Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.
January 27, 2011 1:40 PM   Subscribe

How do you get over having to ask for what you want in a relationship?

I know, intellectually and practically, that straightforward communication is important in a relationship, and that sometimes you need to plainly ask for what you want from your partner. The trouble is, how do you accept it when you get what you asked for? When what you wish would have been a gift, freely given, is instead offered to you because you explicitly asked? How do you get past the resentment that you needed to ask at all, when what you want seems transparently obvious?

For a little more context: my longtime marriage is foundering and a big part of our problem is that I am hurt by my husband's lack of communication/expressiveness. There are many other ways he demonstrates his love and commitment to me and with both individual and couples' counseling we are working on closing the gap between us. That includes me being appreciative for the ways he does show his love, and him working on more talking, outward expressions of affection, etc.

But when he tries to do the things that I've asked him to do--that I want him to do--I still have such a sense of resentment that I had to ask at all, and his gestures in good will bring me a lot of pain. Clearly it's counterproductive when he is doing what I've asked him to do and I still reject it.

I recognize that this is a vicious circle, but some of these hurts are so old and so fundamental that I really don't know how to find the path to get out of it. We are talking about this in therapy but I would love to hear if anyone in the hive mind has been here and made it through to the other side. I'm posting anonymously but welcome direct responses at
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (39 answers total) 61 users marked this as a favorite
My partner and I have this ongoing thing where if I have to ask for something, he does it at least twice, and the first time doesn't count. That way we can get the one where I feel all bitter and irritable that I had to ask out of way as quickly as possible, so he can promptly move on to next doing it in a way that makes as happy instead.

He tends to declare this along the way - "Remember, this one doesn't count!" - which makes me giggle, which helps us move along to the good times more efficiently as well.

Good luck! There are workarounds out there, so don't lose hope.
posted by Eshkol at 1:51 PM on January 27, 2011 [74 favorites]

I don't get angry; I'm grateful that someone cares about me enough to listen to my requests and act on them, even when they may not understand or appreciate them at all.

I actually find that more special than when they do something I haven't asked for in some ways: in relationships, the stuff you can anticipate is the easy stuff. It's the unpredictable or un-thought-of that's challenging. When someone makes an effort to do something that I've asked for, I know they are always willing to listen to me, and put my needs first - whatever they may think of them. I find it very comforting.

Whether that's gonna help your marriage or not, I don't know; I doubt you're gonna get better answers here than in therapy where they know you and your husband. But maybe I'm over-rating therapists.
posted by smoke at 1:53 PM on January 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

Just because you have to ask for it doesn't mean it wasn't freely given. He could, after all, have refused. He is choosing, of his own free will, to do what you have asked.

It's one thing to desire certain behavior from others, it's another to desire particular motivations. I go walking with my wife most evenings. I'm chatty and make her laugh and it's nice. Should it matter to her if I go because I loooooove walking or if I go because she loves it and I like being with her? Not really. The end result is the same: I go for a walk with her in the evening (between you and me I'd rather stay home with a book). I'm okay with this, so why should she mind?

BTW - Do you know what really bugs your husband (I'm totally psychic, so I can tell)? Do you want to know?

Okay, here it is. He really likes it when you tell him when you want him to do stuff (dude's not really clued in and he likes the direct approach). What totally bugs him is when he has to remind you to tell him. It's like you aren't doing it of your own free will - you only ask him to do stuff because he (or a therapist) told you to do that. He sort of thinks that it's pretty obvious that he needs a kick in the pants and that he shouldn't have to remind you to whack him with the DUH stick every now and then. But you need reminding. He's a little resentful of that.

Isn't that silly?
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 1:59 PM on January 27, 2011 [20 favorites]

Very early in our marriage, my Bear and I went to counseling. One of my big complaints was how much attention he paid to our house (versus, I felt, to me.) It turned out that he was lavishing care on the house because he wanted to make a great environment for me. Doh!

Very few people come with mind reading ability. That he cares so much for you that he makes the effort to act as you wish says worlds about how much he loves you. Flip it around and realize how tough it would be if you were getting requests to act differently -- you'd feel criticized for not offering the behavior earlier, and guilty, and worried about whether you were now doing it right. But you would know you were trying because you loved your husband.

If you work on not expecting magical mindreading ability, and seeing the effort that goes into doing as you've requested, you'll suddenly notice all that currently invisible love that envelops you.
posted by bearwife at 2:02 PM on January 27, 2011 [6 favorites]

I agree with smoke. I say this as nicely as I can, but get over yourself. If you really are trying to make things work then accept the fact that your husband is trying as a precious gift and be grateful. It is alot easier to give up and move on than it is to put in the work and effort to get things right and do what the other person needs.

He didn't think to do them because he's not a mind reader.
posted by TheBones at 2:03 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think "thoughtfulness"--defined here as the quality of naturally noticing what other people desire and working to provide it without their asking because it will make them happy--is a great characteristic in a partner, but not the only great characteristic. Whether it's a dealbreaker that a partner lacks this characteristic is probably a pretty individual thing; like "good with money" or "laid back and centered no matter how stressful the situation" or "always up for an exciting new experience," I can imagine that's it is totally necessary for some people and a nice extra (but not essential) for others.

