We’ve written before about the growing trend of husbands who would rather play their Xbox or Nintendo Switch—or spend hours glued to ESPN, oblivious of your screaming child and leaking roof—than step into adult responsibilities. Whatever the scenario, the burden of “emotional labor” often falls heavily on the wife.
If, as a wife, you find yourself here, how should you invite him into maturity rather than encouraging stagnation by continuing to “do it all”?
First, know you cannot make your husband do anything, nor are you responsible for his choices. In fact, the more you nag, sulk, or complain, the less likely he is to change. Every intimate relationship has a particular “dance.” Over time, you and your husband have adapted to each other and established a pattern. Maybe it resembles Anna and Caleb:
Anna, as a registered nurse, is the sole breadwinner for their family. Caleb has been working toward a counseling degree for the past few years, but spends much of his “study time” playing on the computer, working out and relaxing with friends. When Anna gets home from 10-hour shifts, she inevitably finds dirty laundry scattered on the floor and piles of dishes in the sink. Sometimes she fumes silently. Other days she explodes in anger. Caleb rarely responds to these tirades, pointing to the fact Anna has an unreasonable expectation of tidiness. When they try talking out the issues, Caleb explains how stressed he feels by school and how unnatural it is for him to think of housework: “My mom always took care of that stuff.”
From this description, Caleb seems like a lazy, immature husband who needs to grow up. But here’s the kicker. If I were writing about this same couple for an article on a men’s website, I could have explained Caleb’s frustration with Anna just as effectively. Caleb could justifiably share stories of Anna encouraging (maybe even pushing him) to get a master’s degree. He would remind Anna that she wanted to work full-time so he could go to school. He would also bring up the many times he cleaned and cooked but not up to Anna’s standards.
Here’s the point… Anna and Caleb have created a “dance” that prevents both of them from growing in maturity and intimacy. If Anna can lovingly and wisely change her contribution to their dance, this couple has a great chance of thriving together.
If Anna were having coffee with me, asking me how to change the dance, here are five practical suggestions I would give her.
1. Start with what you have.
After about six months of being married to a fun-loving, laidback (aka immature) husband, you might have difficulty seeing anything except for his weakness. Your irritation at his irresponsibility or unwillingness to lead shouts louder than anything he may be doing very well. Let’s go back to Caleb. While this young husband has given Anna ample reason to complain, he’s also a genuinely caring guy. He may not wash the dishes in the sink, but he spent several hours last week helping an elderly neighbor with her new computer. He has great gifts of mercy and compassion, and would be the first to sacrifice for a friend in need. If Anna would like to see her husband mature, her best bet is to build on what he naturally does well. For example, she could encourage Caleb to serve in their church’s jr. high ministry. While this won’t get the dishes done, it is building into her husband’s natural strengths and helping him take steps of leadership and responsibility.
2. Invite strength rather than demanding change.
This one I had to learn the hard way. Over the course of a few years of marriage, I discovered that I could ask my husband essentially the same thing with dramatically different results. If my tone came across as a strong woman demanding something, I’d get no response. But if I shared my weakness, asking for help, my husband was eager to step in. Here’s an example.
When our three boys were very little, I was overwhelmed and exhausted much of the time. There were days when I wanted to meet my husband at the door with a demand, “Where have you been? I’ve taken care of them all day. It’s your turn. I need a break!” If I had that tone, Mike would have probably laughed in my face or spent ten minutes telling me how much more stressful his day was than mine. I have a very caring husband who is eager to help me, but he will never respond well to being told what to do. As a young, independent woman, I had to learn to invite Mike’s help by showing him my weakness. This was not easy for me. I like to convince myself and everyone else around that I can handle anything. This strategy left me with handling everything and resenting it. I learned to say, “I’m falling apart. I need you. Can you please help me?”
Here’s the secret… there is no room for your husband’s strength if you refuse to acknowledge your limitations.
3. Stop rescuing him.
One of my favorite authors is Dr. Larry Crabb. Many years ago, he wrote a book called The Silence of Adam. The title gives you an idea of Dr. Crabb’s thesis. The most dysfunctional marriage dance began in the Garden of Eden with Eve stepping into Adam’s silence. At the root of every immature husband is his silence… his refusal to assume responsibility, to step into leadership, and to become the servant leader he was created to emulate.
Within the silence is a void that begs to be filled by a woman. Maybe his mom used to fill it, but now you do. You may not fill it with words, but you take over when your husband hesitates. He forgot to pay the cable bill, so you take care of it. He doesn’t make enough money, so you increase your hours at work to fill in the short fall. Before you know it, you assumed the vast majority of household responsibilities.
Part of helping your husband grow is resisting the urge to step in when he doesn’t step up. If something is clearly his responsibility, don’t nag. Don’t complain. Don’t do anything. If the cable gets shut off, so be it. If the lawn hasn’t been mowed all summer, let it go. This may be extremely difficult for you because you’re afraid of what might happen if you (fill in the blank). The short-term pain of a bill going unpaid, the dishes piled up for a week, or him forgetting to send his mother flowers for her birthday is a small price if it can help you establish a healthier dance.
4. Let him grow into manhood, not womanhood.
In the classic Broadway musical My Fair Lady, the chauvinist Professor Henry Higgins sings, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” While we would never say it so openly, many wives define maturity by what we value as women. Sensitivity, communication, spiritual devotion, and appropriately responding to every imaginable interpersonal situation.
Mature masculinity looks very different than mature femininity. Sometimes we give our guys grief for being men. Why is it less mature to play video games than to spend three hours on Pinterest? I’ve caught myself with these unconscious expectations. And even within the culture of “manhood,” healthy masculinity can look very different from one guy to another. Be careful not to define maturity by a narrow set of standards.
5. Encourage mentors.
You can be the most encouraging wife in the world, but have a husband who lacks the confidence and skills to develop into an effective leader. Why? Because men have to be validated by other men. They need to be taught things they may have never learned from their father. Mentors are an invaluable piece of maturity.
Many guys won’t respond well to a wife’s suggestion to get a mentor. While it may not be effective to sign up your man for the church’s men’s retreat, there are several things you can do to encourage him to interact with older, wiser men. You might start by asking questions like, “Who do you admire (at work, church, in your family?) You can also encourage mentoring by spending time with older couples who can pass on wisdom. Whatever the cost, invest in relationships that help you both grow. If your husband interacts with mature, godly men while hunting deer, clear the calendar during hunting season!
I hope you feel encouraged by reading these suggestions. It may mean that you’ve got some work to do, but it also means that you don’t have to continue in a dance that is keeping both of you stuck. Remember that maturity is a life-long journey on which God has invited both you and your husband.
You may also find the following resources helpful:
- My Husband Won’t Grow Up (blog)
- Java with Juli #120: What To Do When Your Husband Doesn’t Want to Grow Up (member exclusive)
- Your Kids Need Your Husband to Be Their Father (blog)
- Help! My Husband Annoys Me (blog)