Paula has a long list of complaints about her husband, and some of them are quite serious. “He doesn’t really talk that much, and he never opens up to me.” She reveals all of this as part of her ongoing psychotherapy with me.
“Also, he just slumps on the couch channel surfing most every night. If I ask him a question, I get a mumble back, maybe a grumble. If I really push him to get with the program, he explodes with anger. He’s taken over our dining room with work papers, and he will fight me to the death about cleaning it.”
Paula concludes: “I think I am living with a caveman. I am basically out of ideas about how to get him to behave better.”
Paula’s phrase “behave better” caught my ear because it captures the essence of what many of us try to do in our relationships. When I get out of control with work, or start being negative around the house, my wife asks me—and, if need be, tells me—to shape up. She tells me the problem as she sees it, then tells me the solution … also as she sees it.
Most of the time it’s something like this: “Please chillax, you’re stressing me and everyone else out, and you’re a giant pain in the ass when you do X, Y and Z.” In essence, she’s asking me to behave better. My wife has influence on me, and I listen to what she says and, most of time, try to change for the better.
Paula doesn’t have it this easy with her man. He resists. He grumbles and snorts negative replies. He doesn’t appear to want to change. This is a problem I see all the time. People want their partners to change but have difficulty knowing how to make these changes happen.
My first reply in these types of situations is usually something like this: “Get your partner in here and let’s have the two of you talk about it together with my consultation.” When I offered Paula this opportunity, she replied, “Are you kidding me? He’d rather get divorced than come to therapy.” I hear this all the time, too, but I try not to take it personally.
If this is the situation at hand and you need to improve your relationship all by yourself, I have three pieces of advice that can be used alone or in combination.
1. Go on Strike
Do you do the cooking? The cleaning? The shopping? The laundry folding?
Yes? Well, stop doing it. In the language of behavioral modification, going on strike would be called punishment by contingent withdrawal. Take the fact that Paula’s husband will not clean his work papers off the dining room table. He just won’t (well, maybe he will on Thanksgiving, but there’s very little chance other days of the year).
In a situation like this, I’d encourage Paula to express herself clearly and state what the punishment will be if her husband doesn’t clean up the table (or, said differently, if he continues his indifferent behavior). Maybe something like this, “Honey, I’ve asked you repeatedly to do a better job cleaning the dining room. This is a fine work space, but we have to keep it neat. I am embarrassed to have my friends over because it looks like we’re hoarders. If you don’t clean this stuff up within the next three days, I am going on strike. I am going to stop doing X, Y or Z…” X, Y and Z can be any behaviors you think will get his attention. Stop what you’re doing and make him realize you’re serious about this issue.
Be direct, be compassionate, be firm. Draw your line in the sand as you would with a child. It’s never easy to go on strike, but it works, and it can work for you.