Stop (s)mothering Your Man


(This article is part one of a three-part series on communication between the sexes. Part two will address the man’s need to hear what is being said and actually listen. Part three will introduce an approach to meaningful dialogue)

What triggers you? Triggers are those comments, or statements, or criticisms, or even events, which can ‘get to us’. They are our buttons, the things that set up off.

I have a trigger as well.

Maybe it was because, growing up, I was ridiculed by relatives. Perhaps it has something to do with my lifelong struggle with insecurity and feelings of ‘not measuring up’. Whatever the reason, I have a very hard time when I feel like someone is condescending, or talking to me like I am a child.

I had coffee some time ago with a group of women. Inevitably the conversation came around to relationships. Some were single, others married or with someone. As we bantered it became apparent that most of the women at that table were unhappy with their men.  They were lazy, unmotivated, and would never help out around the house unless asked. The men couldn’t seem to do anything right and needed to be constantly corrected or critiqued in order to complete any task correctly. And the problem was not just at home. It seemed their men had problems at work, could not be counted on to finish projects, and generally acted like idiots. What was wrong with men, the women asked?

I knew most of the women at that table and had observed them talking with their husbands during disagreements or while in counseling. They felt it was necessary to berate him, talk in a condescending tone, and speak like they had to mother him. I asked one of the ladies if she thought it was appropriate to talk to her husband like this and immediately she turned into the wounded little girl. what else could she do? She said she had tried everything but he wouldn’t change. So I asked her, “Do you talk to him with that condescending, mothering tone?”

In retrospect I should probably not have made such a comment at a table with seven women. I was barraged with criticism, with consternation.

I found it interesting that they did not understand the damage they do to the male psyche when they talk to their man like he was a child. They somehow believed, much to my chagrin, that this tone of voice and attitude would accomplish the desired end they were going for. They were clueless about how men think and relate and had no idea how to fix the problem.

In my relationship course we address how crucial it is to speak so that the other person will understand. Without going into too great detail at this juncture consider this:

1. Mothering and condescending gives the impression you think you are better than he is. Men are incredibly sensitive about their masculinity and we have spent a great deal of our lives comparing our ability to take care of ourselves to other men. When you talk down to a guy they hear that you think you are superior and they are useless. This strikes at the heart of every guy. You are not superior. Men are not stupid. They are simply different. Which brings me to the second point.

2. If you put me down for how I do something I am liable to never volunteer to do anything ever again. Men complain to me that they feel that they can never do anything to their wives satisfaction. They feel belittled and it causes men to resent their women. To a world that grew up thinking “If you want something done right you need to do it yourself” we need to realize that our way is not superior. Some women become used to talking to the person they love most in the world as if he was a little boy, but he isn’t. He is a grown man who needs his woman to believe in him, to build him up, to be a cheerleader who doesn’t constantly put him down. He is your equal.

3. If you are putting your partner down, no matter what sex you are or how incompetent or ridiculous your partner seems, you need to practice SHUTTING UP. Nothing is ever truly gained by criticizing your partner. We are all different and your way is not the only way. You got with this person because you thought they were amazing. The only way that people change is through insight and encouragement. Putting your partner down only builds walls which eventually lead to bitterness and emotional divorce (more about emotional divorce next week).

I am conscious that for some who read this article it raises more questions than it answers. You may be frustrated that your man never seems to understand your needs. You may be a man who wonders if his wife will ever stop ‘nagging’ him. If you have relationship problems there is no way you will find all your answers in a few lines on a blog. Talk to someone who can help you. Make an appointment with a counselor even if your spouse will not come. You cannot change someone else but you can work on you. And that, in the end, may be the best move of all.


5 thoughts on “Stop (s)mothering Your Man

  1. I have a question. My ex complained that I mothered him any time I got angry with him. Generally my anger was about behavior that I felt was disrespectful: changing plans at the last minute frequently, etc. Basically any time I was voicing my discontent he said I was acting like his mother. I would say things like “I’m disappointed.” or “why didn’t you communicate this to me earlier?” and he would go through the roof. To me these kinds of questions are one adult holding another adult accountable for their actions, not mothering. He said he felt berated. No doubt I could have improved my tone. However my boyfriend also rarely took responsibility for the behavior I was upset about, choosing instead to focus on my delivery and how he felt berated. To me it seemed as though holding him accountable/getting angry = mothering him. Thoughts??

    1. it’s such a “catch 22” isn’t it? If you do have expectations you are accused of being a mother, so how do you win? There are several things at play here as well. Men mature at a different rate than women. You speak a different language than he does. He hears what a guy hears, not what you say. There is a huge cultural meme that is defining your relationship – you are competing with the perception that women are mothering so you are soon labelled as an offender as well.
      What is really at issue here is communication style. I’m not there to hear you. Are you mothering or is he oversensitive? Is he passive-aggressive? Is he emotionally available? Emotionally immature?
      All I can say is, it matters more how a man hears than we think. We need to say things in a way that represents what we are trying to communicate while getting through on a level he can receive.
      Thanks for the tough question!

  2. My question is really if they are so unhappy, what’s the draw? It seems to me there are often two parts to this paradigm: one partner who expects to be irresponsible and one partner who expects to manage the responsibilities for 2 people. No one’s happy, but at least everyone knows what to expect. (I wouldn’t think so if it weren’t that you mentioned the men in these situations are also irresponsible at work.)

    On another note, I think women sometimes don’t understand that men often lack real skills for living, because men weren’t expected to do traditionally “female” tasks as children, and it is household chores that are the battleground in so many cases–not fixing the car or the plumbing. Men sometimes really don’t know how to fold laundry so that it fits in a drawer well or how to iron so you don’t have creases in all the wrong places. They may have been folding and ironing, but it didn’t matter to them how it turned out. The trick then is how to teach without belittling, and maybe to understand that our worlds are much more shared across gender lines than they were 20 or 30 years ago when we were kids. This is harder on men than women–no one really expects women to pick up traditionally male tasks, but men are expected to learn traditionally female tasks.

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