"It’s not because he doesn’t care. It’s not because he doesn’t love you. It’s not because he’s not a mensch"
Written with Zivia Reischer
I don’t know what to do with my husband. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a great guy, he earns a good living, he’s good with our kids. He makes time for me and treats me well. I guess everything’s great, except — I don’t know how to say this nicely — he’s a slob. He leaves his stuff everywhere. He just drops things down wherever he happens to be at the moment — on the dining room table, the kitchen counter, the desk, the bed, the couch, the bookshelves, even the floor. You walk through the house and his papers are on the piano, his coffee cup is on the windowsill, there are ties lying on the dining room table and looped over random doorknobs. The place is always a mess, and it’s not because of our kids! It’s so frustrating. And embarrassing. I talk to him about it all the time, and he always says he’s going to be better about putting his stuff away, but he never follows through. I don’t get it. He’s forty years old! Why doesn’t he clean up after himself? Every time I try talking to him about it, it becomes a whole fight. If he really cared about me, he would just do it! He gets upset, saying that I can’t pin the entire state of our marriage on this one issue. Then he always claims he’ll be better about it, but it makes no difference, he doesn’t do it. How can I get him to change?
A: Welcome to the world of marriage.
There are three pillars to a successful marriage: love, commitment, and learning to live together. We discussed commitment in an earlier column, explaining that the root of that commitment is the belief that Hashem, Who knows what’s best for you and wants only your good, chose this particular partner for you. Your question speaks to a different pillar, which is possibly the most difficult to achieve — learning to live together.
People are different from each other. Humans come in different shapes, sizes, colors, and flavors. Accepting that is one of the keys to learning to live together.
There’s no question about the fact that your husband should clean up after himself. There’s also no question that he’s probably not going to change. The question is why he isn’t going to change.
It’s not because he doesn’t care. It’s not because he doesn’t love you. It’s not because he’s not a mensch. It’s because people have different natures and people have different strengths and weaknesses. You yourself acknowledge that he’s a great guy with many good traits. You could have married someone who is neat but also very nasty, or neat but also very self-centered, or neat but very rigid and uptight about it all the time. Living in such a marriage would probably not leave you very happy. But you are happy, because he’s a wonderful person. You just need to learn to live with him — all of him — which is never easy.
The reason that this particular character trait bothers you so much is probably because you’re responsible for the home and his mess reflects badly on you, besides being a source of more housework for you. But there’s probably another factor at play too. I’m guessing that this area is one of your strengths. Because of that, you think, It’s just not that difficult. Look at me, I can do it. Why can’t he just put his stuff away?
The reason he can’t is because it’s not his nature. He should work on it, and he probably does work on it (though it might not seem obvious to you). But it’s not within his strengths, and although this comes naturally and easily to you, it’s never going to come naturally and easily to him. Even if he does succeed in changing his behavior to a degree, it’s unlikely that he’ll ever excel at it.
His job is to work on being neater, but your job is to accept him and his nature. If you can do that, your frustration will disappear and you’ll be free to enjoy being married to such a wonderful person.
I once spoke in Chicago and I mentioned this (very common) scenario. A woman raised her hand and said, “When you were here two years ago you spoke about this issue and I really related to it because I’ve been trying to get my husband to be neater and more organized literally from the day we got married. And the truth is it was affecting our shalom bayis. So I want to thank you for your advice that night — it really made a huge improvement.”
I asked her to explain. She said, “Well, every night my husband would come home from work, take off his suit jacket and hang it over a dining room chair. Monday night he would put his jacket on a chair. Tuesday night he would put his jacket on a chair. Wednesday night, another jacket on another chair. By the end of the week his entire wardrobe was in the dining room. It drove me crazy.”
“So what happened?”
“Well, you explained that I need to accept that he’s not going to change. So every night when I went upstairs, I would take his jacket with me and hang it up in his closet.”
“And how did that affect your relationship?” I asked.
“It’s so much better.”
I told the audience to stand up and applaud.
But why did her relationship improve? What changed? He’s still messy, and she’s still cleaning up after him.
What changed was her understanding. She realized that the reason he’s messy is not because he’s stubborn, rude, lazy, juvenile, or unfeeling. It’s simply his weakness. It would take an enormous effort on his part to change. She concluded that her choices were to accept him as he is, or suffer. She decided to accept him.
Wait! That means he could change if he really wanted to. That just proves my point. He knows how important this is to me, but he just doesn’t really care!
Technically you are correct. If he stopped focusing on work, learning, family, and other commitments and made this the big project of his life; if he directed all his energies and efforts toward the goal of becoming neater and more organized, he could change. But the energy necessary is so enormous, it’s unlikely to happen. Think about it like drug rehab — it requires stopping all other life activities and focusing on this change alone.
Your spouse is always going to be a mix of strengths and weaknesses. If you can’t learn to live with his weaknesses and insist on trying to change him, you won’t be happy. You also won’t succeed. Not because you’re not a good trainer or because you haven’t yet hit on the perfect strategy to change him. Rather it’s because you’re asking something from him that goes against his nature. This is a very common mistake that even really smart couples make — trying to change your spouse.
I’ve found that after about 20 years, many marriages suddenly begin to flourish. These are marriages that weren’t necessarily troubled — they were doing okay until then, but then suddenly, around the 20-year mark, the relationship improves dramatically. I think that the reason for this phenomenon is because that’s the point where the woman gives up… on changing her husband. Forget it. I give up. He’s never going to change.
And then a weird thing happens. She finds that her husband is kinder toward her. He wants to spend more time with her. They’re having fun together again. What’s going on?
What’s going on is that she stopped trying to change him. It’s very annoying when someone tries to change you. It’s frustrating to be told what to do all the time. It’s humiliating to feel unaccepted and disrespected. It’s a constant irritation and a constant strain on the relationship. It doesn’t engender warm feelings.
But she’s not doing that anymore. The constant negativity disappears, and the relationship improves dramatically.
I’ve directed this discussion toward women, because it’s often the woman who tries to change her spouse, but of course men do it too, and the same principle applies. Trying to change your spouse is always a mistake. It never succeeds, and it always damages the relationship.
Pro tip: you don’t have to wait 20 years.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Shafier is the founder of TheShmuz.com, a life-changing mussar shiur that is available on TorahAnytime, The Shmuz Podcast and The Shmuz App. His newest book release, The Ten Really Dumb Mistakes That Very Smart Couples Make, is available on TheShmuz.com and will hit Jewish bookstores later this year.
Note: This column is intended to offer an understanding of the mechanics of a good marriage. In situations of chronic abuse, a qualified professional should be consulted.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 882)
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