Someone emailed me this question: “I want my husband to take some of the initiative in fixing our marriage, but he seems completely unable to do that. I noticed that in your account as well. While you were researching communication and intimacy, Mark was biking and watching TV. I just want to know if you had the same feeling of wanting him to share in the effort. Did you resent that he didn’t make it a priority? Did you feel as if this was just another thing that you were now responsible for in your relationship? How do you get past those feelings?”
I get this question a lot. I get it from people in bad marriages. I get it from people in good marriages. I get it from reporters. I get it from friends. I get it pretty much from everyone who has read my book Project: Happily Ever After.
It’s normal to feel resentment, especially when you already feel taken advantage of, taken for granted, and walked on.
So, yes, of course, initially, I was resentful. I bathed in that emotion. I was resentful about A LOT of things back then. If we had all known each other back then and one of you had asked, “So what are you feeling resentful about?” I’m pretty sure I could have talked nonstop for an hour.
At first during our marriage project, I highlight books and asked my husband to read the highlighting. I nagged him. I gave him deadlines.
Eventually, however, I realized that I had to get in the driver’s seat and navigate us toward a better marriage. If I kept trying to navigate from the passenger seat, he was never going to turn the key in the ignition. He just didn’t have it in him.
Interestingly, I’ve since had an opportunity to interview John Friel, PhD, who wrote one of the books that was instrumental in helping me save my marriage: The 7 Best Things (Happy) Couples Do. He told me that the definition of co-dependency is “chasing your spouse around the house with a self help book.”
It’s a funny line, but it’s true. The longer anyone stays mired in the quest to fix someone else, the longer the misery goes on.
More important for us, it just made sense for me to be the person who took the initiative. First, I was the one who was the most miserable. I was the one who most wanted things to change. I was the one who had a vision of where I wanted our marriage to go.
My husband did not have a vision. He just wanted me to be happy, stop nagging him, and worship him in the bedroom. He didn’t have high expectations. I was the one with the high expectations.
Two, I’m a lot better at solving problems than he is. He admits this. In fact, last week a television reporter asked him why he didn’t take more initiative, and this was his answer, “My wife is a lot better at solving problems than I am. She can take a big problem and break it down into small goals and create a game plan for accomplishing each goal. She’s really good at that.”
My husband isn’t a natural problem solver. He’s a “let’s sweep it under the rug and see if it goes away” kinda person. He’s just not all that good at facing problems head on, but he is really good at other things like following a set of instructions (to put together a Lego creation) or First Aid. I am not good at those things. We have different strengths and different weakness. This was hard for me to see when I hated him and wanted him dead. Back then it felt like I had all the strengths and he had all the weaknesses–but that wasn’t true. It was a delusion.
This doesn’t mean I wasn’t disappointed. Of course I was. I wanted to tell my husband, “I’m not happy. Please do something about it,” and have him do something about it. In lieu of that option, a fairy Godmother would have done nicely. I really didn’t want to do all of the work myself. Who does?
But I think this resistance is similar to training for a marathon in Alaska and realizing, on race day, that it’s 90 degrees outside. You expected cool weather—the kind of weather that’s perfect for a marathon and normal for Alaska. But you know what? You got hot and humid. Are you going skip the race after putting in all of that training? No, you’re going to suck it up and run the race.
It’s the same with marriage improvement.
So I let go of my resistance. I surrendered. I said, “This is the way it’s going to be.” I let go of the notion of marriage improvement being fair. In return I was able to remove the hurdle standing between us and happiness.
Sure I occasionally grasp after the idea of fairness. Occasionally I feel resentful. But I just keep reminding myself that fairness never worked for me. Resentment never worked for me either.
Getting in the driver’s seat? That has worked for me. So that’s what I do.
Readers: Do you ever feel as if you are doing most of the work? Do you wish your spouse would do more? Does this cause you to feel resentful? How do you overcome your resentment? Have you found a way to make it fair? If so, how? Let’s puzzle through this together.
A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.