16 Mar The Husband Whisperer
By Jodie Gould for Woman’s Day
First there was the Horse Whisperer. Then came the Baby Whisperer, then the Dog Whisperer. Seeing all these whisperers tapping into their extrasensory ability to bond with less communicative creatures, I began to wonder if I could do something similar with my husband.
Could delving into his psyche help strengthen our relationship? Or, on a more pragmatic level, could I get him to do what I want without nagging, yelling or being passive-aggressive?
I decided to consult several marriage counselors in my quest to become a bona fide Husband Whisperer. Anything to get my spouse to, among other things, throw away his used yogurt containers, leave the toilet seat down and place his dirty clothes in the laundry basket rather than going for a three-point shot and letting them fall as they may.
So, armed with an arsenal of expert tips, I embarked on a four-week experiment to see if I could somehow morph into a Husband Whisperer and, with practice, patience and perseverance, mold my spouse’s mind ever so gently. Here’s the advice I followed, along with the results.
1. Always say please and thank you — and touch him when you do. I know it sounds like old-school advice, but every marriage expert said the same thing: No one likes being bossed around, especially by their spouses, so there’s no point in throwing down orders like a drill sergeant. All it does is evoke memories of their mothers nagging them to clean their rooms. My husband told me point-blank in our early days that if I told him what to do, he’d do the opposite simply out of spite. Real men don’t get henpecked.
With this in mind, therapists concur that we need to approach our husbands not like children, but with the calm, respectful manner we would friends. And ask, don’t tell. One evening I heard myself sputtering to my husband, “The garbage?!”, like a frustrated teenager begging for the car keys. Not surprisingly, that didn’t even bring a response. Realizing I was off to a bad start, I tried again. “Could you please take out the garbage? It’s starting to stink.” I could have left out the last part, I suppose, but I did get a response, although it wasn’t the one I wanted: “I’ll do it when I get back from the gym.”
Later, when the garbage remained unchanged (and still smelly), I upped my game and took the advice of Toni Coleman, LCSW, a relationship coach from McLean, Virginia, who’d told me, “Your husband will respond better if you place a persuasive hand on his arm or back. Men really respond to physical touch. ”So I leaned in closely until we were practically cheek to jowl, but not close enough to block his view of the evening news, and I placed my hand gently on his shoulder. Using the sweetest voice I could muster, I said, “Honey, could you please take out the garbage now that you’re back?” Not only did I succeed in getting his attention, I got him to spring into action. He seemed pleased (and a bit shocked) when I thanked him afterward. Now, whenever I want him to take out the trash, I summon my kinder, gentler self.
2. Lead by example. One of the goals in my Husband Whisperer experiment was to get my husband to clean up after himself. Normally, I would have to put away jars, boxes and whatever else he’d left behind on the kitchen counter after a snack. Then I’d follow up with a damp sponge to get any crumbs or spillage. In my zeal to stay one step ahead of the mess, I’d sometimes put food away before he had a chance to eat it. He’d turn around and say, “Hey, where’d that bread go?” and I’d say, “I thought you were done.” Arguments ensued.
Why is it so difficult for a husband to swab the deck? It’s simple: Some men just aren’t that into cleaning. “Women see dirt and feel the mess that men don’t see or feel,” explained psychotherapist Marilyn Kagan, LCSW, who, with psychologist Neil Einbund, Ph.D., leads the Making Marriage Work courses at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Einbund agreed: “When I do the dishes, my wife will come in afterward and rinse out the sink because she doesn’t think it’s clean enough. I look at the sink and it doesn’t bother me.”
I was willing to concede our irreconcilable aesthetic differences, but not yet ready to cave on his cleaning up. So when I spotted my husband heating up some soup, I decided to take a different approach. True to form, not only did he leave behind the dirty pot, but some spilled soup on the stovetop, too. I recalled the advice of New York City psychotherapist and advice columnist Jonathan Alpert, LPC, who suggested I show my husband exactly what needed to be done. “Men are task-driven and goal-oriented,” he said. “Tell him what he should shoot for.”
So I called my husband back into the kitchen. Lifting the saucepan, I pointed to the dried-up pools of soup. I could see by his bemused expression that it never occurred to him to look under the pot. “I know you’re tired, but I want to show you what works for me,” I said, as cheerful as an infomercial. “I just spray a little of this cleaning fluid on the spill, wipe and voilà!” He looked at me as if I had just performed a mindfreak. “What’s that you use again?” he inquired, much to my own amazement.
Not only did he continue to use the product I suggested, he now regularly cleans under pots, like a little boy exploring the dark rooty underworld beneath a rock. It may seem like a small victory, and the results aren’t always perfect, but little things like this are a giant step for my peace of mind.
3. Play the empathy card. Another key to being a good Husband Whisperer, I found, is getting your spouse to empathize with your situation. Better to say, for example, that you can’t relax and spend time with him or the kids until the dinner dishes are washed than, “Why don’t you ever help with the dishes?” Not only do gentler words encourage your husband to see through your bleary eyes, they allow him to come to your rescue — something men take pride in doing for women.
Michelle Maidenberg, Ph.D., director of the Westchester Group Works, a group therapy center in White Plains, New York, told me that she plays the empathy card with her own husband — like the time she’d repeatedly asked him to put their kids’ sleds in the garage. Unlike her, he wasn’t at all bothered by sleds scattered on the front lawn like some kind of winter yard sale. A day went by, then two, then a week. “I must have asked him 10 times,” she recalls. Finally he said, angrily, “Why don’t you just put the stupid sleds away?”
Maidenberg realized then that her husband didn’t understand why she was asking (nagging) him to do something she could do herself. Then she explained: “It’s difficult for me to lift the sleds and carry them down the stairs,” she told him. The next morning the sleds were gone.
Buoyed by her success, I let my husband watch while I struggled under the weight of two overstuffed laundry bags. When he didn’t budge, I tried the more direct approach. “Buck,” I said, using his affectionate nickname, “I really don’t think I can lift these bags myself.” Like Maidenberg’s husband, he gallantly volunteered to help carry the load. And I’m happy to report that he still does.
4. Reward good behavior — the sexier the better. As a Husband Whisperer, I knew that I needed to employ more positive reinforcement. “Reward your husband for completing a task by doing something you both enjoy, like dinner and a movie,” Alpert suggested. “Women often find men who are good husbands and fathers sexy, so the hint of an even greater reward in the bedroom will almost guarantee success.
Fine, but why should my husband get a gold star simply for being a good citizen of the household? I don’t get a pair of diamond earrings every time I clean the hamster cage. Still, it seemed like a mutually beneficial bargaining chip, so I was willing to give it a go.
I let my husband pick from several chores I wanted to hand over, then I told him about the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (sex!) that would be waiting for him if he handled that chore for the next few weeks. Intrigued, he chose homework help.
To my amazement, after dinner that Monday, he didn’t have to be reminded about our deal. “Can we do the homework now?” he asked eagerly. “After iCarly is over,” I said, reminding him of another deal we’d struck with our seven-year-old for one hour of TV chill time. When the two of them finally headed off to hit the books, I luxuriated in an extra hour of me-time. And how did my husband respond later? Let’s just say he enjoyed it so much that he decided to extend our deal!