When superior is actually worse

A theme I hear increasing in my female clients’ divorce filings is the fact that they feel they do the lion’s share of work in the marriage. Many of them have work outside the home, many of them full-time, but they also end up with a full-time job at home, too. And their husbands let them handle it all.

When I look back at my grandparents’ generation, there seemed to be a much clearer division of labor. The men were usually responsible for what happened outside: checking and maintaining the cars, mowing the grass (but not planting the flowers, of course!), shoveling the driveway, taking out the garbage. Innate tendencies toward pyromania could be disguised by burning of trash and occasional searing of meat products on the old grill. The woman traditionally took care of the indoor tasks, cleaning, cooking and laundry, as well as whatever child care didn’t involve throwing some kind of ball at a helpless child expected to learn to catch it.

But as the years passed, those lines became less firm. Many men believe it is still their job to go out and provide for their family, and they concentrate their efforts in 10-hour days and bonus checks. At the same time, we did in fact experience the 1970s and women’s lib, and women now are out building careers as well. Or, as for many of my clients, they don’t have one of those men who think they should work, and as single mothers, they have to work to support their own families.

When I was a single mother, I found it much easier to regulate the “team.” I had certain jobs and the girls had certain jobs, and I just told them what to do, and it got done. But with a husband, that’s not quite the same. When you’re a parent, you’re in a superior position; as a spouse, you expect to be equal.

Reading recently, I found this article: Are Power Struggles Ruining Your Relationship? in Redbook Magazine. The article draws on a book called The Superior Wife Syndrome by psychologist Caren Rubenstein, and lays out Rubenstein’s belief that if women end up doing everything, it’s not only their own fault, but it could lead to the death of the marriage.

Many women in relationship are better managers. Their multi-tasking strengths are greater. They are better at seeing “the big picture:” who needs to be where, when; who’s due for doctor appointments, how to get a load of laundry in before the kids have school-day breakfast so the hot water can recharge in time to take a shower after the bus leaves, then load the dishwasher before running out the door to get to work, that sort of thing.

So it would seem natural that if you’re better at it, that your partner will defer to your superior ability.

The article/book go on to talk about how this seems like a simple solution, but actually contributes to the wife internally boiling as she carries the huge majority of tasks, while the husband sees everything skating along and thinks everything is just fine. With those blinders on, the situation only gets worse.

The solution, they say, is really to go back to my earlier team idea: let go of the idea that you both should be able to magically understand what needs to be done for a successful household. Tell your partner (specifically) what you want them to do, then let them handle it without interference, no matter how painful it might be to watch. Once you delegate the task, coming in with a rescue helicopter doesn’t teach your partner any more than it would teach your child. Sometimes, they’ll fail. Hopefully, they’ll learn. Everyone does, sooner or later.

In the words of Booth Tarkington: An ideal wife is any woman who has an ideal husband.

It takes two, my friends, it takes two.

3 thoughts on “When superior is actually worse

  1. i stayed home several months with my first child. i became the resident expert on child care – although when the baby was born? we were both rookies. when i returned to work, my husband picked up a greater share of child care efforts. i caught myself hovering over him during a diaper change – telling him what he was doing wrong. i was that mother. lesson learned. bit my tongue, and amazingly enough? my daughter survived a few weeks of crooked diapers…

    good message in this…

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