Dear Therapist: My Fiancé Is a Slacker Around the House

Dear Therapist: My Fiancé Is a Slacker Around the House

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Editor’s Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I am engaged to be married to a man I love very deeply, and with whom I am very comfortable and happy. I have been in long-term relationships filled with doubts and anxiety before, and I feel nothing of those lingering sentiments here.

We are both very career-driven people and want to have children. We both believe that parents should play an equal part in the raising of children.

However, I play the project-manager role in our relationship. I can delegate tasks to my partner and he will do them gladly and without complaint, but he rarely takes initiative on his own. I can ask him to take out the trash and he will do it, but if we’re out of trash bags, he won’t notice that we are out and pick up trash bags on his way home from work.

We’ve had conversations about this and he empathizes, feels bad, and genuinely pledges to make changes—and he has. He now has tasks that are “his” (take out the trash, wash dishes after dinner), but still no big-picture ownership.

As we talk about kids, I’m exceedingly nervous that I will always be the project manager and that the very large bulk of responsibility—and the feeling of ownership—will be on me. It’s not that he will never leave work early to pick up the kids—it’s that he will never realize the kids need to be picked up and say proactively, “I’ll leave work early and pick them up.” He knows that if he does nothing I will always pick up the slack and whatever needs to get done will get done.

I know this is a several-years-down-the-line problem, but seeds of it are present today, and it induces anxiety for me, and then between us.

I want a partnership, not a person to delegate to. What do you recommend?

Marina


Dear Marina,

What do I recommend? I recommend that you broaden your perspective on partnership.

Here’s why: With any change—even good, positive change—comes loss, and a common fear of people going into marriage (and even more so, into parenthood) is of losing some degree of freedom. Part of getting married is adjusting to living with someone else and adapting to each other’s habits, priorities, and expectations. And just as you’ll have to adapt to your fiancé’s, he’ll have to adapt to yours.

If your fiancé weren’t living with you, he might let the trash sit an extra day or two. He might not notice right away when the bags have run out or the dishes need washing. He might do many things differently from the way you do. But here’s the thing: You assume that your way is the “right” way and therefore he needs to adapt to your habits, priorities, and expectations. And that assumption will become a greater problem in your relationship than whether he takes the initiative.

A happy partnership will teach you that equal doesn’t mean same. It means you each do your part, but your contributions may differ depending on questions like these: Which tasks are you more of a control freak about? Which are each of you better at? What does each of you enjoy doing more (or dislike less)? If your strength is project management and his is execution, how fortunate for both of you! What a compatible partnership—how much easier than if you were both highly effective at giving directions but unable (or unwilling) to carry them out, or vice versa.  

Another aspect of happy partnerships is choosing to value the person we’re with for who they are rather than focusing on who they aren’t. People come as a complete package, and the more we can accept that about our partners, the more they’ll accept that about us. Many couples come to therapy wanting to change something about their partner that’s not so easily changeable. And the more they believe their partner should be different, the less initiative they will take to consider the ways that they might be different. It’s so much easier to build a strong case for why the other person should do the changing.

In fact, often in therapy I’ll hear not just, “I want my partner to do X,” but “I want my partner to want to do X.” It’s not enough that my partner will attend musicals with me; I want my partner to want to see musicals with me. It’s not enough that my partner picks up the socks; I want my partner to want a sock-free bedroom floor. Underlying these demands is this: If my partner truly loved me/cared about me/respected me, he/she would want to do this thing that’s important to me.

Well, nonsense! You can love someone and not want to pick up socks or sit through a musical. You can respect and care deeply about someone and not want to take ownership of the carpool pickup schedule or monitor the number of trash bags left in the house. Just as you, Marina, can love and respect and care about your fiancé but still not want to initiate doing something he would very much like you to do.

For you, there seems to be something important about “ownership.” Maybe in your mind taking on more of the coordination role makes you feel like less of a team—like the management of the household falls to you and you alone, like some pre-feminist nightmare. But having different roles requiring equal effort toward a mutual goal doesn’t make you less of a team—it makes you the very definition of a team. You say you “want a partnership, not a person to delegate to,” but it’s only because you’re in a partnership that you have the luxury of someone to delegate to.

So what are your options?

1) You can sit down together and come to an agreement that works for both of you on who does what, when, and how. This will give each of you clarity and accountability along with the freedom to manage your respective responsibilities.

2) You can reconsider whether being the initiator/coordinator negates an equal partnership and instead rejoice in the fact that your fiancé “gladly and without complaint” does the tasks you ask of him. In this scenario, you don’t have to do more, you just have to delegate more. In fact, depending on how much you delegate in exchange for the mental exertion that managing requires, he might be the one doing more.

3) You can continue to devalue his equal but different contributions to the running of the household, and gradually turn his cheerful teamwork into resentful compliance. (Note: If you tell someone every day of your marriage that, essentially, you want to marry somebody else, you’ll likely end up not married to this person anymore.)

4) You can call off the engagement and marry someone who naturally takes more initiative—but who might have a less agreeable attitude about doing his equal part, not share your bigger-picture goals and values, and/or lack all of the other intangible qualities that you love about your current fiancé.

5) You can stop picking up the slack in the hope that your fiancé notices and takes initiative himself, but be prepared for the more likely outcome: You’ll be far more bothered by whatever falls through the cracks than he will. (Let’s call this the Bite Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face option.)

The choice is yours. Meanwhile, congratulations on your engagement.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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