I think you need to realize that the sort of thoughtfulness you're missing is, on some level, a fundamental aspect of someone's personality, and it's possible but not likely to change no matter how much you go to therapy and tell them it's important to you. So the question needs to be, is this such a problem that you can imagine living and loving this person even if it never changes, or changes just a little bit after herculean efforts on his part? It's easy for an internet chorus to say "DUMP HIM" but I'd caution you to try to take a step back and look at your husband as a whole person. Do his good characteristics outweigh his bad? Is a lack of thoughtfulness really and truly something you can't live without, would you really be happy with someone else who was thoughtful but lacked other personality aspects that you appreciate about your husband?

I don't believe it's fair to expect our husbands or wives to have every characteristic we might desire in a partner. There are *always* going to be things that you love, and some things that you wish were different. The best thing you can do is let go of the belief that thoughtfulness is somehow reflective of his level of love for you (rather than a personality trait, like how much he is outgoing or affectionate or calm or what-have-you) and open yourself up to the idea that he can love you a lot and still lack thoughtfulness. If you believe that, is who he is *enough* for you, as he is now?
posted by iminurmefi at 2:03 PM on January 27, 2011 [15 favorites]

This might help. My wife and I have had to work through similar issues. It helps to realize that when he does what you ask, it is awkward for him because he isn't used to doing it; but it also probably isn't naturally how he receives love (there are many different ways), so it's hard for him to cater to an internal disposition he doesn't innately have.

The good news is that even if he does it now simply because you ask, he can absolutely learn to do it, and enjoy doing it, because he knows it brings you pleasure. Hang with him while he learns to instantiate an appreciation for a particular way of showing you love that is unnatural to him. If he keeps practicing, it won't always be awkward, but will become a natural outflowing of his appreciation of you. Remember that what is obvious for you is not obvious for everyone, but the fact that he's willing to try to learn is, by itself, an expression of love.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:04 PM on January 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

What you want may seem transparently obvious to you. But other people can't see inside our heads and know what we're thinking and feeling. They can try to guess, but still they're just extrapolating from cues we've given them and what we know about human nature. Basically, you've "told" them by acting in ways consistent with wanting them to do a certain thing. Some people are very good at guessing correctly based on those signals, while some people just don't have that skill and need to be told in words rather than hints or actions.

Your husband sounds like a person who really wants to make you happy, but can't figure out how to do it based on the method you've been using to tell him what you want. You say that you "wish would have been a gift, freely given, is instead offered to you because you explicitly asked." But in fact, that's exactly what he's doing. He's freely choosing to give you the gift of doing what he knows will make you happy. He could choose not to, if he didn't care about making you happy. But instead, he's listening to what you say and do, and giving you what you need.

I think you need to let go of the idea that someone who really loves you should be able to pick up on things you tell them without using words. That's not a signal of love or compatibility; it's an intuitive social skill that some people, no matter how much they love you, just aren't good at. Imagine if you really liked basketball, but your husband was short and un-athletic. Would you be upset if he tried to play basketball with you, knowing how important it is to you, but he wasn't good at it and never scored any points? Would you resent him for not being good at a sport that makes you happy? I would submit that this is the same thing: he's trying to listen to you and work on your relationship, but he, like most people, is much better at communicating in words than in signals and coded messages. Talking is a much more effective method of communication. Try to let go of the idea that it's somehow cheating to say what you want out loud rather than dancing around and making him guess.
posted by decathecting at 2:10 PM on January 27, 2011 [22 favorites]

To tack on to the others:

When he does do what you ask of him, make a slightly bigger deal about it than the gesture was. For example, if my wife asks me to do "Y"--and I do "Y"--she sometimes says, "Thanks so much for doing "Y" it really makes me feel good when you do "Y". That reinforcement makes me feel good. Everybody wins.
posted by teg4rvn at 2:13 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is kind of silly to expect people to be mind readers. So telling people what you want should be the norm.
posted by gjc at 2:15 PM on January 27, 2011 [5 favorites]

Early on in my present relationship (10+ years) I told my girlfriend that I'd be happy to do whatever she wants me to do, but whatever it is, it probably won't occur to me on my own. She will have to ask. That's just the way I am, and apparently, I'm not alone.

Ask, leave a note, singing telegram, whatever...

I'm not sure how to explain this exactly, but we all have a certain amount of brain space. For a lot of men, thinking about sex takes up at least half of that space. Food is probably about another quarter of that space. Then there's hobbies, sports, etc.

It's not that we're going out of our way to not think about what you want, it's just that there's no room left in the ol' noggin to think about what you want.

Which is why you will have to tell him to please carry something, clean something, fix something... etc, etc...
posted by freakazoid at 2:16 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

decathecting is totally, 100% spot-on. Your husband is giving you a wonderful and loving gift: he is giving you the gift of his attention and respect. He wants to know what you need, so that he can meet your needs.

At the same time, because he is not blessed with the ability to read your mind (or, more precisely, not as good at reading non-verbal cues as you might think is preferable), he needs you to give him the gift of articulating those needs verbally.
posted by scody at 2:21 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

Ask yourself how you expect him to know what you want him to do if you don't tell him.

