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May 22, 2023

Understanding Husbands' and Wives' Differing Complaints

I received recently a telephone call from a man who had read my previous book The Strong-Willed Child. It did not answer his questions. Furthermore, he said he had read my earlier book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women, and it didn't satisfy his needs, either. 

"What I want you to write, is a combination of those two books on the subject 'How to Live with a Strong-Willed Woman.'" I told him I wouldn't touch that topic with a shovel, yet here I am about to wade into an equally volatile matter. I want to discuss the characteristic of women that men complain about most, and vice versa. That should be enough to win me some enemies among both sexes, but the time has come for straight talk to husbands and wives.

Perhaps you know that the divorce rate in America is now higher than in any other civilized nation in the world. That is tragic. Even more distressing to me is the knowledge that the divorce rate for Christians is only slightly lower than for the population at large. How could that possibly be true? Jesus taught his followers to be loving, giving, moral, responsible, self-disciplined, honest, and respectful. He also explicitly prohibited divorce except for radical circumstances. With these instructions, He provided an unshakable foundation for a stable and loving relationship between husband and wife.

How can it be, then, that those who claim to have accepted Jesus' teaching and devoted their lives to Christian principles are hardly more successful in maintaining harmonious families than those who profess nothing? There's an enormous contradiction tucked within those words. As Howard Hendricks said, "If your Christianity doesn't work at home, it doesn't work. Don't export!"

The truth is, the same circumstances that destroy non-Christian marriages can also be deadly in the homes of believers. I'm not referring to alcoholism or infidelity or compulsive gambling. The most common marriage killer is much more subtle and insidious. Let me explain.

Suppose I have a counseling appointment at four o'clock tomorrow afternoon with a person whom I've never met. Who is that person and what will be the complaint that brings them to me? First, the counselee will probably be Mrs. Jones, not her husband. A man is seldom first to seek marriage counseling, and when he does, it is for a different motive than his wife seeks it. She comes because her marriage is driving her crazy. He comes because his wife is driving him crazy.

Mrs. Jones will be, perhaps, between twenty-eight and forty-two years of age, and her problem will be extremely familiar to me. Though the details will vary, the frustration she communicates on that after will conform to a well-worn pattern. It will sound something like this.

"John and I were deeply in love when we got married. We struggled during the first two or three years, especially with financial problems, but I knew he loved me and he knew I loved him. But then, something began to change. I'm not sure how to describe it. He received a promotion about five years ago, and that required him to work longer hours. We needed the money, so we didn't mind the extra time he was putting in. But it never stopped.

"Now he comes home late every evening. He's so tired I can actually hear his feet dragging as he approaches the porch. I look forward to his coming home all day 'cause I have so much to tell him, but he doesn't feel much like talking. So I fix his dinner and he eats it alone. (I usually eat with the kids earlier in the evening.) Frankly, I like for him to talk on the telephone just so I can hear his voice. Then he watches television for a couple of hours and goes to bed. Except on Tuesday nights, he plays basketball and sometimes he has a meeting at the office. Every Saturday morning he plays golf with three of his friends. Then on Sunday, we are in church most of the day.

"Believe me, there are times when we go for a month or two without having a real, in-depth conversation. You know what I mean? And I get so lonely in that house with three kids climbing all over me. There aren't even any women in our neighborhood I can talk to, because most of them have gone back to work. but there are other irritations about John. He rarely takes me out to dinner and he forgot our anniversary last month, and I honestly don't believe he's ever had a romantic thought. He wouldn't know a rose from a carnation, and his Christmas cards are signed, just "John." There's no closeness or warmth between us, yet he wants to have sex with me at the end of the day. There we are, lying in bed, having had no communication between us in weeks. He hasn't tried to be sweet or understanding or tender, yet he expects me to become passionate and responsive to him. I'll tell you, I can't do it. Sure, I go along with my duties as a wife, but I sure don't get anything out of it. And after the two-minute trip is over and John is asleep, I lie there resenting him and feeling like a cheap prostitute. Can you believe that? I feel used for having sex with my own husband! Boy, does that depress me!

"In fact, I've been awfully depressed lately. My self-esteem is at rock bottom right now. I feel like nobody loves me...I'm a lousy mother and a terrible wife. Sometimes I think that God probably doesn't love me, either. Well, now I'd better tell you what's been going on between John and me more recently. We've been arguing a lot. I mean really fighting. It's the only way I can get his attention, I guess. We had an incredible battle last week in front of the kids. It was awful. Tears. Screaming. Insults. Everything. I spent two nights at my mother's house. Now, all I can think about is getting a divorce so I can escape. John doesn't love me anyway, so what difference would it make? I guess that's why I came to see you. I want to know if it'll be the right thing to call it quits."

