Help me, help her, help me be the best husband I can be!
August 19, 2010 7:16 PM   Subscribe

How do you work out reciprocation in your marriage/partnership/relationship?

My wife just started out at a new job as a resident for veterinary internal medicine. It is an incredibly hard, stressful, low-paying job with MANY hours. She is very happy in what she is doing.

However, with her hours being 7 am to around 8 or 9pm every weekday and at least 4 or 5 hours a day on weekends, she has no time/energy to do anything other than, well, work.

Everything else has fallen to me, and I've taken that job on happily. I see my job for the next 3 years as supporting her, which I'm fine with. I have a good job that pays decently. I cook almost every night (at least 5 nights a week), I take care of the dogs and cat, and I keep house.

I've been alright about this. However, I would like a little more than "hey, thanks for cooking dinner, it was great, I really appreciate it." I don't know what that is though. I don't feel like I can ask her to shoulder any of the burden as she's swamped as it is.

I guess I am feeling the same way a SAHM most likely feels, except I'm also financially supporting both of us.

Any thoughts on how to have this conversation? What to ask for? How to feel reciprocated. Sex isn't a problem here, though more can always be better, but that's another conversation.
posted by TheBones to Human Relations (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
It's best to go into it knowing exactly what you want.

The problem is, in a relationship what you want on the surface is often not what you REALLY want. So I would do some personal exploration on this subject before you open a can of worms with your wife.
posted by hermitosis at 7:18 PM on August 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

This may be an internal conversation, rather than one you have with her.

It sounds like you've both had the discussions regarding her career, that there is some agreement as to how to prioritize what she is doing. It sounds like you value the eventual contribution, and that you're willing to take responsibility for the home duties for the time being.

The question "what to ask for" is a bit puzzling. The "return" for you, will be down the road, to expect it now, while she is focused on "becoming" seems a bit out of place.

My take on this, you're a good person, she's working very hard, you're trying to reconcile your intent and your feelings and things aren't in sync yet. Hang in there, give it some time, continue the great support you're providing...the return for you will be more internal than external as you come to realize how critical and loving what you've done for her is.
posted by HuronBob at 7:27 PM on August 19, 2010

Is it something more emotional or physical that you want from her? Do you want to feel more connected to her on an emotional level or do you want her to help out more? Or both?

Under those circumstances, for me, I think "Thank you, I really appreciate it" would be the best I could do.
posted by amethysts at 7:28 PM on August 19, 2010

It's a conversation you should have after you can better articulate what you need to feel appreciated, which can be difficult if you don't know yourself. It's definitely frustrating to feel "I don't know what I want but this isn't it" and doubly so to hear it from your partner.

You might find it helpful to read The 5 Love Languages, which categorizes how individuals express love into 5 groups: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. If she's speaking "words of affirmation" and you're speaking "physical touch," (to pick two examples), there's a miscommunication that will have both partners thinking "Hey, I'm doing a lot here but I don't feel like I'm being appreciated."

The book has been around forever, your local library probably has several copies.
posted by jamaro at 7:28 PM on August 19, 2010 [5 favorites]

And also, absolutely do not approach her until you're exactly sure of what you want to say and why. Otherwise you might come off either as whiny or attacking/offensive, even if that's not what you mean. Don't make her wade through an emotional swamp to guess at what you want.
posted by amethysts at 7:30 PM on August 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so far, clarification: I know I have to figure it out, I have no idea what it is, and I don't know how to figure it out, so maybe, to clarify- what has worked for you? What helps you feel fuller, more connected? I am hoping your ideas will help to strike a chord in me to help me better articulate things.

HuronBob, I agree, things will get easier down the road. Honestly, as stupid as it sounds, my payoff will be that she's happy in what she is doing. I'm not very career oriented or ambitious, so money definitely comes into play- more financial security, but mostly that she's happy as being a vet is who she is.
posted by TheBones at 7:35 PM on August 19, 2010

Would spending more quality time together, on a regular basis, help? Sounds like your wife needs to become aware that the present situation may not be tenable for months on end.

If you can figure out exactly what you want/need the same of and more of (or something you don't want to do but have to because she is busy), it would be easier to frame a question. Once you have a question to ask, you both can plan on how to achieve it. But you need to figure out first what it is that would make you feel less of a "SAHM" and more of a partner.

My guess (from the abbreviation used) is that one way to avoid feeling like that may be to not take on ALL household chores. You are not *responsible* for her or taking care of her or the house or the pets all by yourself, which sounds almost like a parent. Its easy to start going in that direction early on, when you want to help out and all but it also becomes easier for the other person to take these things as a given with time. And "Thank you" works only so much.

