Sunday, October 29, 2006

Making My Spouse Her Husband's Wife?

Drunken Housewife writes:
I have more advice for you, 2 AM, and I'm sure many readers will dislike it. Buy your wife a copy of Dr. Laura Schlesinger's "The Proper Care And Feeding of Husbands." I just read it myself (although my politics are diametrically opposed to Laura Schlessinger's, I think 90% of what she has to say in this book is good advice). There's a chapter in there precisely about that failing-to-read-the-mind thing your wife does, 2 AM. I used to be high maintenance in a bitchy way, and now I'm medium maintenance in a loving way, and the stuff I was working on in my own way is written very point-blankly by Dr L. S. in this book. (This is my second marriage, and I'm determined to succeed in it, and so I've worked at being good at being married). Pick it up and ask your wife to read it; it's in paperback and quite cheap.
Thanks for the tip, and I commend you for wanting to make sure that your marriage does well.

I've actually taken your advice to a certain extent. I bought the e-book version last fall from and read it front to back, highlighting a lot of passages along the way. I could identify with some of the calls and letters she cites to make her point. The advice she offers, when put into practice, will definitely result in happier husbands.

The book is something of a Catch 22. I don't know of any reliable way to get someone to read it. The ones who are the biggest offenders in the book's viewpoint would be the last to pick it up on their own volition and the first to dismiss the book as nothing more than a Stepford Wife handbook.

The problem is that Schlessinger's style of communication is blunt and puts the reader on the defensive. It takes a one heckuva person, regardless of sex, to be able to read something that accusatory and not go in full throttle defensive mode. It forces the reader to take a hard look at a side that they might not want to admit. I suspect that most wives who are presented that book by their husbands wind up throwing the book right back at them. Either that or they stop reading at the page where they see their behavior being chided.

I can empathize with that feeling of defensiveness because I had to wrestle with a similar dynamic when I was reading Julia Grey's excellent series of blog postings tagged Why Your Wife Won't Have Sex with You. I'd read a page or so, feel my blood start to boil, take a break to cool down, then come back for more, because deep down I was beginning to realize that I had issues of my own.

Returning to Schlessinger, the book was a mixed blessing for me. It helped me realize that there was a severe imbalance in my relationship, that it wasn't unique, and that it could kill a marriage if left to fester indefinitely. The downside was that it made me focus on her problems, thinking that if I could get her to read the book an understand it, things would improve in our marriage. It also fostered a victim mentality in me at a time when I needed it least.

The problem for me, being a passive type, was figuring out how to get her to read the book in the first place. I read some forum postings here and there where husbands had elicited negative responses when they gave the book to their wives, so I knew that a direct approach would be bad news.

At the end of May this year, my wife and I took our first vacation alone since the kids were born, and the drive would take us across half of Tennessee, where good radio is really hard to find, let alone a steady radio signal. A couple weeks before, I started recording several hours of different XM radio channels on my work desktop and then burning them to audio CDs.

XM Channel 166 carries Schlessinger's show from 3 - 6 p.m. (ET) on weekdays. Since Schlessinger plugs her books during many of her calls, I thought that I'd record a few hours of her show. Many a year ago, when we still lived in Illinios, my wife would listen to her show sometimes, so it wasn't too much of a stretch. That might be a way of easing into the discussion of reading the book.

Sure enough, there were a couple of calls where she made the recommendation. But the calls were about only one dimension of the book (and arguably the most controversial part): giving the husband more and better sex. Knowing that I had downloaded and read the book several months before, she asked me if I thought she should read the book. I said that I would probably be a lot happier if she did.

We didn't discuss it further, until a few weeks later. We got into a fight because I asked whether she thought she had overcommitted herself to outside activities and helping other family members. She then said that I was being insecure and said that I just wanted her to read Schlessinger's book because I wanted more sex. Moreover, she said that if she put the book's ideas into action (bearing in mind she had not read a single page of it), she'd be nothing more than my slave.

The book came up again as we entered into marriage counseling in late July. At that point, she said she might read it if I checked a copy of the book from the library. She didn't like reading books on the computer, which was understandable, and she said that she wasn't sure if she'd make it through the book because she had a hard time sticking with self help books. So, I reserved a copy and picked it up for her. I had it for a month or so, but she never read it.

The avoidance of self help materials is not limited to Schlessinger. During our marriage counseling, the therapist recommended that we read The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. She only read a couple chapters of that. She said it put her to sleep.

As we were wrapping up our counseling, I bought a copy of Michele Weiner Davis' The Sex Starved Marriage (SSM). As she started reading that one, she said she thought she would like that book because Weiner Davis's writing style was easier to work through. She nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, maybe getting through a third of it, based on where she left the book opened face-down. Then she resumed reading her mystery suspense novels, of which she's gone through three or four since then. I don't think she'll ever dig it out again.

At about the same time that I ordered SSM, I read her earlier book Divorce Busting (DB), which drove home the point that pointing out your problems with your spouse was a fool's errand. If there were changes to be made, they had to be made with yourself. That would change the nature of interaction with your spouse and start the course toward healing.

Furthermore, Weiner Davis argued that unless you knew what you would spend your time on if you weren't spending it fussing over your spouse, getting out of the marriage wouldn't solve anything because you'd still be stuck with your own dysfunctional dynamics. The next two reads, Passionate Marriage (PM) by David Schnarch and No More Mr. Nice Guy (NMMNG) by Robert Glover, whom I've mentioned a lot in this space, sounded similar themes. Work on yourself to bring about change.

Those who have followed this blog for a long time probably have noticed that there has been a change in the tone of my writings. This blog started out as a hyperanalytic pity party, not much different from many other male-written blogs that chronicle resentful, passive existences. It had progressed into a less regularly published archive what "working on myself" looks like in my life. It's been a slow grind, but I believe that things will pick up pace now that I am seeing a counselor who knows something about the process of differentiating in the Bowenian sense.

One last note about Schlessinger before I close this post. I would also recommend Bad Childhood, Good Life to other who have struggled with family of origin issues. The tone is much gentler than The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. You won't find the preachiness that she exhibits on her radio show.

The book won't solve your problems, but it might give you the sense to fire your therapist if he or she is one of those who has dragged you through years of agonizing rehashes of your past bad experiences. This book, PM, DB, and NMMNG all have one common idea: while past traumas might shape who you are today, you can get back on the path to a happier life without having to fully understand how they affected you. The key is to stop affixing blame and live in the present.
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