Marriage, men, and mother syndrome

If you supervise your husband like one of your kids, you’ve got problems

When you lover acts like your mother

Roy Botterell/Corbis

Most unhappy marriages are unhappy for the same reason. The wife is angry and complains that she has to do everything for her lazy husband. The husband accuses his wife of nagging and bossing him around. Nothing he does is good enough for her, and she’s not affectionate the way she used to be. If this sounds familiar, help is here in the form of an in-depth guidebook called How Can I Be Your Lover When I’m Too Busy Being Your Mother: The Answers to Becoming Partners Again.

The book, written by Sara Dimerman, a couples counsellor from Thornhill, Ont., and J.M. Kearns, the Ontario-born bestselling author of Why Mr. Right Can’t Find You, helps couples identify the signs and symptoms of “mother syndrome.” One of the signs? “Absurdly, you have to break up fights between him and the ‘other’ kids,” they write. Symptoms include loss of sex drive. “There may be plenty of sexual sap running through your branches . . . but it isn’t going to be directed at him. The slacker who doesn’t come through as a partner and needs to be supervised like a kid—that isn’t the person who’s going to light your fire.”

When a wife no longer wants sex, she often sends anti-erotic signals to her husband to turn him off. In a conference call last week, Dimerman confessed that the turnoffs listed in the book spring from her own experiences as a married mother of two kids. “Yes, I do have to admit it,” she laughs. The signals include sitting on the toilet with the door open, picking your nose, and agreeing to take a bath with your man and then pushing your hair into a plastic shower cap just before climbing in.

“And I immediately agreed with it,” Kearns chimes in on the other line from his home in New Jersey. When Kearns first heard about Dimerman’s book idea, he felt guilty thinking about some of the women he’s lived with. In the foreword, he explains. “I thought about the many times I’ve watched a woman doing something that benefited me—preparing a complicated meal or scrubbing gunk out of a sink—and I’ve thought, ‘I should be doing that. Why aren’t I doing that? I should take over right now . . . No, maybe not.’”

The authors theorize that husbands would help more if wives would stop controlling the way in which a task must be performed to meticulous specifications.

“Don’t redo tasks that he has made a good-faith effort to do,” they advise. For instance, if he makes the bed—but not to your liking—leave it be, they urge. If he does the grocery shopping and buys parsley instead of cilantro, don’t freak out. “We aren’t suggesting that dialling down the anger will always achieve miraculous results. But when a spouse is expecting hostile behaviour, the lack of it can make a pretty dramatic impression.”

Another contributing factor to the “mother syndrome” may be that most men don’t realize marriage doesn’t mean household chores get cut in half. “To get married is to actually sign a contract to work harder, not to slack off and take it easy,” they write.

Take the thirtysomething bachelor who has been living in a one-bedroom apartment. He’s never scrubbed a sink with Comet or deep-cleaned a stove. He changes linens when he thinks a woman might stay over. Then he meets a “house-proud” woman who dusts, vacuums and scrubs. The bachelor’s first shock after marriage is finding there’s “a whole lot of cleaning goin’ on that didn’t exist in his former life,” the authors write. “There isn’t twice as much laundry. There’s five times as much. In every area of homemaking, his 50 per cent share of what needs doing is greater than 100 per cent of what he used to do.” The man who thinks he can ease off and enjoy a cushy deal once he has a new woman in his life is sadly mistaken, warn the authors.

The book includes step-by-step tips on how to reach a new agreement with a husband so he helps out more, freeing his wife from the mothering role. Tread carefully during negotiations, they urge. A wife might start by saying, “I don’t like the way I treat you. I nag you. I guilt-trip you.” When telling him you’re unhappy, make sure it’s a plea for help, not an accusation. “Tell him, ‘The joy has gone out of things.’ Say, ‘This isn’t who we are.’ ”

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