The following is the second article in the How to Be a Better Husband series.
I’ve been asked this question (or some version of it) many times by the men I work with in both individual and couples counseling. Those who ask in earnest clearly want to raise the bar for what it means to be a better husband or partner.
These men want a happy marriage; they need to see their partner happy; they long to know that their wives feel cared for and loved. Those who are motivated to be a better husband take a big emotional hit when they know they’re not living up to these ideals.
Andy was one such husband. He came to see me for “anger management issues.” One of the biggest ironies of men in relationships is that we become angry at the very person we want to make happy when we fail to make them happy. It may sound absurd, but I’ve seen this pattern often enough to know it’s not a fluke (though, of course, this doesn’t apply to all men).
As Andy shared about the dimensions of his life, what emerged was an underlying sense of helplessness in his marriage. “I keep dropping the ball and it frustrates Irene so much. She said it’s a pattern and that’s why it makes her so mad…”
Psychologically, Andy’s helplessness felt intolerable to him. He was starting to sink into a significant depression until his ego cleverly twisted his experience and he began seeing Irene as unreasonable.
This unconscious defensive process projects blame out onto the other — in short, it’s easier to be angry at someone who is upset with you rather than accept responsibility for the impact you’re having on them. We all do this to some degree (at least we have the potential to).
How to be the best husband possible:
1) Accept Responsibility
For Andy (and a significant number of the men I work with) the first step in becoming a better husband was to accept responsibility for what he was feeling. When we fail to do so, the efforts we make to be a good husband end up getting derailed. Without the ability to tolerate discomfort (based upon feeling like we’ve failed at times), seeing the other as the problem is likely to be our fallback position.
2) It’s in the Details
“What makes your wife feel loved?” I asked Andy.
Andy considered my question for several minutes and he kept coming back to the fact that Irene gets frustrated when he forgets “the small things.” He went on to list them, and what became apparent is that what he considered small, she considered an act of love.
Remembering to call or text her; not having to be asked repeatedly to follow through on a household tasks; remembering something she previously shared with him; and being more considerate of her feelings in general. For Andy to be a good husband, his actions had to speak louder than his words. And it wasn’t the large, dramatic actions that seemed to matter most to Irene. It was the smaller, ongoing details of their lives together that had the biggest impact on her.
3) Humility Will Take You There
Whenever we react to what our partner is experiencing with a statement or an attitude that sends the message of “It’s no big deal, relax” (even if we just think this to ourselves), we’re judging our partner. In essence, we’re saying that their experience is somehow wrong or too much and therefore, it shouldn’t be. Think about how arrogant this is for a moment. In short, we’re dictating how our wife/partner should be reacting in that moment.
Andy did this whenever he thought that Irene was “making a mountain out of a mole hill.” In these instances, Andy failed to consider the long-term impact his behavior was having on his wife. She wasn’t reacting to an event in isolation. She was reacting to patterns.
Why does this occur? It can be as simple as you just don’t understand your partner’s reaction (and we often judge what we do not understand). Or you may find her reaction distressing in some way, and to help you deal with your own discomfort (remember the section on men and helplessness above), you try to quell the source of your unease. But when you approach your partner with humility, you allow for the possibility of genuine emotional connection even if you still do not understand her emotional world as completely as you’d like to.
The above points were important for Andy to work on in order to become a better husband to Irene. It’s important to stress that there wasn’t a generic formula he needed to follow. Instead, he had to look at the nuances of their relationship, what in particular frustrated/hurt Irene, what, in particular, made her happy, and what made her feel emotionally connected to her husband.
But what does it mean to be a good (or better) husband? And who makes that determination?
While there are qualities of a good husband we probably can all agree upon, the question—How can I be the best husband possible?—isn’t so straightforward.
The fact is, you can think you’re the epitome of a perfect husband while your wife gives you a failing grade as a spouse.
So the question that we need to ask ourselves is, How can I be a better husband…for what my wife needs? What is unique about her, what brings her a sense of security? What are her passions and joys? What keeps her up at night worrying?
When you reflect on such questions (really reflect on them), you gather important information about the woman you love — the person you are committed to making happy. Without this information, your attempts might feel trite or superficial to her, missing the mark of what she is needing from you. Remember, at our core we all want to be seen (truly seen) by our partner; seen and accepted.
And the simple fact is, you cannot be a good husband until you really see your wife. And this takes effort on our part. But it is an emotional investment that is well worth it.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured image courtesy of Photostock by FreeDigitalPhoto.net)