I really struggle with the whole ‘respect your husband’ thing you talk about in your book For Women Only. How do I do that? My husband has a huge amount of pride and is unable to accept any criticism or failure on his part; he always throws mistakes back on me. I can’t help but see him as irresponsible and prideful at times. I know that I have delivered some harsh criticism to him over the 14 years of our marriage, which probably contributes to the defensiveness, but I’ve gotten better over the last few years. He is a faithful husband and very loving father, but there are so many times that he seems to place a higher value on our two daughters than on our marriage. He loves to be their hero to a fault, so that his relationship with them seems to be a codependent one. I can’t seem to change the way I think about him. And I’m tired of feeling like he values our daughters more than me.
Dear Second Fiddle,
Nobody wants to be the second fiddle when they are truly a first string or solo quality. But I hate to be blunt: in most cases, second fiddles have earned their spot.
Sure, he probably has big issues to address as well – but the only person you can change is you. And I think you have already recognized the actual source of your problem: 14 years of harsh criticism of him as “irresponsible” and “prideful.” You also need to know that what you have misperceived in your husband as “pride” is actually a deep insecurity. An insecurity and self-doubt that you, my friend, have inflamed to the point of pain.
All of us – men and women – have a tendency to become defensive as a way to protect ourselves when we are criticized. But since a man’s primary emotional need is respect, please understand thagt for your husband, criticism isn’t just frustrating– it feels like a vicious attack on his most vulnerable emotion: his fear that you see him as inadequate.
When a man’s emotional backbone has been whipped raw by repeated critical comments and “brutal honesty,” his insecurities are so inflamed and painful that he can become super-sensitive and agitated at even the slightest suggestion that he has done something wrong, hence the inability to accept responsibility for mistakes or to admit error. It isn’t right or mature, certainly – but it sure is understandable.
From my thousands of interviews with men, I know that a man longs to be a hero to his wife, first and foremost. But when he feels that he just can never measure up in her eyes – that she will always see him as second (or tenth) fiddle — he will seek that affirmation elsewhere.
You say he is a faithful husband, so it sounds like he thankfully hasn’t sought solace from a woman who does think he is amazing. Instead, he’s gravitating toward affirmation from your daughters. Indeed there may be a codependent relationship with them, but I hope you can understand why it could have developed.
How do you get past this, and to a place where you do respect him?
I often suggest a two-part 30 day challenge to women in your situation. First, for the next 30 days don’t say anything negative about your husband… either to him or about him to someone else. Not your mom, not your best girlfriend, no one.
Let me repeat that, so you really ‘get it’: Say nothing negative about him.
And second, every day for the next 30 days find one thing positive that he has done that you can praise or thank him for, and tell him, and tell at least one other person.
The beauty of our psychological wiring is that our feelings follow our words and actions, and so the more you focus on what you are dissatisfied with, the more dissatisfied you will be. But the more you focus on the positive, the more you will see and be struck by the truly wonderful things about your husband. The more you will, in fact, respect him!
This may not be easy for you — there’s a reason I call this a “challenge.” But in the end this sort of process is one of the only ways to change what you think and do.
I hope in the end, that after the 30 days you will find it so much easier to return to a true partnership where there is a give and take. Where you can see and affirm the positive, and recognize that some of the negative is simply a difference of opinion – and that some criticism can be communicated with grace or simply not mentioned at all. Remember that thirty days of ‘reform’ is not going to eradicate 14 years of criticism, so have realistic expectations. Even after the 30 days are over, you might have to be ultra-careful how you communicate criticism for the foreseeable future.
But hopefully, some major changes won’t take too long. Because as you continue to focus mostly on the positive, and thus make sure your husband knows that he is your hero –I’ll bet you’ll quickly be promoted from second fiddle to first string.
Shaunti Feldhahn is the best-selling author of eye-opening, research-based books about men, women and relationships, including For Women Only, For Men Only, The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages and her newest, The Good News About Marriage. A Harvard-trained social researcher and speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Shaunti speaks regularly at churches, conferences, and corporate events. Learn more about speaking inquiries here.