A reader who I’ll call Ann emailed me a while back asking for my thoughts on what she can do to encourage her husband to show more leadership. I’ll share parts of her message below but have left other parts out which might overly identify her. One thing which is clear throughout the message is that Ann loves and respects her husband; her message doesn’t have the feel of a wife who is frustrated with her husband or at her wits end. Ann is in her early 30s and she and her husband are fairly newly married. English isn’t her first language but she does an excellent job expressing herself in it anyway:
My husband and I love each other very much. In general we don’t have any problems in our marriage, and I am wondering what I can do to keep it that way for years to come.
What I would like to ask you particularly is, what can I do to treat him like a man? This is not to say I treat him like a woman (poor English issue) but I would like to “underline” his masculinity…To make him feel that his wife is proud to have him as her husband. To make him feel that it’s perfectly OK to do what he chooses to do even if it doesn’t make everyone happy.
I don’t know if I’m making myself clear… I am not the super assertive type, I don’t yell at him or humiliate him or anything like that…I just want to learn new ways to make him feel good and strong about his manliness.
One of her objectives is to encourage him to be more assertive:
…he usually prefers to avoid conflict. I am not saying that I want him to start punching everyone in the face, but I’m guessing you understand my point.
I don’t want to “talk to” him about this, I don’t think that’s a good idea, instead I would like to find new ways to support my husband.
Anyway, I hope I was clear :) Please let me know your thoughts, if there are any books I can read, any tips etc.
I have framed the question as how she can encourage her husband to show more leadership. She may be asking something slightly different but I think this is what she is most likely to be able to influence, and it also should have the effect she is looking for outside of his dealings with her. Part of my assumption here is that what she is looking for is fine tuning instead of a total transformation. She loves him and is happy with him now, but she can see how they might both be happier with a small change in the dynamic.
My first thought is to implement the simple ideas I mentioned in a recent post. There are a number of customs which feminism has discouraged which should be able to help change the tone of your relationship. Many of these are simple and ceremonial like having him drive, order for you at a restaurant, etc. However simple gestures can be very powerful, and can help you fine tune this kind of thing. Grerp writes about the powerful impact seating her husband at the head of the table had on her husband and her son:
It really doesn’t matter to me who sits at the head of the table. Half the time I’m in and out of the kitchen getting stuff, so I sit on the side and that works fine. But it does matter to my son, who has shown a vaguely covetous attitude about that head chair, and it matters to my husband who actually said to me the other night, “It’s so nice to come home to dinner and to eat it as the head of the table. It’s such a good way to end the day.”
I also think it would be a good idea if she can find some activity which her husband would naturally lead in. This will vary based on the individuals involved. Several years ago my wife and I bought a boat for me to use fishing on the local lakes. She at first agreed to come along just to humor me, but soon found she loved the feeling of power when speeding across the lake as well as the calmness when stopped. It was natural for me to take the lead more when we were working with the boat because of my experience handling boats, trailers, etc. A few times we had mechanical problems which I needed to fix to get us home. But even though I was leading, it was also important that we had to work together. This was especially important when docking and trailering the boat. All of this lead to an improvement in our dynamic together; we were both happier with our marriage from this time on. Boating may not be the right answer for other couples, but any activity which forces you to work together while encouraging him to lead should have the same impact.
Athol Kay has a great post about the Captain and First Officer model in marriage which I think really nails the kind dynamic she is likely hoping to achieve:
I’ve always liked the dynamic on the Star Trek series between Captains and First Officers. It’s always been quite apparent that the First Officer is always competent and skilled, and if anything happens to the Captain, they step into the role of being in command immediately. The Captains always listen, sometimes the First Officer has a better idea than their own. Sometimes the First Officer actually overrules the Captain in a crisis and gives the crew an order, the Captain usually just trusts the First Officer isn’t doing this to make trouble and runs with it. But at the end of the day… the Captain is the Captain and leadership comes from them, and final responsibility for the ship lies with them. If it all goes to hell the Captain is last off the ship.
The whole post is worth reading, as is his book. For Ann what I would suggest is to pick certain areas she most wants to have him lead with and actively defer to her husband when a decision needs to be made. She might say something as simple to him as that is something I trust my husband to decide. Critical to this process is to pick something that he is good at and something that if he makes a choice she doesn’t agree with she can still live with the outcome. As the two of them become more comfortable with him leading she will become more comfortable with raising concerns without overruling him. But at first this might discourage him so I think it is best to try to avoid it if possible. Also, be ready for him to make a choice which turns out to be “wrong” at some point. Leaders make decisions, and some percentage of those decisions will be wrong. It probably makes sense to look at this as a critical opportunity to reinforce his leadership role, especially if he made a different choice than she would have (or did) counsel. From that perspective him making a wrong decision is something she should actually look forward to.
Both of them should get better at the process over time. It also is worth noting that it isn’t right to judge the validity of a decision based on the outcome. This is counterintuitive, but I believe it is actually correct. When making a decision you can only decide based on the best information available at the time. Sometimes this leads to the wrong outcome, but trying to do anything else will lead to never ending second guessing.
Hopefully this is at least a good start for them. I’m also looking forward to the thoughts of my readers, both men and women. Please share your wisdom in the comments section below. As with a recent post where a reader asked for advice I will ask that all comments be respectful and kind in tone. Normally the comments section is pretty much no holds barred, but in this case I will remove any comments which aren’t respectful of Ann or her husband.
See Also: Update from Ann.