He spends hours a day playing Call Of Duty, can’t make a decision, and throws a temper tantrum when he doesn’t get his way. He may be over six feet tall and intimidating to a stranger, but he still behaves like he’s 15. Does this describe your husband? If so, you’re not alone.
It seems to be more common than not that a young wife finds herself married to a man who resembles an adolescent. There are a lot of reasons why this is a growing trend. Perhaps we will save that analysis for another day and another article. Regardless of how you got there, the question is: What do you do when your husband won’t grow up?
For many women, this represents a pivotal crisis in marriage. The right response will lay the groundwork for healthy intimacy while the wrong response can propel the relationship into a tailspin.
Boy Meets Girl
Addressing this problem in your marriage begins by acknowledging that your husband isn’t the only one who needs to grow up. Yes, you can point to a hundred ways that you may be more responsible and mature than he is. While your frustration may be justified, it also probably points to your own immaturity. I know because I’ve been there.
When my husband and I got married, I appeared on the surface to be more mature than he was. I was goal-oriented, knew what I wanted from life, and had been a Christian far longer than my husband. As much as I loved Mike’s laid-back approach to life when we were dating, I fumed about it once we were married. In my internal dialogue, I complained about always having to be the serious one—the responsible one.
I remember one incident that represented the early years of our marriage. Mike and I lived in a two-story townhouse. We agreed that we would clean the house together on Saturday’s—he would clean the upstairs, and I would clean the downstairs. Along came Saturday. After breakfast, I grabbed the cleaning supplies and tackled my part of the house. Mike turned on the TV. Long after I had finished my part of the house, Mike decided to go for a run, and then lunch, then a nap. As the hours wore on, I seethed with anger. By about 9 P.M., I self-righteously grabbed the cleaning supplies and began working on the upstairs. I’m sure I sighed loudly and slammed cupboards, letting my new husband know what a martyr he had married. I was so mad at my husband that I slept on the couch that night. I really lost it when Mike came downstairs the next morning, chuckling at me sprawled on the couch. “Well, I got a good night’s sleep!” he informed me.
In the days and weeks that followed, Mike and I hashed out this on-going issue, so perfectly displayed by the cleaning episode. I learned that my husband wasn’t the only one who needed to grow up. I could be controlling and manipulative in my high standards, sparking my husband to respond with passive-aggressive stubbornness.
Truth be told, we all have a bratty, selfish, sinful kid inside of us. We may be more sophisticated in how we demand our way, but sin is ugly no matter how it is expressed. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be upset if your husband refuses to get a job or take responsibility. What I am saying is that a self-righteous approach is doomed to make the problem worse.
For many women, the natural response to being disappointed by your husband is to go into a shaming, demanding “get your act together” mode. The effect is usually the opposite of what you’d hope for. Why? Because the response of a “disappointed mom” brings out a “passive-aggressive son.”
Capturing your husband’s attention begins by understanding why he runs from responsibility.
Understanding Arrested Development
Why does watching ESPN for hours on end appeal to a man? What in the world does he get from playing video games? Why is it sometimes hard to get him to engage with you in real life, real relationships, and real work?
I may be overgeneralizing here, but I believe the bottom line is fear. Do you know that your husband fears failure?
I remember a story my dad once told me. He was 12 years old and had just moved to Brooklyn, Ohio. Although money was tight, his parents sacrificed to buy him a baseball glove so that he could play in the neighborhood baseball league and make some friends. He soon found himself playing in the outfield for the city championship. His mom and dad came to the game to cheer his team on under the lights of a city stadium. My dad’s team was ahead by one run in the ninth inning. All they had to do was close it out. My dad will never forget the humiliation of dropping a routine fly ball, giving the other team the winning run. Since those were the days before James Dobson, his parents didn’t hug him and didn’t say a word. He was left alone with his failure.
I believe every man has a 12-year-old boy within him that fears what my dad experienced. Self-doubt and fear of failure taunt the average young man, even as visions of being a “hero” bring hope.
Just as porn provides a “safe” way to experience sexual expression, so video games and fantasy football offer “safe” ways to be a victorious hero. The virtual world offers risk-free adventure and achievement. The problem is, like porn, the virtual world isn’t reality. The accomplishments are an illusion. In the real world, your husband can still be rejected, humiliated, and exposed as a failure. His virtual success does nothing to equip him in relationships, work, and leadership.
Many young men have never faced the fear of failure. In a world that allows a 17-year-old to assume no responsibility and face no consequences for his choices, young men are missing a critical stage of maturity. The more they evade responsibility, the greater the fear of being unprepared to succeed in the real world. To make matters worse, many young men do not have fathers or mentors to teach them and model manhood. No man wants to attempt something new if he has no roadmap to success.
Your husband ultimately retreats into the virtual world of isolation because he doesn’t believe he has what it takes to succeed in the real world where there is no “restart” button. Does this give him an excuse for his lack of engagement and responsibility? No, but it may help you understand why he’s not “manning up.”
Nurturing the Boy While Building the Man
Dr. Daniel Levinson wrote a classic book in 1986 called Seasons of a Man’s Life. His conclusion was that every man needs three things to be fulfilled in life: a dream, a wife who believes in him, and a mentor to show him the way. Dr. Levinson’s conclusions are still true of men today.
My friend, I know that you are frustrated by your husband’s lack of maturity. But it is key for you to understand that you are one of the most important factors in whether or not he grows up. You are the one person who ultimately can invite your husband into the challenges of authentic relationship and adult life. Even more than the fear of “dropping the ball,” your husband fears failing you.
As his wife, you have the delicate role of protecting your husband’s vulnerabilities while also calling forth his strength. It sounds complicated, but it is accomplished day-by-day, moment-by-moment by how you choose to think about him, pray for him, and respond to him.
The wonderful news is that you aren’t the first woman to walk through the challenges of how to bring out the “man” in your husband. I’ve seen it done by wise women, and I’m learning the art of doing so in my own marriage. I’ve learned when to step back, when to encourage, and when to confront.
When I’ve shared this perspective before, some women have responded with anger. “Why is it my fault that my husband won’t grow up?” and “Stop blaming females for men’s sin!” Let me be very clear. Some men come into marriage with insecurity, addictions, or a hard heart that is unwilling to change. God doesn’t hold a woman responsible for her husband’s weaknesses or sin. However, we are responsible for how we respond to our circumstances. If God has truly given you more maturity, wisdom, and strength than your husband has, this means that you have much more power in your relationship than he does. How are you using that power?
No man has ever changed because his wife was filled with contempt for his behavior. But I know many men who have been deeply impacted by their wife’s grace and wise use of her strength.
This blog inspired the Java with Juli podcast “What do Do when Your Husband Doesn’t Want to Grow Up”. Listen now to hear more on this topic.