I found cognitive behavioural therapy very helpful for working out a lot of my motivations. It seems that you think he should automatically know that you want X. In CBT terms, this is known as "shoulding" (see #8). I was guilty of thinking that people should behave in a certain way until I realised that simply meeting these people doesn't give me the right to demand that they change their behaviour to suit me. I still don't necessarily like that behaviour, but I now realise that they are going to behave the way they wish to behave no matter what I think about it. And there are probably people out there that think that I should behave in a certain way. Again, this is unlikely to happen.
posted by Solomon at 2:22 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

To put a funny spin on what everyone else is saying, sometimes I try to pretend that everything he does is for you. It's pretty outrageous, but really fun at the same time. Why is he working? Most importantly, he's working so he can make money to build a future with you. How sweet of him! Why did he make dinner? To feed you! Woohoo, best hubby ever! Why did he leave the toilet seat up? To uh... show you how great his aim is? Yay? I don't know.

It's funny. Even when you are fully aware that you need to ask for what you want, it's still hard to put it into practice. Just this morning I was lying in bed with an achey back and my partner offered me TWO THINGS for breakfast, and I turned them both down. Why? Because I wanted cereal, and he didn't offer me cereal. Why didn't I just ask him for cereal? I guess because I didn't want to make him do something he didn't want to do. In hindsight, that's pretty stupid, but in the moment it felt like he didn't offer me cereal because it would have been more work than the other two options. Even though it wouldn't have been like that at all! Cereal is easy, AMIRITE? And I regret not asking for cereal, because cereal is delicious and he was basically offering to make me breakfast in bed and I missed out on that. All because I thought cereal was hard work? Boo.
posted by two lights above the sea at 2:32 PM on January 27, 2011 [17 favorites]

The fact that you love one another does not mean it will be effortless. He will not be able to anticipate your needs on most things without help. If you have that expectation -- "If he really loves me, he'll know what I want." -- it is unrealistic.

That said, the hurt and resentment from unmet expectations is very real. The best you can do is to express your expectations to your husband and work through which ones are unrealistic.

What helps also is to understand and appreciate how each of you naturally express and prefer to receive love. That way you can identify the ways that he naturally shows you he loves you. He also can make an effort to express his love in ways that you prefer to receive it (The Five Love Languages covers this) and vice versa. But keep in mind that this will always be an effort and won't be second nature to him for a long long time.

Another thing that has helped us is this idea of sharing "The List" versus helping. My wife has this huge list of stuff that needs to be done in her head. It stresses her out to have all that stuff pressing on her. It makes her grumpy.

If she asks me to do something on "The List" and I do it, great, but that's not that very much relief. I'm more like one of her children instead of her partner. She's still carrying the whole "List."

So, I take whole chunks of "The List" and now I am in charge of an area, like "bedtime routine" or "homework" while she takes "floors" and "the family calendar" So she does not have to worry about carrying around the whole set of "to-dos" in her mind.

What makes this work is that when she hands me a part of "The List" she truly lets go and does not try to micromanage me so I approach it "her way." If she wants control over the "how" it gets done in detail then she keeps that part of "The List." So in that way, we have an agreement about what family and household affairs I need to anticipate and which I need to merely "help" with.

The thing is, this "List" thing also includes our relationship stuff. "Dates" is mine, "Family Fun" is hers. I own the "vision" and facilitate "planning" and she holds the "barometer" of our day to day communication. That doesn't mean we aren't involved in every thing together, it's just that we've negotiated who takes the lead and keeps that thing going.

Of course, if you expect that a relationship should come naturally and should not need this level of explicit communication, well, I can't speak to that. Some expectations are more realistic than others.
posted by cross_impact at 2:45 PM on January 27, 2011 [29 favorites]

Maybe look at it this way: Perhaps the things you are asking him to do are difficult and awkward for him to carry out and do or at least they are things that didn't occur him to do naturally. But yet, he does them - even though it's a tough or unnatural thing for him. And he does these things because he loves you and wants to make you happy. He puts your happiness above his own discomfort.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:00 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

The trouble is, how do you accept it when you get what you asked for? When what you wish would have been a gift, freely given, is instead offered to you because you explicitly asked

It is still freely given. The fact that it was asked for does not mean that it wasn't freely given. If he asked you for $200 or a blow job every time he did one of those things for you, then it isn't freely given.

Why are you measuring your worth to him based on his ability to read your mind? No person is able to do that and no person is entitled to that.
posted by Ironmouth at 3:13 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do you get past the resentment that you needed to ask at all, when what you want seems transparently obvious?

Put another way, how is something not asked for directly transparently obvious?
posted by Ironmouth at 3:15 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Here's two very different experiences with the asking for something.

Years ago, I asked my ex for a bathrobe for Christmas. He said, okay. The day before Christmas, he took me to the mall and made me pick out my robe. Because he "didn't know what I would like." I got a nice robe for myself.

Last year, I asked my fiance for a bathrobe for Christmas. He said, "Okay, what kind of robe? What length? Thickness? Colors?" He then went to pick out one of the most awesome robes ever, wrapped and gave it to me for Christmas. It was thick, warm, and matched my houseshoes. All those things he knew because he asked.

Guess which one meant more?

