Wednesday, November 15, 2006

How to Ask My Husband for Help

This post is part of a continuing series entitled The Hunt for the Vacuum Cleaner Gene. Last month I posted on the topic of How Not to Ask Your Husband for Help, which looks at some of the natural tendencies people have when they try to ask for help from their spouse. In particular, last month's post examines why these approaches often backfire.

Today I begin looking at a more effective approach by examining several subtle variations of stating requests for help, and the hidden messages you should avoid delivering.

This is what it should look like:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: Sure, no problem.

Short, simple and to the point. Your husband, on the other hand, might have other ideas:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me?
SAM: You normally do the floors. Why are you asking me to do it?

Your request is not finished until the conversation is over. For the time being, stay away from the broader issues. They lead to immediate negotiation and possible confrontation. Keep the focus on the single task you are asking him to do. Restate your request and end the conversation as quickly as possible.

NICOLA: It'd just be great if you would help with the floor. Will you do that for me?
SAM: Okay.

As Sam has done above, your husband might ask: "Why should I help?" or "Why are you asking me now?" or "Is this because you don't think I do enough?" In other words, he might try to steer the conversation toward the larger long-term issues. Your first instinct might be to answer his question directly, like one of the following:

NICOLA: Because you never help out and I want you to start.
NICOLA: Because I really need more help around here.

Both of these responses make it clear that Sam's performance to date has been substandard, which he will take as a criticism. This is likely to lead to an argument about whether he already does his share. Avoid this by responding in a positive way, as Nicola does above: "It'd just be great if you would help..." Instead of criticizing past poor behavior, predict wonderful consequences (your happiness and approval) when he supports you in the future.

Avoiding Hidden Messages

Ideally you would like your request to leave your husband inclined to be supportive. You want him on your side, feeling good about himself and about you. Since supporting a wife and family is a natural role for a man, you can typically accomplish this by keeping your request simple. The idea is to avoid giving him an opportunity to read more than you intend into your words. Simply ask; nothing more, nothing less. Unfortunately, it can be surprisingly easy to give him a reason to object to your request. Here is an example:

NICOLA: I need you to sweep the floor for me.

At first blush this might seem like a reasonable way to ask. Nicola has stated her need simply with the implication that she would like Sam to respond to that need. Many men, however, will not see it that way. Notice that she has not asked a question; she has made a statement. Men will often interpret this as a demand rather than a request. Sam is likely to resent the idea that Nicola feels free to tell him what to do, that he has no say in the matter. Nicola, of course, was not trying to tell him what to do. That was the furthest thing from her mind. She will probably be surprised and frustrated by his resentment, which is the exact opposite of what she was trying to achieve. "Why," she thinks, "do men have to be so touchy? Why should I have to be so careful how I choose my words?" That's a fair question. In this case the issue is that most men hate feeling powerless in a relationship. Being told what to do evokes exactly that feeling. State your request as a question or you risk getting the same reaction from your husband.

The following variations tend to have similar negative results and should be avoided:

NICOLA: You need to sweep the floor.
NICOLA: The floor is dirty. You could get the broom and take care of it.

Another common mistake is to unwittingly include a criticism, like this:

NICOLA: I know you probably don't want to do this but would you sweep the floor?

You might be nervous or unsure of yourself if you are not used to asking him to pitch in. In that circumstance you might try to soften your message, make it seem like less of a demand with something like: "You probably don't want to do this but..." Unfortunately this opens the door for him to hear: "I expect you to refuse. I don't have any faith in you as a supportive husband."

Now this might be true. His past behavior may give you plenty of reason for doubting his willingness to help. Before you ask, you might even be fully convinced he will refuse. It is important, however, that you hide any such skepticism. If he gets the sense that you doubt his worthiness as a husband in some way, then he will be less inclined to support you and the whole deal can spiral downward. You are trying to move past all that mutual doubt and get to a place where you both have faith in each other as supportive spouses. You want to express optimism, which makes him feel good, then he wants to make you feel good, and so on. Now your spiral has a chance to shoot upward.

The key to getting that started is to state your request in a positive way, leaving out any potentially negative commentary. Here's another variation to avoid:

NICOLA: You don't have to do this if you don't want to but will you sweep the floor?

This carries the same implication; she doesn't think Sam will support her. A further problem with this type of request is that Nicola is telling Sam she is not serious about wanting him to help. She is offering him an escape route, practically begging him to say no. You could do the same thing like this:

NICOLA: I'm sorry to have to ask you this but would you sweep the floor for me?

Please. That just about sums up the entire myth of the helpless husband, doesn't it? You might as well say: "I know husbands aren't supposed to sweep floors and I really shouldn't be asking you this. You'd be well within your rights to refuse but would you sweep it anyway?"

Don't go there. You must cast off the myth and stop being apologetic about your need for support. It is right and natural that your husband should have a role in maintaining the household. Your words should reflect that. I'm not asking you to be aggressive or confrontational but you must find the courage to ask for help with some degree of confidence.

A lack of confidence can also make you want to explain your request:

NICOLA: Honey, would you sweep the floor for me? I have a ton of stuff to do because I have to pick up the kids in an hour and I need to have the kitchen straightened before then or I won't have supper ready before Emily's soccer practice.

Nicola has just delivered a couple of messages she should really avoid. First, her words make it clear she doesn't believe Sam wants to be supportive. If he wanted to, she wouldn't need the detailed explanation to try to convince him. As I explained above, men often perceive this as an insult. Even worse, she has implied that the circumstances are extraordinary so her need today is especially strong. In other words, Sam ordinarily shouldn't have to help out. Her request is just an exception and any help he provides is unlikely to become part of a regular pattern. This message is exactly the opposite of the direction in which Nicola should be trying to move.

