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Question

My husband and I have been married for seven years and we’re in our 70s and 80s. I am trying to help him recognize the problems I see in our marriage, which has been extremely happy until I reached a tipping point recently over my feeling used in the relationship. This conflict has surfaced a couple of times in the past. Some improvement is agreed upon; we then inch forward or, too often, fall back into old patterns of me over-giving and he–in my opinion–taking graciously and showing forth great verbal love and tenderness until I again feel used and plead for him to be more pro-active in our life together.

When I express frustration and explain that I need him to be more engaged in daily life and not let me do so much of the management and emotional/physical work, he is crushed and wonders aloud why I am not happy doing these things “just because I love him.” He feels he has made lots of changes—at my loving insistence he has watched far less TV and doesn’t bury himself in books anymore and is a great help in the kitchen—but says that it’s never enough for me.

By nature, an extrovert, I feel I have been far more involved with his children than he is with mine; contribute to our church and community more, and take the major responsibility for our daily tasks, schedule, and family events.

He verbally agrees with equality in marriage but has lived a non-aggressive traditional male-female-existence that is typical of our age group. His former wife was supposedly more of an introvert than he is; I get the feeling they didn’t speak about differences.

We’ve been reading a book on marriage boundaries and one section talks about passive spouses. It was such an accurate description of him! When I asked how he felt about it he uncharacteristically yelled, “I’ve worked all my life and I’m NOT lazy!”

What do you see in this? Am I overly demanding, too pro-active? Is he the “victim” and I the “perpetrator”? Is he relying on my over-giving because he thinks that’s acceptable and what a wife should do? He states he’s never been happier than within our marriage— until I recently changed— and wants to go back to the way things were before. He’s a good person whom I love, but I’m not going back.

Answer

While I don’t think it’s helpful (or possible) to referee your marriage and declare the “perpetrator” and the “victim,” I do think it’s important to give you some guidance on how you can both see the impact you’re having on each other and your relationship. Even though you’re older and have decades of habits and expectations, you’ve only been married seven years and can decide at any time to overhaul the roles in marriage that aren’t working to build more closeness and connection.

I think it’s healthy to regularly examine roles and expectations in relationships to make sure they are serving the mental, physical, and emotional health of the individuals and the group. In your case, you likely both came to this marriage with unspoken expectations of what each of you would do and not do. There are always invisible rules tied to our culture, religion, gender, birth order, age, and socioeconomic status, to name a few. Whether you’re twenty or eighty, when two individuals combine their histories and experiences, there will be a collision of expectations that needs to be addressed.

Perhaps you step back from your boundaries arms race for a minute and, instead, examine the rules and expectations that currently guide both of your thinking. This revealing and uncomfortable exercise can be the beginning of a new culture in your marriage that will better serve each of your unique needs. It’s a relationship dead-end to insist that your partner continue playing out a role that isn’t working for them. Even in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”, husbands and wives are encouraged to make room for “individual adaptation” when it comes to roles and responsibilities.[i]

You both feel hurt, accused, confused, and misunderstood as you’ve worked to figure out your individual roles in this marriage. It sounds like you’ve initially voiced frustration with the roles that aren’t working for you, even though that arrangement was familiar and comfortable for your husband. Neither of you is doing anything wrong by having different expectations and experiences.

The relationship hurt doesn’t usually come from a difference in viewpoints, but, rather, from feeling like your partner doesn’t care about your experience. Even though boundaries are critical for healthy relationships, you have both put up boundaries that keep you more entrenched in your individual positions. Consequently, it’s also made it more difficult to understand your individual experiences with these expectations.

You can step out of the current impasse by starting a different type of conversation that opens up a respectful and curious exploration of each other’s experiences, expectations, and wishes. For example, you can talk about what it’s like for you to carry the mental load of remembering, organizing, and initiating the multitude of details involved in running a marriage and family.[ii] Likewise, invite him to share his experiences, expectations, and wishes surrounding the marriage and family functioning. Because many of these rules and roles are invisible to our conscious awareness, it takes patience and persistence to fully understand why we do what we do.

You may learn more about your reflexive willingness to over-commit to responsibilities that you later resent. He may discover that he feels loved when others do things for him. Instead of reacting with snap judgements of each other’s experiences and expectations, stay open to exploring your individual histories that are driving your current marital dance.

Ultimately, you’ll need to make some decisions about how you want your arrangement to function. The hope, of course, is that you’ll be able to respectfully consider how to set each of you up for optimal conditions. If you hit snags and can’t quite find the resolution you’re seeking, don’t hesitate to enlist the help of a marriage therapist who can help you untangle more stubborn beliefs or experiences that shape your interactions.

While you can decide what works for you, you can’t decide what will work for your partner. If there are roles and responsibilities that are breaking down your mental or physical health, be wise and set appropriate limits until you can find a suitable solution. My hope is that you can both find creative and compassionate solutions that leave each of you feeling loved and supported.  

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]

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About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples, pornography/sexual addiction, betrayal trauma, and infidelity. He is the founder of LifeStar of St. George, Utah (www.lifestarstgeorge.com) and Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com). Geoff is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, the host of the Illuminate podcast, and creates online relationship courses available on his website www.geoffsteurer.com. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCc05gV4t9A0B8-TDT1EfWhQ?view_as=subscriber
Website: www.geoffsteurer.com 
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT
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[i] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/topics/family-proclamation?lang=eng&old=true

[ii] https://blog.trello.com/mental-load-invisible-work-stress