Dear Crucial Skills,
Whenever my husband tells me things he doesn’t like that I do, I own it, say I’m sorry, and tell him I am determined to change it. If even ten minutes later I tell him I don’t like something he does, he’ll reply, “We really need to stop criticizing each other!”
I would appreciate it if he would own his behavior and validate my perspective, like I did for him. I feel like I’m trying to do what’s required to have a good relationship, but he doesn’t. What can I do?
Your question hits close to home. I spent many years expecting relationship “fairness.” Over time I concluded it wasn’t realistic, useful, or healthy. Give me a moment to explain, then I’ll try to offer practical advice.
Your desire is to have your concerns heard and validated. Nothing wrong there. But your central argument is that he should do it because you do it. You believe that he should be more motivated to hear and validate you because you’ve earned it. Human beings have a hardwired expectation of reciprocity. It’s part of what makes us cooperative creatures. If you say good morning to someone, it’s natural to expect a return greeting. And they often feel a reciprocal obligation to do so. If I hold the door for you, you’re more likely to hold the next one for me. Likewise, I unconsciously expect you to get the next one. After all, fair is fair.
“Fair” works okay with public and even workplace transactions where simple arithmetic reasonably justifies expectations. In transactional relationships, turn-taking, bill-splitting, and door-holding can be governed by fairness. There are limited variables to track and we intuitively agree on how to value our mutual contributions. But arithmetic doesn’t work in intimate relationships. The only governing principle that works there is not math but love. Asking someone to listen better out of fairness is like calculating how much to pay mom for Thanksgiving dinner.
In intimate relationships, an appeal to fairness is like calling the police when your beloved forgets your anniversary. Coercion won’t increase devotion. Only vulnerability can do that. And when we appeal for fairness in loving relationships it’s often because we’re trying to avoid vulnerability.
Vulnerability is hard. But it’s the calisthenics of intimacy. Practicing healthy vulnerability grows us into the kind of people who are capable of surpassing interpersonal joy. Relationships provide the developmental friction that helps us grow to our potential as human beings. I’ve concluded that the measure of my life is my capacity to love imperfect people. People like me. Here, then, is my advice for growing your vulnerability muscle in a way that can lead to deeper love with your imperfect husband.
Practice honesty without expectation. Give yourself permission to say what you would like and to share how you are affected by his actions. Stop worrying about how he’ll react. Let him react however he chooses. Be considerate of timing when you share. I find it best to ask, “Is now a good time?” If he says it isn’t, ask him when he’d be okay hearing something that is important to you. Once you’ve shared, don’t start a stopwatch. He is not obligated to change. The reason you share is so you can honor your own needs, not so that you can get someone else to change. Vulnerability means honoring your voice while also honoring his agency. It means embracing the possibility of disappointment without self-protective resentment.
Practice appreciation without distortion. When others fall short of our expectations we tend to fall into a distorted economic view of our relationship. We begin to appraise the relationship based on supply and demand. Suddenly all the things we have in abundance seem unimportant and the thing we aren’t getting becomes priceless. Don’t fall into that trap. Before sharing a concern, be sure your emotional state reflects its true importance—big or small. If he expels open-mouthed burps in public, for example, but is tender and attentive to your every need, consider both as you frame your feedback.
Offer kindness for its own sake. The next time you choose to listen to his feedback, don’t keep score. Decide whether you want to accommodate his request based on who you are and how you feel about him, not as a way of tallying credits. If he is ever going to decrease his defensiveness or increase his openness to your feedback, it will happen because he loves you, not because you’ve earned it.
Balance patience with responsibility for yourself. Working sincerely on appreciation does not mean abandoning responsibility for your own needs. If his defensiveness results in abuse or neglect of things that are truly important to you, you have a decision to make. Love doesn’t mean abandonment of self, it means inclusion of another. Love offers more joy because it presents us with greater complexity. But if it so happens that you aren’t capable of finding joy with the other, you are still responsible for yourself.
I hope some of what I offered here helps you find a loving path forward. I’ve been working at it for 36 years, and the effort has been worth it.