The second thing that may help is doing more of what you like, by yourself and not being there available all the time to cook and serve dinner. For instance, maybe you can let her have dinner by herself if she is late or such once in a while, while you spend time on your work/interests?

I know this sounds sort of unsupportive, especially for a spouse, but I think there is a fine distinction between support and being taken for granted. The latter may not be an intentional or conscious action either.
posted by xm at 7:54 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm in a roughly similar boat. My solution is to suck it up, relieve here of as much stress as possible, and pick up whatever life-slack is possible. Yes, it sucks and is pretty lonely, but it's what has to be. You have to learn to eat shit.

Myself, I work in a very seasonal industry. I've been home for the past 4 mos to get all the daily stuff done, but in the past month, I'm suddenly up to 100 hrs a week. It's very stressful for the wife, but the money is well worth it. We all just sort of have to shut up and take it....I can make 1 or 2 mos pay in 3 weeks, but there's that "no seeing your spouse" thing involved.

Basically, there are a multitude of situations where you get to see your spouse every night. This sounds like its not one of them, and you're not alone. It sucks, but if you get along well enough you can make it through anything.
posted by nevercalm at 7:55 PM on August 19, 2010

You really need to sort out what you want- now and perhaps down the road. It doesn't take long for what feels like a payoff now to become a resentment later.
posted by xm at 7:56 PM on August 19, 2010

Try on some scenarios for size. These are all purely hypotheticals, designed to identify "Maybe yes" vs. "Oh god no" responses. I don't actually think any of these are your answer, iow.

"Honey, I'm so appreciative of all the extra weight you've been pulling, so I bought you a new entertainment system!"

"Honey, I'm SO grateful for all the extra work you've been doing, so I found a rare weekend off and booked us a romantic vacation!"

"Sweetheart, I love you so much and I'm so grateful for everything you do. Even though I'm tired, here are coupons for a 30-minute massage from me. There are ten of them."

"Hey, sailor, I know we haven't seen each other much lately. . . I went on a shopping spree at Good Vibrations and I think we probably won't get out of bed at ALL until I have to go to work Sunday afternoon."

"Oh, my god, I'm so grateful to you for everything you've been doing here. I have reservations at the bistro down the street, and I've hired a trio of hardworking housecleaners to come in here and scrub the place top to bottom while we're gone."

Like I said, I doubt any of those are the right answer, but hopefully some of them will feel more "on" than others. Is that true?
posted by KathrynT at 7:58 PM on August 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

Your question is premised on the idea that there's something your wife could say or do that would make it not suck that she's never home, and I don't know that that's true. Sometimes things suck, but are worth it, and it seems like her residency would fall into that category. One thing that might help when you feel resentful or lonely is to recognize that you aren't really doing everything for her.... single people have to make dinner every night and clean the toilet now and again, too, so you're no worse off with her being out of the house most of the time.
posted by moxiedoll at 8:00 PM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

As someone who is in a case similar to yours (I am the breadwinner, my SO is going to grad school, and I do all of the cooking and a lot of the cleaning) I can really understand where you're coming from. I would urge you to take xm's advice. This sentence is particularly pertinent and gets worse over time, and best case scenario is to nip it in the butt before it gets bad:

I know this sounds sort of unsupportive, especially for a spouse, but I think there is a fine distinction between support and being taken for granted.
posted by kthxbi at 8:02 PM on August 19, 2010

I recommend making sure you have the ability to clearly voice your opinions, wants, and needs about other things and have a reasonable expectation that they will be treated seriously, so that this thing (taking on all the household work) doesn't become a symbolic catchall for resentment. For example, say there's a talk interesting only to you that falls during some of your spouse's rare free time. Would you feel comfortable going? Or you guys hardly ever go out to eat but when you do you always let your wife choose where to go because she works so much. Make sure you are willing to speak up for yourself on these sorts of "small" things so that over time her work schedule doesn't erode more than just the time she's literally at home.

Also, three years is just a long time to be a work widower. You will probably want a break from housekeeping whether she is the one who provides it or you hire some help.
posted by cocoagirl at 8:03 PM on August 19, 2010

Good on you for being such a supportive partner! It sounds like she's already telling you how much she appreciates what you're doing; what you I'm guessing you need is for her to SHOW you. Actions speak louder than words, right? You understand that she's swamped and can't really handle taking on the housework, so that's not really an option. But I'm sure you would like it if she paid some extra attention to you in small ways. Buying you a gift she thinks you'll like. Booking a massage for you (or giving you one). Planning a date night. Etc etc. These are small things but they are ways she can show her appreciation to you. Think about ways she could show you she appreciates you, and give her some concrete suggestions.
posted by yawper at 8:05 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I wish my partner would ask for things more. Want me to do something? Ask. Don't just hope I'll figure it out and then build resentment when I don't. So on a moment to moment basis, I think you should just try and pipe up if there's something you'd like. Although I feel nervous offering that advice without knowing exactly what that might be...
posted by hermitosis at 8:05 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

What about your life BEFORE she embarked on this are you missing? Do you actually miss HER? (Hopefully yes, but that may not be what is driving your current melancholy.) Do you miss having more freedom, since you didn't have the burden of all the chores then? Do you miss company in general?

