You've been with your partner for a while now, and maybe the shine has worn off a little. He's getting paunchy, he just tracked mud all over the carpet, and you're pretty sure it's him making that smell at night, not the dog. Whether Prince Charming has reverted back into a frog or you knew you bought a fixer-upper from the start, you can start helping him make changes for the better. But there's a good way to go about it and bad way.
You have to plan your approach carefully or else you run the risk of making things worse. Going about it the wrong way can catch him off guard and, at worst, make him resent you.
I've been with my wife for 10 years, and while we can't claim to have resolved all our differences, that's plenty of time to learn what makes each other tick. We have two kids, and we've talked about each of the following 10 things at one time or another. I like to think I wasn't such a hard case; she would probably disagree. But in the end we found ways to communicate and make our relationship better. We both agree on that.
The best way to sneak in a veggie or two into his diet
Nothing will make a guy angry like telling him no more steak, ever, or snatching a cookie out of his hand. Even if he's getting tubby, he's going to resent you for telling him he needs to change his diet.
Men eat a lot of junk; there's no avoiding it. Before we were married, I could count the number of times I made myself a salad on my thumbs. But now I eat one four or five times a week simply because of my wife's persistence. At first, she made it seems like a simple offer: "Can I make you a salad?" Sometimes I said no, but after a while I started saying yes every time because it was easier. She just wore me down. And then all those fresh vegetables she brought home from the market started showing up as side dishes. Now carrots and snap peas materialize in my lunch whenever she packs it, and I don't mind.
If you want a guy to change his diet, don't put it all on him. If you slip him something healthy on the nights you cook, don't deny him that slab of ribs or extra piece of pizza when you go out for dinner. The best place to make a change is at home, because both of you will still eat most of your meals there.
Get physical together
Exercise presents a perfect opportunity for a guy to get some officially sanctioned alone time. The best investment my wife and I made when I was staying at home was a family membership at a gym with a daycare. On those long, cold, Chicago winter days when my son and I would otherwise be confined to the house, the gym became my second home. I went four or five times a week, got into the best shape of my life, and made my days shorter.
Not everyone has the luxury of this kind of schedule, but the point is that I developed a habit. If you want your partner to exercise more, you have to give him an opportunity to develop that habit. I definitely wouldn't have started working out as much if my wife and I hadn't gone in on that membership together. I would have felt guilty about spending the money and dumping my kids at the gym's daycare for two hours a day.
Your partner doesn't have to go from couch potato to triathlete either. Find ways to exercise together. Plan weekend bike rides. Sign up together for a 5K to give yourselves a goal, or join a co-ed softball or soccer team.
If you tell a guy to cook, he'll say one of three things: "What do you want me make?", "Can I make my mom's meatloaf or casserole or spaghetti or chicken?", or "Let's grill."
Just like cleaning and chores, you have to take advantage of what your partner can do well. Guys are happy to cook as long as you don't make it seem like it's all on him to be the Iron Chef.
Always make it seem like a team effort. You may be asking him to turn on the stove and stir the pots that night, but you can help plan the meal. If he's shy around the kitchen, put together a few easy recipes and make sure all the ingredients are always on hand. Work together the first few times until you both know them by heart. If he's good with a few family recipes, make those part of your regular rotation and, by all means, never turn your nose up at a chance to barbecue. The stereotype is true; guys really can't resist an open flame.
Time to clean up
My wife says she can always tell where I am in the house because she follows the crumbs like I'm Hansel and Gretel. I am an excessively neat person, though. I put things away. Everything in our house has its proper place, and I can't walk by a stack of magazines without squaring the corners. This frustrates my wife to no end. As she sees it, for someone so particular about straightening up and clearing clutter, I ought to be able to swing a broom around every once in a while.
Instead of arguing about who cleans when and who puts away what, we've worked out a division of labor for chores. She is as compulsive about getting on her hands and knees to scrub the floor as I am about climbing behind the furniture to find every last one of the Legos and Hotwheels. In my case, the neatness fetish extends to other chores that involve putting thing in their proper place: taking out the trash, emptying the dishwasher, etc. Rather than fighting about the things we do poorly around the house, we make the best of what each of us does well.
Chances are, your partner is one or the other, the cleaner or the declutterer. Figure out which he is and put it to use instead of finding fault with what he doesn't do.
Get some help picking up the groceries, the kids...
I was lucky enough to stay at home with my kids for four years while my wife ran her own business, and during that time I got used to doing all the errands. Groceries, doctor appointments and preschool drop-offs were all mine. It worked well with our schedules. I had the flexibility to run around town during the week (the grocery store is a much more pleasant place on Tuesday mornings than weekends), and she could concentrate on her work. But when I went back to work full time this year, I had a hard time handing over that responsibility.
It's not that I didn't trust my wife to do these things; we just weren't used to having to think about it. Now we have to plan ahead.
Guys like things to be convenient, and you have to appeal to his sense of fairness when divvying up the errands. Ask him to make the trips that make sense because they're on his way home, close to his office, etc., instead of just saying "it's your turn." And always pitch an errand as a chance to get out of the house.
Who's in charge of the kids?
A friend of mine, a mother of two small children, once said to me: "It's not fair. My husband comes home and gets to do all the fun things with the kids." What she meant was that her husband came home from work and became Super Daddy, part pony, part jungle gym and part WWE wrestler. Guys are naturally good at this, and while my friend loved that her kids were so excited to see their dad, she admitted resenting that he wasn't always there for all the diaper blowouts and projectile vomiting.
