Unlikely Fact Number Five:

Helping isn’t helpful.

A quiz for a would-be therapist:  A married couple, both members of which are working outside the home, has divided the household chores between them. Because the husband’s job requires that he be away from home more hours per day than his spouse, his wife willingly agreed to take on more of the household responsibilities.  In spite of a sincere effort on her part, the wife reports that she rarely completes all of her agreed upon chores with the result being that she is frequently calling upon her husband to “pitch in and help out.”

The husband argues that his wife is being selfish by repeatedly asking for help. He feels that he is being unfairly penalized for being a better time manager than she and refuses to help.  His wife argues that if he really loved her he wouldn’t need to be asked but would willingly and non-begrudgingly help out. The couple is now in your office asking for your guidance.

Which one of the following options do you recommend?

1.  Love means being there for our loved one and so you tell the husband that he could find no better way to express his love than by helping his wife.
2.  Love means keeping your word to your loved one.  You remind the wife that she made the agreement with her husband willingly and that she is letting him down by refusing to keep her end of the bargain.
3.  Love means being willing to respond with flexibility to the wishes of our loved one. You therefore suggest that neither spouse should be completely responsible for any one chore.  You suggest that each partner do whatever is needed to get the job done. With this more flexible approach, if one spouse is folding the laundry and dinner time is approaching, the other spouse will begin preparing dinner.

Before looking ahead to read my answer, make a mental note of the one option that you believe would be of most assistance in helping this couple to resolve their problem.

My answer: Number 2

My analysis and rationale:  The typical married person is over-worked and under-rested and is likely to feel stretched beyond his or her limits.  Recent surveys report that the average married person works more hours per day and sleeps one or two fewer hours per night than did their parents or grandparents a generation ago.  What those data indicate is that most married individuals are already working at or above their full capacity.

According to these findings it’s likely that the wife in the above example is feeling overwhelmed.  Should she not, therefore, be permitted to ask for the help she most certainly needs? After all, her request for help is not the plea of a lazy individual but a cry for help from an overextended spouse.  Why would I suggest that she not be permitted to ask for help?

On the other hand, it’s likely that the husband is also feeling depleted.  If we look at his wife’s request from his perspective we’re not surprised to learn that he feels that he is being “taken advantage of.”  Since he already feels like he doing more than his fair share, he will hear his wife’s request for help as a demand that he is then likely to translate as “in spite of the fact that you are already overloaded with more work than you can do, I want you to take on even more so that you can  help me with my share of the load.”

What this analysis leads me to understand is that any agreement that leads to one spouse asking for help from the other is destined to fail.  Instead of constantly feeling obligated to “help” one another, couples would do better to renegotiate the terms of their agreement.  This new agreement must be seen by husband and wife as fair and equitable.  And if the new agreement they hammer out is perceived by both of them as fair, neither will want (nor will they feel the need) to ask the other for help.

The best agreements are those in which each partner feels like he or she has come away with the better of the deal.  A contract that is agreed to begrudgingly, similar to a compromise that contains seeds of resentment (see “unlikely fact number three”) can only end poorly.  Because marriages in which couples are frequently helping one another are rarely satisfying, an agreement that results  in either partner needing to ask the other for help has no real chance of succeeding.  The sign of a truly well functioning marriage is one in which well crafted agreements ensure that neither spouse will feel the need to ask for help.  Why?  Because helping doesn’t help.

Click for Unlikely Fact Number Six