If you miss your freedom from chores, can you hire some of them out? A house cleaner? A dog walker?

If you miss company, find other social outlets for now. Join a sports league, etc., etc.

If you miss HER, you're just gonna have to swallow it and get through it.
posted by wwartorff at 8:24 PM on August 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Short answer to your first question: you don't. You're a team now, and everything both of you do goes toward a common goal.
Slightly longer and slightly more honest answer: find a good calm time and talk to her. Tell her your concerns, and admit that you're hurting a little. Don't let her feel guilty, but do let her know how you've been in a funk lately. Chances are, you'll be able to work something out, whatever that means. Who knows, maybe she's already sensed your trouble and is just looking to have the talk.
posted by Gilbert at 9:15 PM on August 19, 2010

However, I would like a little more than "hey, thanks for cooking dinner, it was great, I really appreciate it." I don't know what that is though.

So, just brainstorming here, is it to be seen? I could imagine if her external life is fascinating and meanwhile, you're at home cooking, and she's happy and all, "thanks! I appreciate it!" but largely focused on this big new thing out there rather than on you and these things at home, then what I personally would want more of is, "so, you went to the grocery huh? anything new there? four kinds of green beans? I love it when I discover new produce" and "man, this sauce is great, you've been really perfecting your italian cream sauce... new tips from the greek cookbook, wow! yeah, I guess greek and italian are closely related so it does make sense that you'd be able to find ways to combine them and have it turn out so delicious."
posted by salvia at 9:54 PM on August 19, 2010 [3 favorites]

Everything else has fallen to me, and I've taken that job on happily.
Everything else has fallen to me
I've taken that job on happily

I copy and pasted the above from your OP that really hit home for me and I think it's where your focus should be. It's fallen to you and you've taken it on happily to handle everything else for her. It's a thankless job sometimes but it's done for the smile on her face to see things are done where she couldn't do it. I know that the looks of surprise on her face at the dinner prepared or the state of the house or even that her laundry was done carried me for weeks on end.

I was in a similar situation 2 years ago my fiancee took a job at a non-profit whose product she could really stand behind. At the time we were both working so the hours she was putting in here the "new job, getting settled" hours that most of us go through. Then came summer of 2009 and I was laid-off and she was working the crazy hours. I know that the situation is slightly different because I wasn't working but she was working 70 hours a week and had a record of 41 consecutive days in the office. I was cooking, cleaning, and watching our respective kids when they were with us and sometimes it felt thankless.

The couple pieces of advice I can really offer is to ensure that she really is happy in the crazy hours, make sure that she isn't completely burning herself out, and most importantly let her know that you need her time too. She can't fix what she doesn't know about and if your wife is anything like my fiancee they get buried and work and don't necessarily see that we are lonely/depressed/frustrated. Communication is key.

One last thing to ask for is the ability for you to tell her she's doing too much and needs to take a break. Sometimes they can't see that they are reaching their limits and we have to be the grounding force. I wish you and your wife the best.
posted by ThomasBrobber at 10:34 PM on August 19, 2010

Take care of yourself. Do what makes you happy. Don't use her gratitude as a source of self-esteem. She is eventually going to resent the way you are "rescuing" her.
posted by macinchik at 10:49 PM on August 19, 2010

Also, maybe find ways to be more involved with her at work? Like have a quick lunch at her work once a week together (she pays!) or meet her right after work once a week? That way, it's not always her "coming home to you", and you at home, doing boring chores.
posted by alternateuniverse at 2:20 AM on August 20, 2010

I agree with macinchick: though i'm sure it seems impossible to find the time to do anything other than work and clean and support, you have to, for your own sake as much as for the relashionship's. Make some new friends, write something, build something, go somewhere. Do your own stuff and tell her about her when she gets home. If she's the right lady she'll be excited to hear about it and glad you're pursuing something rewarding of your own. You'll find the resentment dissipates once you realize the alone time can be positive.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:46 AM on August 20, 2010

Hire someone to come and clean every week or every other week. The cost is not great and consider it "entertainment" money.

When we were first married and my husband was in grad school and I was working this made a huge improvement in quality of lIfe.
posted by saradarlin at 3:05 AM on August 20, 2010

What helps you feel fuller, more connected?

