SWM 116 – Why do I always have to tell my husband how to help?

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend on social media where famous creator couples make videos of the wife telling the husband that visitors are coming over and they need to prepare. In response, the husband goes and starts cleaning out the attic and crawlspace, going through keepsakes, and performing other tasks that do little to achieve the intended goal of getting ready for guests.

Of course, they’re doing it as a light-hearted joke, but it points to a common conflict in marriages – women often feel they have to ask for the same help repeatedly. Even in the non-hyperbole versions of these videos, the husband typically mows the lawn, cleans the driveway, and fixes issues in the front of the house, such as rewiring a light. In contrast, the wife worries about cleaning the house’s interior and preparing food. Invariably, the wife gets upset that he’s not helping with what she sees as important tasks.

And in media, be it TV, movies, or social media, they all generally side with the wife.  The joking videos mentioned above always point and laugh at the men. Why is this?  Is it just that men are inept?  Are they blind?  Inconsiderate?

So, here are my ideas of why this happens – which you are welcome to disagree with in the comments.

Men aren’t mind-readers

Women aren’t either, but men are generally expected to be for some reason, whereas women are not.  I think one of the reasons for this is that men tend to be more direct in their communication, whereas women tend to be more subtle.  As a result, women tend to grow up understanding more nuances of nonverbal communication and spend a lot more time listening to what isn’t being said.  Men, on the other hand, tend to think that if you didn’t say it, then it wasn’t important.

And so men tend to get more frustrated when their wives don’t tell them precisely what they are thinking, and women tend to get more frustrated when their husbands can’t figure it out without it being said.

Many wives want their husbands to lead

This is unpopular to say these days, but many wives want their husbands to lead, and asking them to do something feels like leading instead of following.

This is a misunderstanding of what leadership is.  

Leadership is not about being able to see everything and make decisions in a vacuum and then head off doing it all yourself while your wife does the same thing and then hopes you both saw the same tasks that needed to be done and made the same decision and then executed the same action list.

Leadership is about having a team and relying on that team to inform you of what you cannot see and execute more than you could as individuals.  The job of a leader is to choose the direction and then figure out the best way to complete whatever task needs to be accomplished. 

That is leadership.  Asking your husband to see what you see, think as you do and then do it the way you would is not asking him to lead – it’s asking him to be a servant who can read your mind, which is precisely the opposite of what you’re claiming to want with this argument.  If you want him to lead, give him the information he needs to make an informed decision, talk about it, and then let him decide.

We have different priorities

In many houses, household chores tend to get divided between inside and outside.  The wives often focus on what’s inside the house, and the husbands tend to focus on what’s outside (with the addition of any home maintenance inside).

As such, in the examples above, we may prioritize different things when visitors come over.  While the wife might focus on the house’s hospitality – how clean it is, that there’s food, etc., men might focus on safety – like the light working so you can see the step or the driveway being clear so they have a place to park. 

He may also be concerned about how the things he considers himself responsible for look – the grass being mowed, the driveway washed, or the gutters cleared because these things reflect poorly on him if they are not done.

And likely, if he goes to someone else’s house, he may not notice laundry not being put away or the table being wiped – but he’ll notice the light that’s burnt out and the step that’s not secure.

We see the world differently, and we shouldn’t expect others to see them the way we do.

Our definitions of “done” are not the same

Even if we both see that something is a priority, what constitutes accomplishing the task might look different to each spouse.  Men tend to care less about cleanliness than women.  

I worked for a summer for my father-in-law.  He recycled tires for a living.  So, I spent the summer absolutely filthy.  One day, while taking a break for lunch, we were making sandwiches.  I asked if there was a clean knife for the mayo.  My father-in-law grabbed the knife from the butter, wiped it on his shirt, which was covered in dirt, oil, rubber and whatever else we picked up from being in a scrap yard that morning picking up tires, and handed it to me.  And you know what – I used it for the mayo because I was hungry, and I cared more about eating than being clean.