The point is, the most awesome person in the world still has to be asked from time to time for stuff. The issue is not did you have to ask, but did they listen, and apply information they knew about you to the giving.
posted by teleri025 at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2011 [11 favorites]

iminurmefi: "I think "thoughtfulness"--defined here as the quality of naturally noticing what other people desire and working to provide it without their asking because it will make them happy--is a great characteristic in a partner, but not the only great characteristic....I think you need to realize that the sort of thoughtfulness you're missing is, on some level, a fundamental aspect of someone's personality, and it's possible but not likely to change no matter how much you go to therapy and tell them it's important to you. So the question needs to be, is this such a problem that you can imagine living and loving this person even if it never changes, or changes just a little bit after herculean efforts on his part? It's easy for an internet chorus to say "DUMP HIM" but I'd caution you to try to take a step back and look at your husband as a whole person. Do his good characteristics outweigh his bad? Is a lack of thoughtfulness really and truly something you can't live without, would you really be happy with someone else who was thoughtful but lacked other personality aspects that you appreciate about your husband?"

This quote is so spot on that I had trouble not quoting the whole thing. I now (after 8 years of marriage) really believe that the ability to be intuitive about what people want and need is somewhat innate. I think it can be improved but someone not being good at it is no reflection on them as a person or on you as their significant other. Their willingness to try, to work hard at the relationship is the true measure. Your ability to let go of what you think is important and really reflect on what is important is critical to move past this.
posted by victoriab at 3:32 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most of the answers above provide tips on how to understand your husband's approach and they are all very true. However, I think I can answer your question on how to get to the other side directly, from my own experience.

I too felt resentful even though I was aware that he couldn't just read my mind. Basically it came down to developing patience. I communicated what I needed and the first few or several times that he did what I asked for, I learned to just let myself feel resentful and accept that what he was doing was very unnatural to him. But I gave him time to get into the habit of being expressive, showing hospitableness, affection, taking charge of parts of running our home and so on. Eventually, it became more natural for him to do these things without me asking each time after several tries. Interestingly, I also gave up my ideas on what those qualities specifically mean. So instead of a fancy dinner at a restaurant, I ended up enjoying the fancy dinners he'd make for us at home more.
posted by waterandrock at 4:01 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this as well, but from the other side. I live in Japan, my boyfriend is Japanese, and he seems to believe that I should somehow know what it is that he wants from me, without actually telling me. Part of it is the mythical Japanese isshin denshin (以心伝心), which is the low-grade telepathy that everyone is supposed to possess so that no one has to be so crass as to explicitly say what they want or need from someone. That kind of indirectness is a huge part of the Japanese way of thinking, and while I do my best to try and pick up on all the subtle cues, I am American and thus (to quote Dave Barry) have "all the subtlety of Harpo hitting Zeppo with a dead chicken." I've told him that the best way for him to get what he wants from me is just to tell me, but that goes against his entire cultural upbringing.

We're working on it, though. The best solution is to understand where the other person is coming from, and try to work with their way of thinking. You don't like having to tell your husband what you want, but he's not that good at picking up on your signals. Conversely, I'd bet that he's not too happy to try and guess what you're thinking, because the consequences of being wrong might be too much of a risk. [1]

Accept that this is how his mind works, and that he might be trying to show his love for you in ways that you don't recognize because he's not doing it the same way you would if you were him. Accept his gifts in the spirit in which they are given and encourage him when he does try to guess what you want (even if he's wrong).

And, as others have said, keep in mind that he could always say "No." Or be annoyingly passive-aggressive and mess things up on purpose. If he performs with alacrity and enthusiasm (or a reasonable facsimile thereof), you should count your blessings.

[1] Gods forbid I should try and guess what The Boyfriend wants and get it wrong. My favorite line recently: "Don't give me a choice and then complain when I don't choose what you wanted me to choose." I blame his addiction to Sex & The City....
posted by MShades at 4:09 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I got over having to ask for things because asking for things meant I got what I wanted.

I can be a pretty oblivious person and here still I was expecting other people to magically know what I want. Really, no matter how obvious my "signals" felt like to me, they really weren't obvious at all. And then I didn't get what I wanted and that made me grumpy. So! I started asking for things and then lo and behold I started getting what I wanted. Of course we all want someone who can cater to our unspoken whims, but I think the only way that can happen for most people is through careful training. Your husband is getting some training, and doing his best to do these things to make you happy, and you're still resentful! Ouch!

So either you can ask for things and get everything you want except telepathy, or you can hope for telepathy, not get it, and not get what you want. I think one of these two options has a generally better outcome.
posted by that girl at 5:05 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm a little surprised that nobody has linked you to ask vs. guess yet, since this seems like a pretty textbook example.

The bottom line is that you are reading all sorts of things into his failure to figure out what you want, but really what's happening is that you each have a totally different set of norms around these things. It's like you're speaking different languages.
posted by Ragged Richard at 5:14 PM on January 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

It took me a lot of time and effort to get over this too. In the end I think you just have to force yourself, and swallow any resentment. Be specific about what you want. Act very appreciative when you get it, even if you don't really feel that way -- over time, when the emotion fades and you look at it rationally, you will come to feel grateful that your partner cares enough to do what you want, and you'll be very glad that you acted like a supportive partner instead of being a baby about it. Accept that your partner can't give you everything you want, and focus on what he does that you love and appreciate about him instead of the things that drive you crazy.
posted by chickenmagazine at 5:33 PM on January 27, 2011

We all have to do a lot of personal deprogramming of the messages we get from popular culture about how relationships "should" be. Including the "you shouldn't have to ask; your partner should just know," which is one of the most toxic messages of all.