Been there. The hardest part was, and is, my husband's preoccupation with work matters while at home. Our solution is that he gets buffer time right after he walks in the door, non-negotiable time to himself so he can mentally offload his day. It's hard to give up time with him at home, after not having seen him for so long, but when he gets a period of calm aloneness, he can be more present for all of us after that.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:41 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

My husband and I are in a somewhat similar position. We haven't made it perfect, but I have been surprised recently with how much of a difference it makes when he takes on one particular chore that I hate doing (the dishes).

Also, given that we both have good reason to be exhausted and therefore not inclined to clean up all the time, we've given each other some slack and are ok with a somewhat messy home or chores not being done perfectly on schedule. (Although of course taking care of pets, in your situation, would likely require consistent care.) I don't mind being primarily responsible for tidying up, but when I'm just not feeling it, my husband and I have an understanding that he shouldn't ask me to do it while he decompresses on the couch. If something is really bugging him and I'm too worn down to do it (after a full work day and taking care of other things), he knows to ask that we both get up and do it together so I don't feel taken for granted.
posted by Terriniski at 7:12 AM on August 20, 2010

The way we handle reciprocation is to not ever ever EVER keep accounts of who did what and who does what when. We are continually copious with our gratitude just because that's the kind of people we are and always try hard to do something extra for the other person, even if it's just refilling their water glass because we're up and they're not.

There are definitely times that one of us carries the other's ass. However, what we're not doing is keeping a running tally of it. It would never occur to us to do that.

The other thing we don't do is expect the other to be psychic. If I feel like I'm tired of scrubbing the bathroom, I'll say, "Hey, buddy, could you please clean the bathroom this weekend?" In turn he might say "I am feeling crowded in the closet, could you possibly deal with your stuff at some point over the next week?' instead of getting into the typical kind of resentment where you think oh my god how does he not SEE the dust everywhere and why am i ALWAYS the one who gets the swiffer out. You just say: THING needs to be done. Could you do it?

Finally, here's the thing: when I am on a deadline with a manuscript I am working a full-time job and then going to write and I come home at 10:30 and want to fall over, Mr. M. supports me by picking up groceries or picking me up at the subway in the pouring rain or taking care of thing X I was supposed to do but just can't. I say "thank you" and it's sufficient. He's supportive. It's what a couple does. We were both brought up that a relationship isn't always 50-50, sometimes it's 60-40, and sometimes it's 90-10. Either you're okay with that, or you're not.

One last thing (sorry): do you HAVE to cook 5 nights a week? couldn't you go prepared meals 2 nights? that would seem fairer than trying to be super-spouse.
posted by micawber at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2010

Have you considered taking some of the load off of your schedule by having a cleaning service such as Merry Maids come in every other week? Can you do some cooking in bulk one or two nights a week and freezing it for meals later on? Outsourcing or streamlining some of the household chores maybe will give you a window in which you can grab some couple time.

If you can, squeeze a little time out on a weekend or holiday to go do something you enjoy as a couple, even if it's just taking a walk for an hour. This will allow you to reconnect and catch up and give you a bridge over those busy times.

It sounds like this residency is for a finite amount of time and the busyness won't last forever. Keep that as a goal - "this too shall pass," "eyes on the prize" and that sort of thing.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:04 AM on August 20, 2010

I agree with micawber that a relationship isn't always 50-50, sometimes it's 60-40, and sometimes it's 90-10

But it is rarelyy 100-0.
There could probably be one simple thing she can do that would make you feel reciprocated.
It might be that she empties the dishwasher in the morning, makes your morning coffee for you, does a load of laundry every day, takes charge of folding the underwear and socks, or always scrubs your back in the shower for you.

There is surely something she can do to help out that would make you feel that she is your partner, and that you are not alone in sustaining the relationship for 3 years.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:31 AM on August 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you think of your marriage as a lifetime partnership in which you have become one economic and household unit, you will see this as less of a burden. For all you know, you'll get cancer or paralyzed by a truck and she'll end up taking care of you for the rest of your life.

In your specific situation, you two as a couple are investing in three years of her residency after which she will be a veterinarian and making decent money. Maybe you could plan on hiring a housecleaning service once she finishes and starts bringing in a big paycheck, and look forward to not having to clean anymore.
posted by Jacqueline at 9:16 PM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks Jacqueline, we've already been through vet school (well, she went to vet school, I worked), an internship, and now she's on doing a residency. I knew her 3 months before she got into vet school, and, minus 2 years of practicing, all we've known together is schooling.
posted by TheBones at 8:09 AM on August 21, 2010

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