My husband runs his own construction business, and even though he’s in charge it really does feel like “our” business in most ways. I used to be in the industry, so I know the market. And I’ve been very supportive of him dipping into our personal finances to personally pay our staff when things have been tight. He knows I’m supportive, and that I really believe in him and trust his ability to grow a great business. But the last few years, cash flow has been really tight and every time I make a suggestion for a new market to try or bring up a caution why one of his ideas might not work, he has been getting more and more defensive. It is affecting our marriage, and I really resent that. I recognize that he feels like I’m criticizing him, but shouldn’t I have the right to say and do whatever I need to, for what is (for all intents and purposes) our family business?
Take a look, again, at the last two sentences of what you wrote me. I think you’ll realize your own answer. Sure, you should be able to say whatever you want and need to say to your husband. Absolutely! Just as if you happened to be an equal partner in a purely business relationship, you should be able to raise issues, suggest new markets, and shoot down ideas with 100 percent impunity. But in Dr. Phil’s immortal words, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
The problem is: you’re not in a purely business relationship. You’re the man’s wife. Now, contrary to popular opinion, perhaps, men don’t want to keep the “little woman” sidelined at home. If a wife is a smart, capable woman who knows his business, most men want her involvement, ideas, help, and so on.
The problem is, that is a secondary desire. In my research it was clear that what a man most needs from his wife, at all times, in all seasons, no matter what else is going on, is something quite different: he needs a cheerleader. A completely solid support. Someone who believes in him when he doesn’t believe in himself, and says “I know you can do it!”
Can you see how his deepest need here is in conflict with his “normal” desire to have the involvement you had in the past? When times weren’t tight, it sounds like this wasn’t an issue. You chipped in, suggested, raised warnings, and it was fine. But today, he gets defensive. Upset. Feels like you’re criticizing him.
The difference is that he’s struggling with feeling like a failure in the business. Every man already feels like an imposter, and wrestles with great self-doubt in a far deeper way than we as women realize. But as long as the business is going along fine, when he asks himself “do I measure up?” he can look at the financial returns and reassure himself.
But where does he look when the business isn’t going fine? He looks squarely to you. Most of all, he wants and needs to see that you believe in him. And he is going to be far more sensitive to your words and actions that seem to imply that maybe you don’t believe in him, or don’t think he can do it. I know it can seem crazy to us, but when he is vulnerable like this, he hears “Maybe you shouldn’t enter that market” as “You stupid idiot, you should know better.” He may know that you would never really think that disrespectfully about him, but it truly does feel that way.
So what do you do? You have to make a choice. And I’ll warn you up front: it may not seem “fair” to you. But you have to choose what is more important: Ensuring that your husband knows that you are unswervingly behind him, and believe in him, so he knows you care about him? Or exercising your very real right to speak into the business in the same way as you do during better times?
This isn’t to say that Choice #1 means you can’t have any input. Again, you have absolutely earned the right to share your thoughts and cautions. But be prepared to do it in a very, very judicious way, with explicit affirmations that you believe in him at the same time. (“Honey, you’ve been the one in all the meetings, so you would know better. And I love the idea of pursuing that market. But since you mentioned that high default rate, I’m wondering if you should ask your risk manager for his opinion? But if you look at it and decide it is worth it to try that direction, I’m with you.”)
If you do that, you are ultimately giving him what every man most needs: the absolute and accurate knowledge that when it comes right down to it, you do trust him in the way you say you do.
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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 popular speaker, her ﬁndings are regularly featured in media as diverse as The Today Show, Focus on the Family, and the New York Times. Visit www.shaunti.com for more.