and a good man who loved me — was not a competition. It was not a Me vs. Him, Man vs. Woman, Right vs. Wrong struggle. We were a team. I had to stop keeping score. I needed to cut him some slack, be patient with his weaknesses as I would hope he would be with mine, and thank him, often, for all the little and big things he did for me every day.
The end of the story is this: We’ve been married for 13 years now. A lot of the little things that he did that bothered me at the beginning of our marriage he still does. But they don’t bother me anymore. I accept them as a part of the bigger package that has made my life so full and amazing. There are a lot of things he doesn’t do anymore, that he’s shed gradually as age and time have mellowed him and made him a little more sensitive. They didn’t come about as a result of my pestering him about them, though. They just happened organically as we have tried together to be more thoughtful and considerate partners to each other.
I know the early years can be frustrating. It’s hard to sync up two separate lives. But be patient, communicate honestly and with love, and thank each other often, and it will get easier! I’m going to quote “Frozen” now. I can’t believe I’m doing it, but do it I must:
“You can fix this fixer-upper with a little bit of love.”
Wow, some seriously great advice here guys! A huge thank you to our panel members and our reader (because seriously we can all relate). Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post when three more panel members will weigh in!