To avoid these hidden messages, resist the urge to explain why you need his help. Keep your request short and to the point.

Of course, this is only one small part of the picture. You want your partner to pitch in willingly and repeatedly, to be a partner in taking care of the mundane household maintenance work. To achieve this, you might also need to watch out for body language, respond to his reactions in effective ways, and work around any objections on his part. I will examine these and other topics in future posts.


  1. Personally I like being given a choice.
    Nicola: "Would you rather wash the dishes or sweep the floor."
    Sam: "That's it.This marriage is over!!"

    Well, it works for me. Sam has other problems I guess..

  2. Anonymous10:21 AM

    I wonder if it'd work to just send my hubby a link to this post and see what happens? :-)

    It's so hard when both partners have different priorities. Usually when I ask for help around the house, I get a positive response, but it's of the "sure I'll help, but I'll have to get to it later" ilk. *sigh* Of course, later never arrives (aside from the rare occasion when it does and I have to scoop my jaw off the floor).

  3. Good grief, I thought women were the ones who were always accused of overanalyzing things!

  4. Oh, amen to all you've said, Andrew! The first request is absolutely the best.

    I want my husband to help more with cooking. So instead of saying, "I'm tired of doing all the cooking", I instead ask if he'd like to make dinner as I'm a little tired or busy with work. And I'll talk about it with him in advance and in some cases, I tell him I'll help him. He and I have talked about his desire to cook better and to learn a bit more, and he's actually thanked me for approaching him in a positive way. I've gone so far as to suggest a few recipes he could try. He's not always willing to, and that's fine. But that we've opened the dialogue and approach each other in a positive way is working for us.

  5. Interesting.

    Trouble is, women do overanalyze things. We overanalyze them early on and devise very ill ways of communication which do not at all include anything straight forward.
    We think we've gotta talk to men in code to get our way or find out if they really care, etc. << stupid

    I encountered a situation a little like this last weekend. In the morning, my partner and I were lying in bed watching tv. I said, "You wanna go get some breakfast?" He said, "I'm not hungry." My initial response was going to be, "Well guess the hell what? YOU are not the only one here! I AM hungry!" But I realized that I misspoke the question. I should have said, "I'm hungry, I'm gonna go get some breakfast, you wanna come?"
    And if he doesn't want to, I'm fine going alone.

    I could have saved the previous mistake by adding that same theme, "Okay, well I am hungry, so I'm gonna go get some breakfast," but I was too busy being pissed off. :) << stupid

  6. This is how it usually went in our house:

    Me: Honey, would you sweep the floor please?
    Ex-Hubby: Why? What are you going to do?
    Me: Oh I thought I'd lay down on the bed and stare at the ceiling all day, that way I won't see you sweeping the floor and feel bad that I'm neglecting my womanly duties.

    What does it friggin' matter? if I'm asking him to sweep the floor, I'm obviously going to be busy doing something else and want the help.

    With only the boys and I here now, I 'remind' them they need to empty the dishwasher or bring in the washing, etc. AND once the chore is completed, I refuse to say something to the tune of "Thanks for doing that for me". That implies that it's really MY job and they're doing me a favour. I simply say "Good job on the dishwasher" or similar. I always acknowledge it, but I don't want either of them thinking I'm going to kiss their feet for pulling their weight around here. lol

    Maybe the wrong attitude to have, but so far it's worked, and sometimes I don't even have to ask, they just do it *gasp* lol

  7. Boy all of that sounds like too much work. I prefer my way.

    Me: "Here's a broom. Sweep the floor please."
    Him: "Why?"
    Me: "NOW."

    End of story.
    Too bossy?;)

    1. I LIKE that approach. I'm going to try that one.

  8. great post

    two things i thought of

    the saying - keep it simple stupid - works very well in communications


    keeping to the topic/request at hand
    even if he/she wants to take the conversation somewhere else (usually to avoid dealing with the request)

  9. I was reading over the scenario again. And then reading some of the comments. All good comments, btw. But, Doc, exactly what sort of circumstance would require me to have to ask him to sweep the floor anyway?

  10. Ah, it all becomes clear now! Thanks Andrew!

  11. Anonymous10:17 PM

    I prefer not to even have to ask and to have an understanding about repsonsibilities in the household in which he understands what he needs to do and I understand what I need to do. This removes the whole notion that the housework is for women.

    I also think that it helps to understand that men and women have different ways of operating throughout the day. I wrote an article about this for blogrcritics awhile back. When I developed an understanding of my husband's needs to rest or take his time, we no longer had any issues with housework. Even when he needs to be reminded, his attitude is never combative and is conciliatory because he knows I'm trying to help him when I remind him, not berate him.

  12. Wow. GREAT advice, Shari. Excellent, excellent article!

  13. A-mazing!
    I wish you lived with me. There is always something to learn!

  14. Keeping it simple certainly helps.

    I also feel that unless chore sharing has been discussed and agreed upon specifically, that if there are chores to be done and you want your spouse to contribute his/her share, then asking them which task of two he/she would prefer would be the best way to get them to commit without them thinking that they are doing you a favour.

    I also think that if you receive the "sure, in a little while" answer, that you follow up and get them to commit what "a little while" means to them. It could be that they are in the middle of something and can commit to it when they are done, or simply that they need a little down time after work, etc.

    Always be respectful, to them and yourself, when making the request.

  15. Wow, I didn't know I could screw up asking for help in so many ways.

    I kid I kid.

  16. Uh --- I thought that women were liberated from the drudgery of housework when they were permitted to go out and earn half the living. When are men going to take over half the home chores so the women can stop feeling inferior? And, why is the dirty floor hers in the first place?