I am startled that I am the first person to suggest that you read How to Be an Adult in Relationships by David Risho in this thread, but there it is. Read it. Part of being an adult (in every relationship, not just romantic partnerships) is asking for what you want.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:55 PM on January 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
I'd like to add a little anonymous clarification/feedback to the discussion, if you don't mind:

Thanks for the very many thoughtful responses to my question. Much to reflect on here. I want to thank waterandrock, especially--that's exactly the kind of feedback I was looking for.

What bedevils me in this situation is that my husband is, in some ways, incredibly thoughtful; he knows me better than any other person alive, respects my preferences when they're different from his, etc, etc. He makes me coffee every morning even though he hates the stuff himself. I do know on the whole he's a good man who loves me in his way, which is why I'm struggling so much about the things that aren't working, which are serious matters. I am not talking about being pissed about trifling things, because he doesn't bring me flowers or bought me the wrong color bathrobe or whatever.

The kinds of things that I think should be transparently obvious to adults are things like:

--If I talk to him about things that bother me in the relationship, and he literally will not respond to me, then those problems can never be solved. I needed to explicitly point this out to him. The corollary--if we can't talk about problems that are big and serious to me, and somehow reach a resolution, then we need to get a divorce--seemed to be a big wake-up call for him. Now whenever we have a direct discussion about a point of contention, as we sometimes do now, I am still flooded with resentment that I needed to practically beg him to talk to me at all.

--If the widely-recognized expressions of emotional and physical intimacy (spanning the range from showing evidence of wanting to spend time together, through relatively platonic forms of physical affection, on through sex) have been absent for years--if one partner notices, tries repeately to reach out, and the other one clearly does not regard this as a priority and doesn't respond--that this can reasonably be interpreted as distance and disinterest if not outright rejection. Now when he tries to connect with me or suggests that he desires me, I can't believe that he's actually interested--I think that he's just doing it to keep me from leaving. This is such a sore spot. It hurt so badly for so long to be rebuffed when I reached out, now any attempt to connect with him, initated by him, is so painful.

--Adults need to take interest in and responsibility for major decisions in their lives, including those involving finances, children, major life decisions. In the last several years these responsibilities have tilted more and more in my direction, despite my pleas to him to get more involved and do his share. Last summer I hit the breaking point about this issue (as well as those mentioned above, and yet a few more) and he has since been conspicuously picking up more responsibilities, though we are still nowhere near equity in this realm. But again, even when he does show initiative and take responsibility for something, it reminds me how furious I am that this was even an issue--that he let it slide so much in the first place.

Again, this isn't "why doesn't he know that blue is my favorite color". To my mind the above issues seem so obvious and straightforward that I am having such a hard time forgiving my incredibly smart, capable husband for Not Getting It. As I said, we're in therapy individually and together to tease out the dynamics that led to the above situations, but this issue of resenting having had to ask is huge for me and I just don't know how to get past it.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:00 PM on January 27, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think you're asking an interesting question about resentment, and it's arc in a relationship when one person asks for something, but has to 'escalate' to actually gain it. So I think you're talking about a variation of a Pyrrhic victory - where there is a victory but at devastating cost to the victor. Because the result of you having to ask for things, and ask again, and then consider divorce in your head and then then threaten divorce - before you feel you got your partner's attention and gained what you wanted, is at the center of your devastating cost. Sort of like winning the battle, but losing the trust that is central to any healthy marriage.

There is an acceleration energy in escalating, in feeling like you have to push your needs uphill, that burns, and takes a long time to dissipate. I think that's anger, and mistrust, and resentment, and it stays in the air for a long time, like smoke permeates everything long after the house fire is put out. I think those are natural responses to someone you love, someone who you are counting on to be your partner, not pulling his own weight in the relationship. Because not pulling his own weight was working for him. He still got to do what he wanted to do, even as he saw it was sinking you. So perhaps in your worst moments, you're wondering if he's once again doing 'what's working for him', because 'being responsive to your needs' the only way he can maintain a relationship with you. And if that's the case, in your worst moments, you might wonder if you're being played.

I think what you do is give yourself time - say a year - to see what happens. A year. Long enough to see if something shifts in you, but short enough that if you can't get past it not just because of previous behavior, but because you still feel like you're carrying the relationship weight, you can strike out and find another partner who more intuitively communicates and contributes to a relationship in a way you recognze and appreciate. Sometimes, things are just ruined, but you need to give yourself enough time to let tensions lower, to give your husband a chance, to discover if the ratio of resentment to love readjusts. If a year from now your underlying response to the phrase, "Forty more years of this..." is "Oh god, no. I'm tired" - then you consider how you might leave. But if it's "It's good. We're good", then you stay. The thing about abating resentment is that I don't think you can force it, or will it. Resentment isn't necessarily a bad thing - it can be a sign that you boundaries have been breached, and a signal that something needs to change. Now, something is changing. I think you just need to give yourself the space to feel what you feel, including the resentment, and see if it floats on to be replaced by more satisfying feelings towards your husband. There's no way to know that now.
posted by It's a Parasox at 12:34 AM on January 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

It sounds like your resentment from that period of neglect has not been resolved, and is deeper than you thought. Maybe you have swallowed those emotions in the interests of progress with the therapy, and in doing so they are festering.