Mrs. Jones speaks as though she were the only woman in the world who has ever experienced this pattern of needs. But she is not alone. It is my guess that 90 percent of the divorces that occur each year involve at least some of the elements she described—an extremely busy husband who is in love with his work and who tends to be somewhat insensitive, unromantic, and non-communicative, married to a lonely, vulnerable, romantic woman who has severe doubts about her worth as human being. They become a matched team: he works like a horse and she nags.

In the hopes of making husbands aware of the universality of their wives' complaints, let me illustrate the point further, only this time, we'll deal with real people instead of a fictitious prototype. Reproduced below is an actual letter (modified to protect the identity of the writer) which represents a thousand others I've received.

Dear Dr. Dobson,

I have read your book What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. It hit right where I live. Especially the part about low self-esteem. In today's world where so many women have jobs, it is sometimes hard to feel you are worth much if you aren't employed. I mean, some people look down upon a mother like myself who devotes full time to her children and family. But I know Christ doesn't see it that way, and that's what counts.

Unfortunately, I couldn't get my husband to read your book, which brings me to my problem. It is really hard to communicate with my husband when I have to compete with the television, kids, and work. At mealtimes, which should be a time for talking, he has to listen to Paul Harvey news on the radio. He's not home for the evening meal because he works the 3 to 11 p.m. shift. I really would like him to listen to your program, but he won't.

I'm not permitted to go to Bible Study now (I attended for one year) because he says the kids will pick up diseases from the other children. Of course, I know that's not the real reason. I have a 2 1/2-year-old son and a 3-month-old baby and feel I need to get out among adults. Oh well, I guess I'll keep on praying.

Keep broadcasting your good shows. It would be nice for you to devote another program to husband-wife relationships, mainly communication. Thank you for listening to me.

Another woman handed me the following note after hearing me speak. It says in a few words what others conveyed with many.

Will you please discuss this? Dad arrives home, reads the newspaper, eats dinner, talks on the phone, watches T.V., takes a shower, and goes to bed. This is a constant daily routine. It never changes. On Sunday we go to church, then come home. We take a nap and then it's back to work again on Monday morning. Our daughter is nine, and we are not communicating, and life is speeding by in this monotonous routine.


I can hear masculine readers saying, "If women want a slower lifestyle, less materialism, and more romantic activities with their husbands, why don't they just tell them so?" They do tell them so, in fact. But men find it very difficult to "hear" this message, for some reason.

I'm reminded of the night my father was preaching in an open tent service which was attended by more cats and dogs than people. During the course of his sermon, one large alley cat decided to take a nap on the platform. Inevitably, my father took a step backward and planted his heel squarely on the tail of the tom. The cat literally went crazy, scratching and clawing to free his tail from my father's 6-foot-3-inch frame. But Dad could become very preoccupied while preaching, and he didn't notice the disturbance. There at his feet was a panicky animal, digging holes in the carpet and screaming for mercy, yet the heel did not move. Dad later said he thought the screech came from the brakes of automobiles at a nearby corner. When my father finally walked off the cat's tail, still unaware of the commotion, the tom took off like a Saturn rocket.

This story typifies many twentieth-century marriages. The wife is screaming and clawing the air and writhing in pain, but the husband is oblivious to her panic. He is preoccupied with his own thoughts, not realizing that a single step to the right or left could alleviate the crisis. I never cease to be amazed at just how deaf a man can become under these circumstances.

I know of a gynecologist who is not only deaf but blind as well. He telephoned a friend of mine who is also a physician in the practice of obstetrics and gynecology. He asked for a favor.

"My wife has been having some abdominal problems and she's in particular discomfort this afternoon," he said. "I don't want to treat my own wife and wonder if you'd see her for me?"

My friend invited the doctor to bring his wife for an examination, whereupon he discovered (are you ready for this?) that she was five months pregnant. Her obstetrician husband was so busy caring for other patients that he hadn't even noticed his wife's burgeoning pregnancy. I must admit wondering how in the world this woman ever got his attention long enough to conceive.

