You sometimes wish you could take a break.
No calendaring. No decisions. You do NOTHING and bellies would still be filled, laundry done, bills paid and the house maintained. But alas, you know this is magical thinking. Sort of. We’re here to help all of you who wish it weren’t such a fantasy to even ponder a “break” in what we’re calling the “leader-follower” pattern most marriages deal with.To step back a moment, you may want to read our marital patterns post (link to the pillar post on styles.)
We’re going deeper on the “Leader” part of Leader-Follower, where you’re likely the leader and your spouse is more of a follower in the majority of shared life areas. Both of you have strengths and you may get along well overall, but it can be exhausting.
We hope you find a new nugget of insight for your marriage, or maybe a serious mindset shift.
A Quick Warning:
Pause if you're having Marital Doubts or are a Leaning-Out Spouse
Okay, you love your spouse but you’re tired and resentful, and you just wish your spouse would DO more.
While we can’t make anyone do what you want, we can offer you new ways to consider your needs and perhaps, if we do a good job, you will view your spouse in a new light.
A good marriage counselor, of course, would start with “What have you tried?” but the payoff questions would be “How did your spouse respond to your attempt?” and then “How did you respond to that?”
There are several parts of any request. Let’s use an example:
“I really need more help in the kitchen. Can you start doing the dishes after dinner?”
Here you’ve made a clear and direct request, but it’s important to confirm in your head that you’ve actually asked for something specific and doable.
If you just said, “I need more help in the kitchen,” your spouse may be clueless about what you really mean. Even “Can you start doing the dishes?” while specific, may be just aspirational if your spouse don’t know where things go and you’re very particular about how kitchen items are handled.
This is phase one: being clear in naming a specific need that makes sense for your personality and your spouse’s personality and skills.
(Imagine asking someone to cook more meals when that person doesn’t know how to cook, or will cook things you don’t want to serve your family.)
The next part is focusing how your spouse responds, and how you respond to their reaction to your request.
This is where many couples get stuck.
Here’s the reality. Rarely does a spouse flat out say “no” to something that is within reason and their skill level
In general, if you’re really the “leader,” the go-to “doer” in your marriage, your spouse may feel nervous with your request but not outright reject it.
Here are some things they may be feeling but not saying when you make a request. Or saying, and then you get mad. Some of the following spouse reactions may seem unfair to you, but we encourage you to consider the possibility that your spouse actually knows you pretty well!
- Sure, I can do the dishes, but that is NOT going to help your stressed out self. Not even a little.
- I used to do the dishes, but remember when you got real bossy and I stopped in protest? Yeah. That’s why I don’t do the dishes.
- So you want me to do the dishes? I don’t get why you never asked before and are biting at me about this.
- I can do them but they’ll be done when I want, not when you want them done.
- I’d be more open to taking the lead on this, but I honestly don’t hold the same anxiety about doing it perfectly the way you seem to.
- I’d love to help more but you have GOT to get off my back. I refuse to feel like a kid if you’re always asking if and when I’m going to do the task and correcting me if I don’t do it your way.
- I’d help more but you really seem more confident and fast about so much of it. I worry that I’d screw everything up, so I never ask to help out.
- I feel like I do other heavy lifting in our lives and wish you’d acknowledge that so I wouldn’t have to keep defending that I contribute a lot too (like by working my butt off to support the family).
Are you ready to hear us?
If you are in fact “the leader/boss” of the house, it’s likely your spouse has had moments either being slightly afraid of you, or belittled by you, or has learned that you “get in moods” where you order around tasks but don’t really follow through. (In our small example, you keep doing the dishes, confusing your spouse who shrugs their shoulders and says okay, whatever.)
In this second phase, you’re looking at yourself rather than trying to read your spouse’s mind or arguing back. You’re reflecting on how you’ve come across to your spouse, say, as someone who acts superior and as the only competent adult in the house. It’s not that you literally believe any of that, but maybe you’ve come across that way.
This leads to the third phase, more advanced (sometimes only accomplished in couples therapy): the simple yet enormous challenge to own how you’ve come across to your spouse, appreciate that their experience of you hasn’t always been positive, and be open to receiving whatever they say.
This part is hard. There may be a very small percentage of what they’re saying that rings factually true, but we’re asking you to believe their emotional experience. Sure, you may ONE TIME have berated them for doing the dishes, but you apologized! Why can’t they let that go? In this phase, it’s vital to accept the kernel of truth in their experience of you. The only way to the other side is for them to feel you really get how you’ve come across and to demonstrate that this next time, this next request, will be different.
We’re saying that the key to getting out of Leader-Follower patterns in your marriage is not to make your requests more skillfully, or to just give up and feel more burdened. It’s to look at your role in the problem and change that.
We can’t guarantee that your spouse will then change, but the odds go way up if you acknowledge how you’ve contributed to the problem and say you want to reboot how the two of you talk about sharing the family workload.
This can mean seeing the role your anxiety plays in the pattern—so many tasks that you get overwhelmed and then come across to your spouse like a frustrated parent. Or maybe you do everything yourself because you have exacting standards, until it’s not working for you anymore. Or maybe realizing the tasks themselves are not the problem but your anxiety ABOUT the tasks causes you exhaustion. Releasing that anxiety onto your spouse via frustrated request for help doesn’t solve your anxiety about the task; it just moves it over to fretting about if and when your spouse will do it so you can release that checklist item.
After you’ve had a conversation that features your humility, here’s a starter on a powerful “retirement” plan as a stressed-out leader: to figure out one task you can release to your spouse, knowing it will not be done as promptly and well as you could do, but having your spouse doing them in a way you can appreciate and not begrudge.
When you do this successfully for one particular task, it can lead to more healthy conversations and more capacity in your marriage to rethink and rearrange who does what on other tasks. You’ll probably end up with more task sharing and less stress. Or maybe you will end up holding on to your current tasks, but without resentment, and come to see your “Follower” spouse in a new, more respectful light.