It sounds like your husband has real difficulties with conflict. He checks out. You have been bearing the burden for being reasonable all this time while he has blithely skipped out and ignored the problem (from your point of view), leaving you all the work of being the Adult.

This is obviously best brought up and addressed by your therapist, but perhaps it would go a long way to erasing this burden if your husband could really acknowledge and apologize for the hurt this caused you in the past, and connect with the pain you have been storing up. He isn't perfect, but maybe he doesn't understand that you love him anyway, and that you can forgive him and move on to work together. His responses to distress might be learned helplessness - that it doesn't matter what he does because he will be wrong. He is afraid of failure, so plays dead when there is risk. His connecting with your forgiveness might help, because forgiveness is an amazing thing. It sounds like you are afraid to expose the depth of your negative feelings to him because he has shut down so easily in the past. You have not had your chance to be the Child. It is not fair. You need these emotions validated and witnessed so you can let them go and start clean. You are upset, and have been for a long time. Let yourself be upset for a little while (in a safe environment) without judgment of being right or wrong or justified or whatever. Sometimes the inner child doesn't want to hear that it can't be feeling what it feels, over and over. The child wants acknowledgment and can then move past the hurt, freeing you to start fresh work on your marriage communication and develop something that works for both of you.
posted by griselda at 12:46 AM on January 28, 2011 [4 favorites]

I'm glad you posted the additional information. I didn't reply last night as it seemed to me that your description was leaving out or gliding over something that would reveal this to be a more serious issue than some lingering annoyance at his belated and perfunctory attempt to do what you asked. It sounded to me like a bigger resentment that has grown from anger over years of carrying more than your share of the relationship work and not ever really getting back the nurturing intimacy and validation that people are craving when they go into relationships in the first place.

That sense of something being unsaid in your post reminded me so strongly of the time it finally dawned on me that I couldn't keep ironing my husband's shirts because I couldn't stand his scent anymore, the way it lingered in his clothes even after laundering. I had fallen completely in love with this man and for many years, that smell was the most powerful and comforting smell in my world. After I realized how completely that had changed, I was never able to get the emotional connection back; I lost the desire to be there and couldn't summon enough interest any longer to keep struggling to make it work. Years later I came to know that he never actually knew me, nor did he particularly care to. He didn't know how to relate to another person as a partner. People in his life filled roles for him and I became less and less able to fill mine. I'm not angry now as I say this but I was angry then. Now it just seems terribly sad that someone can live their life and never understand or know how to cherish and nurture the most important people in their life.

I hope it won't work that way for you. I hope he will involve himself with you in working to regain your connectedness and you can have a strong bond again. It is very sad to lose someone you've loved for a long time but both partners have to value the connection and be willing to grow and change together or it won't hold through the dry spells. I do believe it is worth working for.

If I were there again, I think I'd try an extended couples' retreat, or more than one, secular if that is important to you, but go away someplace safe where you can talk to wise and knowledgeable counselors about the steps you need to take to get back in touch with each other. A place where you spend some time together and apart and where you are only thinking about the two of you. I also think you need to reflect about your own disappointment, anger and resentment because, if you don't really root these out and deal with them, I fear you'll not be able to keep investing in this marriage.

I wish for you a resolution that enables you to cherish each other and that brings to you both new peace and commitment. I think you've hit a fairly common although very difficult place where a lot of marriages break up. But if you can reconnect as the people you are now, maybe you won't have to abandon it.
posted by Anitanola at 3:17 AM on January 28, 2011 [6 favorites]

I don't think it's silly to expect people to be mind readers. It's unrealistic, but you've been told by movies, TV, and books that it's what caring people do. And it's an outright lie. It's unrealistic to expect your husband to know what you want without you asking - he's not psychic - but it's not your fault that you expect that. You have been constantly, consistently lied to by our culture which says that caring partners 'just know.' It s a mountain of BS that you've been bombarded with.

So step 1 is to not blame yourself or your husband. There's nothing wrong with you in this regard, just like there's nothing wrong with your not-psychic husband. We still love fairy tales, but today they go by the names "romance novel" and "romantic comedy."

Step 2 is to start recognizing that this is a lie that you've internalized. Again, it's not your fault. And it won't instantly make you feel better. But as you remind yourself each time that "nobody knows what I want unless I ask," that should slowly help you dispel the myth. And after a time, you'll see this myth everywhere, and see it for what it is - a lie. And you'll stop expecting the impossible, and instead work with your partner from where you two are to get where you need to be - a happy relationship where needs are expressed and respected.
posted by Tehhund at 5:58 AM on January 28, 2011

Now when he tries to connect with me or suggests that he desires me, I can't believe that he's actually interested--I think that he's just doing it to keep me from leaving.

I think this is the real issue here. It's not so much that you have to ask for these things, it's that your relationship has been damaged from being dysfunctional for a long time, and simply changing behaviors is not enough to fully repair it. When he does something for you now, it doesn't seem genuine because in your mind he's the same person who didn't give you what you needed for so long. I'm guessing that if he had turned over a new leaf on his own (without you asking), you would still not be completely over the time that things weren't working as if that had never happened. Just like if a neglectful parent suddenly reconnects with their kid for whatever reason, it doesn't erase the time when they weren't being a good parent.