I don't claim to know everything about team parenting, but I can tell you what doesn't work: keeping score. If you're trying to get your partner to take a bigger share of diaper changes or getting up with the newborn in the wee hours, the worst thing to do is start saying, "I did it this many times last week, now it's your turn." That's asking for endless disputes about who did what and what constitutes a "turn."
The thing about dads who come home and do the Hulk Hogan routine is that they're fiercely proud of it. It's one great thing they can do with the kids if they work all day, and they feel guilty about not being around more. I understand that even better now that I've been in both positions. Complaining that he only does the "fun" things with the kids is only going to hurt his feelings, if not make him outright angry. Would you rather him be the old school guy in a flannel suit who comes home, pours himself a scotch, sits down with the paper and says, "What's for dinner?"
Take advantage of what your partner is good at with the kids instead of insisting that it always be an exact 50/50 split. Besides, if he's not pulling his weight with the midnight feedings, you can always pretend you're asleep.
Bills, bills, bills
Paying the bills, doing the taxes, going through the mail are tough jobs to split up, because they don't necessarily lend themselves to multiple hands. They all need to be rolled together, because being a good bookkeeper and office manager requires setting up a system that is tightly bound to the quirks and working habits of the pencil pusher.
If your partner isn't much help with the the bills and paperwork, it's not going to help to demand that he take over a huge portion of it or pick it up on odd-numbered days of the month. If you've been minding the store, you don't want to introduce friction into the system by confusing responsibilities. It will be frustrating for both of you. Show him how you like to work and see if you can identify ways to communicate more effectively. Or if he handles the books and you feel cut out, ask how you can make his job easier by saving the right receipts, forwarding e-mails or putting important dates in the right place for him to process them.
Can you cure your spouse of his bad habits?
Curing bad habits
I crack my knuckles. My wife hates it. She hogs the blankets in bed, and I elbow her in the side and yank them back every night. When you spend enough time with someone, eventually he will get on your nerves. But of all the things on this list that I could say aren't worth your time trying to solve, this is the one. You have to pick your battles, and in this case, I suggest developing thicker skin and a healthy sense of perspective.
A man is not going to respond well if you make an issue out of one of his weird tendencies, and doing so may make it worse out of spite. He might start drinking out of the milk carton within full view on a nightly basis, just because he knows it bothers you. Yes, it's childish and spiteful, but that's what men do sometimes when they feel like they're being nagged.
We all have little quirks and tics that drive our partners crazy. But men and women share equal blame. You have habits that are annoying to him too, so remember that before you approach your partner about one of his. The great toilet seat up/toilet seat down battle can never be won, and it's best to save your energy for more productive projects.
Do you spend more on purses than he does on beers?
Besides control of the thermostat, spending habits may be the biggest cause of arguments for couples. In the history of the world, I don't think there is a person in a committed relationship who didn't believe their significant other blew their money on garbage.
Of course, everyone can always justify spending money. I think my wife spends too much on clothes and bags. She counters (rightly) that she needs to dress well for her job. She thinks I spend too much money on computer gear and iTunes. I counter that I need the best equipment for writing and schooling our children on the Beastie Boys canon. Finger-pointing and shouting ensues, ad nauseam. No one wins. Guys will always react defensively if you accuse them of spending too much because they think you are frivolous, and vice versa.
The best way to avoid this argument is to be open and honest about what each of you spends. Whichever one of you keeps the books should present a complete report of all the household expenses and monthly bills so you can see exactly how much discretionary income you can spend. Work with an accountant and financial adviser to make sure you're saving enough for education and retirement. Set up a special budget to save for big-ticket items like vacations or a new car. Once you make sure you've taken care of the important things, you can look at the numbers and see what's left over. Maybe the occasional purse or new iPod isn't such a crime after all.
Asking your husband to spend more time with you
Quality spouse time
The successful resolution of a lot of these issues depends on spending time together, even if it's cooking or going for a walk. And hopefully, by making your household more efficient by taking advantage of each of your talents, you can free up even more time for fun.
The trick here is to not set your expectations too high for what constitutes quality time—it can't always be served to you by black-tie waitstaff at four-star restaurants. You have to count the little in-between moments, the things that constitute a real, mature relationship. Those evenings cooking together in the kitchen when the two of you know each other so well you hardly have to speak, but every dish turns out just right? Those moments have to count. The long car rides when you have such a great conversation you can't believe you just drove 300 miles? Those have to count.
The problem with holding out for the big night out or the romantic vacation is that quality time will never live up to the expectations. Plans will fall through, the food won't be as good as you'd hoped, you'll feel guilty about spending too much money. And more importantly, from the man's perspective, it will feel more like an obligation than something he wanted to do on his own. Guys actually do count that time watching TV together as quality time, and expecting them to put on a show for it to "count" is asking for him to retreat even further.
Those little moments with your partner—the impromptu back rub while you're washing the dishes or the kiss on the cheek while the kids are hanging off his legs—those are the quality moments that make up a relationship. If you start treating them that way instead of mere downtime while you're waiting for the next, big, romantic thing, your time with your partner, in whatever shape or form, will feel much more special every day.
I knew exactly what I was doing when I pushed back against my wife after she asked me to do something differently. Sometimes we lose sight of what's important in a relationship and resort to petty point scoring. But once we took the time to talk about our issues and work on them together, it made all those differences a thing of the past.
Matt Wood is a writer living in Chicago. His work has also appeared in The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol 3, Anatomy of Baseball, Time Out Chicago and Babble. More of his work can be found at his Web site, Wood-Tang.com.
Printed from Oprah.com on Friday, December 13, 2013
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