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Dear Doctor: How Do I Know if I'm with the Wrong Person

Dear Doctor: How Do I Know if I'm with the Wrong Person

By Joshua Coleman
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Dear Dr. Coleman

I’m a married mother with 2 young children, and I feel like I married the wrong person. While we used to be close, ever since we’ve become parents, he’s become much more defensive, self-centered and hardly helps at all with the housework. We both work, so I don’t see why it’s up to me to be put in the role of a stay-at-home mom who’s supposed to do everything. I find myself getting really critical, which is someone I’ve never been before.  I know divorce is hard on kids, but I also feel like I have a right to be happy, and this marriage is definitely not making me happy!

Aggravated Mom

Dear Aggravated,

That does sound very challenging. And studies show that couples who share housework tend to have happier, healthier marriages, so you’re right to seek advice about how to change things around at home.

Sadly, this dynamic is very common. So common that I wrote my second book on that topic: The Lazy Husband: How to Get Men to Do More Parenting and Housework (and was featured on a 20-20 segment on the Desperate Housewives set working with couples who were struggling with this issue). The subject is important because women today– at least those in heterosexual marriages – do twice the amount of childcare and almost twice as much housework compared with men, including women in full-time employment. After marriage, men generally do less housework than when they were single, while women do even more, especially when they become mothers. In addition, once kids come on the scene, marital happiness often starts to decline and typically doesn’t return to pre-child levels of happiness till the wee ones go off to college. I’m not saying this to provide company for your misery, more to point out that many couples are challenged by this issue.

Since you’re wondering if you’re with the right person, we have to drill down into how you communicate with him to know how much you may or may not be contributing to the problem. Here are some things that I find helpful for couples to consider:

Are you a gatekeeper?

Studies show that women generally have higher standards for how the house should be kept and how the kids should be raised. This isn’t terribly surprising. If little Jimmy or Janet shows up to school with peanut butter on their faces and dirty clothes, people rarely ask, “What is that father thinking?” even if it’s a stay-at-home dad. Ditto if friends come over and the house is in shambles. So, women have higher standards in part because society still holds them to a higher standard in regard to both.

Unfortunately, those higher standards sometimes cause women to position themselves as the experts in both arenas, which can cause their husbands to withdraw rather than to participate equally—or sometimes—at all. In general, men tend to retreat and shut down if they feel criticized about their parenting or housekeeping skills, however, deserved that criticism may seem. So it may be that he is less involved and looks more self-centered because he experiences you as being critical of him and his ideas about how the house should run. I understand that you probably didn’t start out being critical, but you are now, so we have to start there.

Be willing to negotiate

You may have to consider lowering your standards about housekeeping in order to get him to participate more. His idea of parenting may mean that the kids play at his feet while he’s watching the game. If they’re happy and he’s happy, that’s a win. You might believe that he needs to be reading to them and helping them develop their minds, but he might disagree, and he has an equal right to say how the kids get raised. Similarly, while he’s not entitled to have the house in complete disarray, he isn’t obligated to keep it as clean or as orderly as you might wish. He likely has to raise his standards, and you may have to lower yours. (As a lazy husband in recovery, this was what worked best in my own marriage).

Avoid the harsh start-up

Marital researcher John Gottman showed that conversations typically end the way they begin. If you want him to participate equally, it’s best to raise the topic when you’re feeling close or calm rather than resentful or burdened.

Let him know before it’s too late

One long-term study of divorce found that 25 percent of men were completely surprised when their wives served them with divorce papers. You may think he knows how resentful you are, but he may be unaware of that. Don’t wait until there’s a hole so big in the center of your marriage that you don’t care whether he changes or not. Help him understand the level of importance this topic has to you. If it’s something that is leading you to consider divorce, then be direct. “I’m starting to feel like if this doesn’t improve, I may not be able to stay married to you. This is a 10 on a scale of 1-10.”  Or, “I feel like I’ve tried to communicate how important this topic is to you, and things still feel really unfair to me. We need to go to therapy before this becomes an even greater problem between us.” Acknowledge that the issue may be how you communicate but that the dynamic is getting bigger than either of you seem able to solve.

Use language that motivates rather than alienates

Words and phrases like collaborate, brainstorm, share ideas, and think together about invites a perception that you want to work in harmony toward a solution rather than to shame or belittle him.

Catch him doing something right

Men tend to do more around the house when they feel closer to their wives. While a clean house may not be that central to their identities, a happy wife is. Given that, make sure that you’re valuing the ways that he does contribute to you or children’s well-being, even if he’s a slacker in the housework department.

Use the compliment sandwich

Starting and ending a potentially fraught conversation with a compliment signals that you’re approaching him in a collaborative rather than argumentative way.

Ask the right questions

“Are there things you’d also like me to change that would feel better to you?”

“Is there something I’m doing that’s making it harder to be involved in the ways I would like?”

“Can we brainstorm ways to make things feel easier for me?” (I’m intentionally using the word “easier” rather than “fairer” because he may have the belief that things are already fair).

Horse trade

If he hates housework, then maybe there’s something he’s willing to provide or do that will make things feel more equal to you. If there are the funds, he could pay for a housekeeper or send out the laundry. Get creative and ask him to brainstorm with you.

Use your power

If you’ve tried all of the above and they don’t work, you might have to be more strategic. In game theory, there’s the concept of the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Arrangement (BATNA). In those scenarios, if negotiation has failed, then you may have to position yourself in a way where he’s forced to change. This might mean doing less of the things that he values in order to free up more time for yourself and also reduce your resentment. So, if you’re doing his laundry, stop doing it. Ditto with cooking or anything else where you perceive a big disparity between what the two of you are doing. Let him know, in a friendly way, that you’re willing to re-institute those activities once he has taken on more of the tasks that you’re currently doing.

Communicate productively

As the researcher John Gottman found, most long-term relationships end not because of a sudden betrayal but because of death by a thousand cuts. It’s the small day-to-day unexpressed or unaddressed feelings of being hurt or misunderstood that, over time, weaken the feelings of commitment and optimism about a future with that person. He found that those with good, long-term relationships avoid what he termed the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, stonewalling and defensiveness. While most people engage in any or all of those from time-to-time, it’s the steady expression that weaken the foundation of marriage and lead to chronic unhappiness or divorce.

So, did you marry the wrong person? We’ll tackle that concept in a future column. I suspect you won’t know until you’ve tried all of the things I’m recommending here. Hopefully, these guidelines can make him resemble more of the man you married— not the one he turned into when you became parents.

Have a question for Dr. Coleman? Email us at

Joshua Coleman, Ph.D. is a psychologist and Senior Fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families. He has written for the Atlantic, the NYTs, Behavioral Scientist, CNN, NBC, among others and has appeared on Sesame Street, Today, 20-20, NPR and many other media outlets. His latest book is Rules of Estrangement: Why Adult Children Cut Ties and How to Heal the Conflict. Dr. Coleman offers CE trainings to professionals on the topic of family estrangements. His next training is Sunday March 5th from 9AM-5PM Pacific. Learn more at

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