It really depends on your perspective of how he acted before and how he is acting now. Was before the "real" him and now he's just pretending to be a loving husband to smooth things over? Or did he lose his way and stop acting like himself for that time, and now he's back to how he always would have wanted to be? I think the only way for you to happy in the relationship is for you to, one way or another, forgive him for the times when things weren't working out and put it past you. Because if you continue to hold on to the resentment and anger from the past you won't be able to genuinely appreciate the things he does for you going forward.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:02 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ah, very interesting follow up. I see you have a huge amount of anger piled up, and that is indeed terribly corrosive. A few things:

1. I hate to say this, but you need to shoulder responsibility for a couple of things that happened in your relationship. One is that this all should have been addressed much sooner. I am sure you talked about what you needed, but the importance of it to maintaining a relationship doesn't seem to have been clarified until more recently. I wouldn't bash yourself for this, but it does suggest one very important change you need to make -- you need to blow the whistle about important deficits in the relationship much, much sooner.

2. Also, you are still focused on the past in your relationship. I am not saying your feelings aren't legitimate, as I think they are. But I can tell you from experience that wallowing in anger takes you nowhere. At some point you have to decide to forgive and move on.

3. You need to aim at being positive, both toward yourself and your husband. Congratulate yourself when you are able to communicate clearly, and to accept without anger. Congratulate him (aloud) and thank him and tell him what it means to you when he does what you understandably want and need.

I do understand how you feel -- really, though, the best way to move forward and save the relationship you have with the man you clearly love and value is to change your focus. Forgive, live more in the moment, and try to be positive about your future together.
posted by bearwife at 9:13 AM on January 28, 2011

Mod note: From the OP:
I appreciate the continued discussion. Parasox, Griselda, burnmp3s, what you wrote is very insightful and meaningful to me, thank you very much for the compassion and the suggestions.

I decided that I should write the first followup when I was reading comments like decathecting's "he's trying to listen to you and work on your relationship, but he, like most people, is much better at communicating in words than in signals and coded messages. Talking is a much more effective method of communication." My friend, I couldn't agree with that statement more. Trouble is that in the recent history of my marriage that describes what I've been doing, and my husband not at all.

Bearwife, regarding your second post, I truthfully do not know how I could have conveyed more clearly the importance of these issues, all along. In fact, one of the things that made me recognize the end of my rope last summer was rereading some of my writings about a crisis we'd had two years earlier. At the time I brought home the requisite Gottman books, we read them, we discussed them a little; counseling was rejected on the grounds that we couldn't afford it, which we couldn't; and despite a recognition then that Things Were Bad And Needed Fixing, the efforts trailed off when the pressures of the rest of life (kids, jobs, some big life decisions) came to the forefront.

I think it should have been possible for us to keep working on things in the midst of all that, but again, somehow the responsibility to better the marriage defaulted to me, as did all the major rest-of-life responsibilities. I couldn't do it all and prioritized as needed. I continued to practice my gratitude and focus on what was good about him as a way of keeping my sanity and my family intact. But when I realized last summer that two years had gone by and all that had happened was that we'd dug into the same rut even deeper... I was all out of steam.

I realized I had taken as much responsibility as I could, and much more besides, and I was couldn't take it any more. I told him that if he really wanted to stay married he needed to make some serious changes. If we were going to see a counselor, he needed to set it up, because I was done doing the legwork.

To my amazement he did: got himself into therapy, is doing some important work himself, found our marital counselor, is participating and making changes. All of which are great, a huge change in the right direction. I know that he loves me and, as our therapist points out, no one would voluntarily sit through our very difficult sessions unless they were highly motivated to do the work and stay.

So now I need to get past my own stumbling block, which is this resentment, hence the question. Now when he does what I've asked him to do for so long, the pain is very great, and I don't know how to make this resentment go away, and I know I need to find a way.

But suggestions that I need to take more responsibility or be a better communicator are hard to swallow. I feel like I have done all that in spades with no return on my efforts. In fact I am struggling with feeling like a dupe for even writing this question and its followups, feeling like again I'm working harder than he ever would. There's that resentment seeping in again.

For many reasons I don't want this marriage to fail and I appreciate the thoughtful replies. Thanks all for your efforts to help.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 10:25 AM on January 28, 2011

So it doesn't sound like your resentment is actually around having to ask for things; it sounds like your resentment is around his lack of communication and participation in the marriage.

I'm wondering why your first framing was so you-centered. Have you read Facing Co-Dependence by Mellody, Miller, and Miller? Because it seems like you might have a habit of mind, while in relationships, of taking things on yourself that are actually centered in the other parties.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:01 AM on January 28, 2011

OP, so sorry, did not mean to make things WORSE. I am sure you are a very good communicator, and also you obviously would get an A and your husband would get a D or F if we were comparing you and grading you. Nor am I suggesting you didn't raise this. I think what didn't come through is that this stuff is deal breaking for you. Likely that is due to your husband's comprehension skills, but now you know that he needs to be hit on the head with a hammer. Helpful for the future, anyway.