So, when I look around the house and think, “Yeah, it’s clean,” my wife can look at the same room at the same time and think, “This room is disgusting,” which always amazes me because she also worked for her dad when she was younger and I bet he pulled the same stunt on her.  Or maybe not – I later found out that he was rougher on me.  If you want that story, you’ll have to come to a Couple’s Night and ask.

Men tend not to ask for help

Frankly, most of us men grew up being taught not to expect to get help.  We don’t ask for it, and we don’t expect it.  Our job, as men, is to be self-sufficient.  It’s actually to be better than self-sufficient.  We grow up expecting to handle our list and whatever our wife needs help with.  In short, we will do our homework and then help our wife with hers.  

And, it seems, many women expect the same.  No one explicitly says it, but the wives tend to expect their husbands to help with their list, while there’s often little to no expectation that they reciprocate.

I’m not making a value judgment here – I’m not saying it’s right or wrong, fair or unfair, the lists are comparable, or anything like that.  I’m saying that both men and women tend to expect the men to complete their list independently, while women expect to have help with theirs.

Some examples of this are:

  • Cleaning the toilet is a shared responsibility. Problems with the septic tank, the fill valve, or replacing the wax seal are his.
  • Doing the laundry is a shared responsibility.  Fixing the washing machine, wiring a plug, or unclogging the drain is his.
  • Doing the dishes is a shared responsibility.  Fishing the wedding ring out of the P-trap is his.
  • Vacuuming the house is a shared responsibility.  Fixing the outlet that the vacuum needs to plug into is his.

Again, I’m not making any value judgments here, merely pointing out that when men think of things that need to be done around the house – we do them ourselves and don’t expect anyone to help. When women think of things that need to be done around the house, they anticipate help and a communal sharing of the tasks and get frustrated when it doesn’t materialize.

I see over and over again, specifically in the ADHD community, the idea of “body doubling” – that is, women will call another woman so that they can do chores together while on the phone, over Facetime, or in person. And I see lots of comments from other women who don’t have ADHD saying that’s a great idea. I have never seen a man, even with ADHD, make a recommendation for “body doubling,” nor do I see men commenting in those videos wishing he had someone to have over to do chores with.

The point is most women approach chores wanting partnership and collaboration, whereas men approach chores expecting to lone-wolf it because no one is coming to help them. That was never promised, and so it’s only expected, anticipated, or even thought of once we hit a problem where we literally cannot do it on our own because of some physical limitation.

So, what do we do about this?

Episode 116 - Why do I always have to tell my husband how to help?

I think the first thing is to realize that we don’t think alike.

So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. – Genesis 1:27 (NKJV)

God created us to be different.  As much as our society would like to have us believe that gender is just a construct, it’s not.  We perceive the world differently, we think differently, we prioritize differently, and we behave differently.  We’re not the same.

This is not just ingrained in us, but rather it is programmed in us by our genetics.  Our brains are structured differently, we run on different hormones and we process things differently at a physical level.

We both have the same value (somehow simultaneously worthless and also worth God dying for), but we are not equal.

Second, even though we’re married, that doesn’t mean we can read each other’s minds.

Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24 (NKJV)

Notice the two become one flesh – not one mind – it seems even God thought that was too far a stretch.  One flesh was enough for Paul to call it a mystery – one mind is inconceivable.

Third, communicate! If you expect something – make sure it’s well-known by everyone.  Don’t run around making covert contracts and then get upset because the other person didn’t know you had made a deal in your head.

This goes the other way too, though – don’t assume you know what your spouse means.  If they ask for help, ask what that help looks like, what the goal is, and what “done” looks like to them.  If your spouse comes to you and starts asking these questions, if you answer in a way that makes them feel stupid for asking – don’t expect them to ask again.  You may find yourself doing your tasks on your own.

And husbands – your wife might want you to ask for help with some of your tasks. So, invite her to help you fix the toilet, or fix the pump in the septic tank, or wire that 240V circuit. You may be shocked by how much fun it is to work together.

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