There's another aspect of the male-female relationship that should also be discussed for the man who wants to understand his wife. Appreciation is expressed to the well-known author Dr. Dennis Guernsey for calling to my attention the research by Rollins and Cannon and others which reveals a contrasting pattern of "personal satisfaction" by husbands and wives. A woman's satisfaction with her home (which represents the primary job for a homemaker) is never higher than at the time she gets married. But alas, her attitude is likely to slide. It typically deteriorates with the birth of her first baby and continues to sink through the child-rearing years. It reaches a low point in conjunction with the empty-nest syndrome—when the kids leave home. Her satisfaction then rebounds considerably and remains stable during her retirement years.

The husband's job satisfaction follows an opposite pattern. His low point occurs during the early years of marriage when he accepts a poorly compensated, non-status position. But as he works his way up the ladder, he draws greater emotional rewards (and more money) from his work. The increasing job satisfaction may continue for twenty years or longer, with his work encompassing every more of his time and energy.

Obviously, the point of greatest danger occurs in the late thirties and forties, when the wife is most dissatisfied with her assignment and the husband is most enthralled with his. That combination is built for trouble, especially if the man feels no responsibility to help meet his wife's needs and longs. (Please remember that these studies merely reflect trends and statistical possibilities. Individuals may respond very differently.)

In the absence of strong and loving support from husbands, how do women cope with the circumstances I've described? We all know that behavior does not occur in a vacuum; It is motivated by powerful emotional currents running deep within the personality. Thus, I've observed eight avenues of response that may be taken by a depressed and frustrated wife. They are nonexclusive; in other words, more than one approach can occur simultaneously, or one can lead to others. The eight are as follows:

1. A woman can detach herself from home and family, reinvesting her emotional energy in an outside job. The "back to work" phenomenon by Western women is, in part, a product of this coping mechanism (combined with the pressures of inflation).

2. She can become very angry at men and society for their perceived insults and disrespect. This source of hostility helped to power the now-defunct women's liberation movement and gave it an aggressive character. Fortunately, both men and women quickly recognized that that was not the answer.

3. She can remain at home in an atmosphere of great depression or despair. Depression is "anger turned inward," and is usually related to low self-esteem. This woman often becomes a classic nagger.

4. She can attempt to meet her pressing needs by getting into an illicit affair. This disastrous avenue usually becomes a dead-end street, leaving her more depressed and lonely than before. 

5. She can turn to alcohol and drugs as a temporary palliative. Many homemakers are yielding to this alternative, as evidenced by the rising rate of alcoholism among American women.

6. She can commit suicide (or make a suicide attempt as a call for help).

7. She can denounce the responsibilities of mothering, by either remaining childless, or by failing to meet the needs of her kids at home. Or she can run away and let Dad take over.

8. The depressed woman can, of course, seek a divorce in the hope of starting afresh with someone more understanding and loving. Today, more than ever, this final alternative looms as the accepted method of coping with marital frustration.

None of these coping mechanisms is very productive. In fact, each of the eight has specific negative consequences. Not even attempted suicide is certain to attract the attention of a mate. I counseled with one woman approximately two weeks after she was released from the hospital. Having made every possible attempt to make contact with her husband, she slid deeper into depression and despair. Finally, she resorted to the ultimate decision. In full view of her husband, she brought all available prescription drugs from the medicine cabinet and proceeded to swallow 206 assorted pills. Her husband stood watching in disbelief. She then went to the bedroom to lie down and die. But she didn't want to leave this earth, of course. It was a desperate method of dramatizing her condition to the man whose love she needed. Unfortunately, he did not respond. When she realized that he had no intention of rescuing her, she pulled herself together and drove to a nearby hospital. After pumping her stomach, the hospital staff telephone her husband who came to her bedside. He held her hand for two hours without ever asking why she hadn't wanted to live! In fact, the day he brought her to my office, more than two weeks later, he made his first comment about the event. As he walked around the car to open her door, he said, "I want you to know that you nearly scared me to death a couple of weeks ago!"

Readers might find it difficult to believe that this man loved his wife, but it's true. His lack of attention to her needs was related to a potential business failure that made it difficult for him to "give" to his wife—or even hear her cries. He was facing a crisis of his own, which often occurs in disintegrating marriages.

If the usual coping mechanisms fail to deliver viable solutions to the problems of marital conflict, what is the answer? That brings us back to the promise, that I would offer some straight talk to husbands and wives. Never before have I abandoned diplomacy in dealing with family issues, but I beg your tolerance in this instance. The current crisis in marriage demands a bold approach that is equal to the magnitude of the danger. You can't kill a dragon with a pop gun, as they say.

From Dr. Dobson's book Straight Talk to Men.

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