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Want Your Husband to Step Up? Try Getting Out of His Way

Editor's note: The following column is adapted from the new book "The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men & Marriage" Post Hill Press (February 14, 2017).

It was the A1 Sauce that did it. I was cleaning up the last of the table items in our dining room after dinner, and I noticed a bottle of A1 Sauce on the floor next to my husband’s chair. Naturally, I thought that was an odd place for it to be, so I went into the kitchen where my husband was doing the dishes and asked him what the A1 Sauce was doing on the floor.

“You never like it when I use sauce on my food,” he said.

It was at that moment when I realized what kind of wife I’d become: the kind who micromanages every move her husband makes, so much so that he has to hide a bottle of sauce on the floor so he can eat his damn dinner in peace.

My husband called it “directing his traffic.” That’s a polite way of saying I tell him what to do, how to do it, and when to do it. No husband wants a wife like that, but mine was particularly insistent. A product of divorce and the youngest of six (the next sibling being seven years older than he), my husband spent a lot of time alone as a child and as a result became fiercely independent. (He’s also a Capricorn, but that’s a different conversation). I had no choice but to accept that I could not direct my husband in any way.

Which was hard because I come from a long line of alpha females, and instructing people is in our blood. When I was young and would play with my friends, I was always the leader. There was no discussion; I’d just announce it outright. Fortunately, I was never mean or nasty about it and as a result had lots of friends. I suppose that’s why I never thought of this trait as a negative quality, per se. I got things done! I made things happen!

I remember my mentor in high school wrote a college recommendation on my behalf and referred to me as “a born leader.” That was one of the reasons I became a teacher. Then later I became a mother, and of course that job involves a lot of traffic directing. So it was only natural I’d begin instructing my husband as well.

Plus, that was the model I’d had as a child.

My mother instructed everyone in the family; that’s just how it worked. And it’s how it worked in her family. If my mother wasn’t the one who made the decision, the decision couldn’t possibly be good. Every so often she would appear to cede to my father’s wishes, but only if she happened to agree with him.

As for the A1 Sauce, I’d been on my husband for years about his eating habits and considered it my job to educate him about how to be healthy, just as I do with our kids. When I first met my husband, he was going to the gym every morning at 5:30am. He was also 40 pounds lighter. But after years of harping on him with no results, I couldn’t shake the feeling it was my fault my husband wasn’t taking care of himself.

Naturally, I didn’t see it this way at first. Why is it my fault if my husband makes bad choices? He’s lucky to have me guiding him! I’m just being helpful! But what controlling wives call helpful, husbands call something else. A man’s reaction to being told what to do by his wife is to do the exact opposite.

Indeed, it wasn’t until I stopped getting on my husband’s case that he began to take care of himself. Huh -- go figure.

My light bulb moment didn’t end there. Once I saw the connection between the two -- my dictating and my husband’s lack of motivation -- I started thinking about other ways I was behaving that would cause him to react negatively. Like the times I’d tell him how to drive, or I’d correct his language, or I’d complain about whatever he wasn’t doing well and tell him how he could improve.

Then one night I saw myself in Ken Burns’ documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. The narrator said this about Franklin in reference to his wife Eleanor:

He wanted someone who had all the devotion to him that his mother had had but not the admonitory part -- that part that told him what to do and what not to do. And sadly, Eleanor couldn’t be worshipful and had to be admonitory.

Eureka. My mother was an Eleanor Roosevelt. So was I.

There are so many reasons why women insist on taking control in their relationships. Maybe you’re a product of divorce, and you don’t trust love. Maybe your father was a cad, and you don’t trust men. Maybe one of your parents was an alcoholic. Maybe your mother ruled the roost, and you’ve never had any other model. Or maybe you grew up in a home where there was never enough money and you became determined to make your own way in life.

Whatever the reason, the end result is the same: you don’t trust anyone but yourself. The problem is that without trust, there can be no vulnerability. And without vulnerability, there can be no intimacy.

Your relationship will thus end badly, or it will coast for decades in a state of benign neglect. The only way forward is to let go.

If you want a peaceful marriage, you have to be the antithesis of Eleanor Roosevelt. You have to stop dictating and start doting instead. Then watch your man become a man.