The problem isn’t that Jake doesn’t do things when she asks, Ann says, but that she has to ask. Or Jake says she’ll do something but then forgets or misses the deadline. Jake complains that Ann is constantly bothering him, that there is always something she gets upset about; Ann feels that she is doing the heavy lifting, she is always on duty and that living with Jake sometimes feels like she is living with a teenager that she cannot trust.
This “drudge vs. hassle” dynamic is a common problem between couples, with housework, parenting responsibilities, and worrying about money being the usual themes. One partner is the annoying and overly responsible martyr, while the other is the unaccountable victim who feels like she’s always in the doghouse. The relationship is unbalanced.
What drives this is usually a combination of three factors.
Ann will admit that she is an anxious person. She lives in the future; she worries easily and gets by by maintaining consistent routines and staying on top of things with to-do lists. When Jake doesn’t comply or, worse yet, she can’t see what needs to be done, her anxiety increases and she feels like she needs to harass Jake or do it herself to make sure things get done.
2. Different personalities
Ann is an entrepreneur, her anxiety drives her to action, and her action is further fueled by the “should” list that is always running through her head. Jake is the opposite: more relaxed, less driven by structure and duties, and more by emotions. If he feels like doing something, he will do it, but if not, he may not do it.
3. Different priorities
Ann thinks that cleaning the bathroom twice a week, changing the sheets once a week, or balancing the checkbook once a month just “makes sense,” but it doesn’t for Jake. It’s not because Jake is lazy, but because it’s less important to him, or he has different standards, or he wants to use his time in other ways.
All of these differences result in them not working together as a team and fueling a pattern that leaves them feeling frustrated and resentful. They need to change the pattern. That is how:
They need to talk about the pattern.
Instead of criticizing each other or arguing about which is the correct reality (the bathroom, the bed, Ann is too controlling, Jake is too irresponsible), they need to have a conversation about that dynamic with each other. He recognizes that they are both frustrated and resentful, that they are stuck in a dysfunctional routine and that what they are doing is not working for either of them.
They need to reach win-win compromises
Instead of having a power struggle over your priorities and needs, both of you should be willing to compromise. Here Ann will agree to the bathroom being cleaned once a week, and if she really bothers her for a few weeks, she will realize that this is her problem and that she can fix it by cleaning the bathroom herself without resentment. Similarly, Jake can offer to handle the monthly finances, but do so without the attitude and resentment that he is a victim of Ann’s nuisance. Instead, he tells himself that even though this isn’t important to him, it is important to Ann and because he cares about her, and that’s reason enough for him to do it. Or they may decide to skip the quid pro quo, think outside the box, focus on the solution, and hire someone to come and clean.
Everyone needs to work on their core issues.
Here, Ann needs to realize how anxiety is shaping her life and impacting her relationship and address it head-on: learning to prioritize instead of seeing everything as important, noticing when her anxiety is driving her desire for control, and practicing the resignation.
Similarly, Jake needs to push himself to step up, be more proactive and less passive, and more structured than emotionally driven. Instead of reacting when Ann approaches him, he needs to go to Ann and let her know that she is aware of everything, that she has not forgotten, and that she is not procrastinating on her responsibilities. By doing so, he is not only a more responsible partner, but also helps Ann reduce her stress and anxiety.
With each working on their side of the equation (Ann walks out and Jake walks up), they are breaking the dysfunctional pattern, being sensitive to each other’s needs, rebalancing the relationship, and working together as a team.
There is nothing better than that.