| Family Reflections |

Let Me Help You Not Do That

It takes two to maintain irresponsibility



Neither children nor adults behave appropriately all the time. In fact, our own behavior can accidentally encourage the poor behavior of others. For instance, if you let your spouse routinely forget to make arrangements for date night, then your spouse will forget more often.

Why We Squirm Out of Things

Avoidance of unpleasant tasks is natural. It’s as if we’re saying: Paperwork? Maybe later. Clean up the mess, make the phone calls, fill out the forms — not if I can help it! Maybe if I wait long enough, you’ll do it and I’ll never have to deal with it.

We’re more likely to think this way when we have a complicit partner. If this person’s nagging will eventually become more painful than the task itself, we might, at that point, do the task. Or, if for the price of a few minutes of criticism, we can just get away with doing or not doing whatever we want, then “it’s totally worth it!” Forget the relationship damage that ensues.


Here’s an advanced round of the game in which a spouse both nags and allows a partner to get away without doing the task. (This move works equally well between a parent and child.)

A husband and wife decide together one Sunday evening that the husband will call around for a life insurance quote during the coming week. The week comes, but the husband doesn’t do it. The wife reminds him on Friday, and he commits to doing it the following week. The wife is feeling irritated. She doesn’t want to nag him, but if she doesn’t remind him, how can she feel confident that he will do the job?

After one more week passes with the job still not done, she finally does it herself and then blows up at her husband for putting her in the position of having to do his jobs as well as her own. She says she’s had enough! She wants a divorce! Of course, her husband doesn’t take her seriously since she’s said the same sort of thing in the past whenever she’s become frustrated enough.

Large threats like divorce are often uttered by people who don’t know how to set appropriate boundaries. Complaints, criticisms, and reprimands aren’t effective boundary-setting interventions; although seriously annoying, they have little effect on behavior. Huge threats like forbidding a child to come on the family vacation or go to camp are similarly ineffective, as they are way out of proportion to the normal “misbehaviors” of loved ones and consequently, and thankfully, don’t tend to be carried out.

Natural consequences

What all parents and spouses need is competence in setting small, appropriate consequences for those rare occasions when all else fails. The main “natural consequence” in marriage is a breach in the relationship. Sometimes this can be clearly articulated as a consequence, saying to one’s spouse something like, “If you don’t get the quote by Thursday, I’ll take care of it myself. But I’m going to feel upset and resentful and that won’t be good for our happy marriage.” This works best when the marriage is, in fact, happy, the spouse who is saying it is normally positive and loving, and the person it’s being said to is mature, caring, and emotionally healthy.

However, the insurance quote needs to be gotten, even if the marriage has been under some stress, the person asking for it is less than constantly jolly, and the spouse who is being asked to do it has some issues. In this case, the happiness of the relationship itself cannot be the consequence. Instead, something more pragmatic may do the trick, such as “If the quote isn’t done by Thursday, I’ll take care of it myself, but then I won’t have time to make supper.”

Giving consequences is a last resort, not a routine technique to be used in family life. But it’s an important one to use when regular communication techniques aren’t working. Failure to set limits can encourage the continuation of irresponsible, neglectful, or otherwise inappropriate behavior, which then causes pain, frustration, resentment, and negativity on the partner’s part. The result is a soured relationship.

Sometimes spouses have to help each other succeed in their marital obligations. If even consequences fail to have the desired results, it’s time for professional help.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 752)

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