What I am suggesting is that the best way to deal with resentment is LET IT GO. I am not talking through my hat here -- anyone who knows me would tell you I really, really hold grudges. Forgive and forget is not my way of doing business. But if you do want to maintain your marriage, trust me, you will have to focus on the present and future. Staying resentful and angry will happen, despite any effort by your husband, if you keep focused on your no doubt legitimate sense of grievance.

I will also tell you that if you praise yourself internally for moving forward, it gets a lot easier to keep doing that.
posted by bearwife at 11:16 AM on January 28, 2011

On reading the follow-up, I see that I answered the wrong question with my first comment. Sorry about that! I was thinking about getting over how to ask for things when you have a baseline of good, open communication and can playfully work together on hacking each other's stupid brain stuff. A totally different sort of situation.

You might find this previous question and its answers helpful. I particularly like adipocere's comment there, quoted in pertinent part: "Ultimately, I had to make the move from trying to be BESTEST FRIEND EVAR to being as good as a friend as they are to me, then adding 20% to make the world a better place, and finally extending a little credit, because everyone screws up now and again."

I definitely do find that forcing myself to breathe, walk away, and put less effort into relationships where I'm feeling the stronger burden gives me the space I need to come back with a more charitable frame of mind, sometimes.

As bearwife put it, let's assume that you get an A and your husband has been getting an F. He's improving now, but you're still resentful because you feel like maybe he's just cramming for the test, not actually developing better study habits and really understanding the material thoroughly in a long-term storage sort of way. And it's entirely fair for you to feel that way, and maybe you're right! Only time will tell. But in the meantime, can you give yourself permission to get a gentleman's C instead? That little bit of easing of the pressure on you might help you ride things out long enough to see if he's for reals, long-term, in a way that you can be happy with.

Not only that, but tell him that you're doing it and why. You're not deserting him, you're just trying to calm yourself down by making things feel more equitable to you while he catches up.
posted by Eshkol at 11:36 AM on January 28, 2011

Ok, so I think your actual question is very different from what most of us got from your initial post. You're not, it seems, upset that you have to ask your husband to give you what you need. I think you're actually upset that you feel as though your husband is doing the bare minimum in terms of participating in your marriage, and that every contribution to your shared life has to be pulled out of him through repeated and ongoing effort from you. I definitely see why you're struggling with that.

The situation you're in seems akin to that stereotypical teenager who has to clean his room or else he can't go to the prom, so he puts it off until the last minute and acts as though he thinks his parents won't really ground him, and then at the very last minute, shoves his crap into the closet, does a half-assed sweep with the vacuum, and then doesn't understand why his parents are upset about the state of his room. Your husband is, it seems, doing exactly the absolute least emotional work he can get away with doing without you leaving him. And that sucks, because you're right, that's not full participation in your family.

I think you need to talk about this specific issue in therapy with your husband. It's not about whether or not you have to tell him what you need. It's about him being interested in your relationship beyond what you've told him is necessary to prevent you from divorcing him. I think you need to ask him whether he actually does feel responsible for the relationship--not for "his half" or "his fair share," but for the relationship and your family as a whole--in the way that you seem to. You need to listen honestly to his answer. You need to tell him how you feel about that answer, and listen to what he says. And then you need to decide whether what he's able and willing to give is enough for you.
posted by decathecting at 3:55 PM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Your follow-up definitely changes my advice to this situation--like decathecting, I had taken from your question that you were upset about needing to ask for specific day-to-day stuff on the part of your husband, not that he had totally checked out of the marriage and only started to address the problem under the threat of divorce. That changes things, a lot.

You say that:

So now I need to get past my own stumbling block, which is this resentment, hence the question. Now when he does what I've asked him to do for so long, the pain is very great, and I don't know how to make this resentment go away, and I know I need to find a way.

Why do you need to make the resentment go away? It's there for a very good reason, and trying to will it away probably won't be successful unless you address the underlying reasons why you are resentful. You're angry because your husband took advantage of you, and was evidently content to leave you in a painful situation despite your pleas for relief so long as his own needs were being met. That's terribly selfish behavior when exhibited by coworkers and acquaintences and a really horrible betrayal on top of that when exhibited by those who love us. Resentment exists to keep us from foolishly putting ourselves back in situations where we will let untrustworthy people keep hurting us, so until you believe that your husband can be trusted to put your needs equal to--or above--his own, you can't and shouldn't just get over it.

You can't let go of your resentment until you've forgiven your husband, and I don't believe you can forgive someone who has taken advantage of you until: (1) you believe they won't continue to do so and (2) you decide that the good this person brings to your life outweighs the past hurt. Both pieces are necessary; getting #2 without #1 leaves you permanently suspicious and on-guard, which is an intimacy-killer, while #1 without #2 will leave you married to someone you just don't like very much anymore.

I think It's A Parasox has some wise advice about giving yourself some time to decide whether you believe the change in your husband is permanent and genuine, and also to decide whether there's any love left that hasn't been eaten up by mistrust and resentment. You can't force yourself to fall back in love with your husband and trust him again. It's possible that your resevoir of goodwill for your husband has been depleted beyond what can be refilled, and if that's the case then no amount of trying to be the bigger person and just get over it will work.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:34 PM on January 31, 2011 [2 favorites]

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