“Who is going to take John to school?” I glared over my shoulder in my husband’s general direction, hoping he would overhear the question I pretended to ask no one.
“Are you wanting me to take him?” My husband, reading at the end of the table, already showered and dressed in his cardigan and jeans, appeared surprised.
“Well, I was hoping you would volunteer. I can’t take him like this,” I moaned, motioning to my braless shirt and yesterday’s mascara dotted beneath my eyes.
My husband rose from his chair, annoyed, snatched his coat from the chair, and shuffled my oldest son out the door. The new few minutes of my morning now free, I ambled back to our bedroom to transform into something more recognizable. But it didn’t feel like a victory.
I know better than to ask an indirect question to my husband when I need help. As a therapist for mothers in the early childhood years, I often advise mothers to move beyond the anger and resentment they have toward their partners when they don’t guess what they want, and instead, be specific and ask. Just ask, I say.
Yet it’s so tempting to make our partners guess.
As women, we want the men in our lives to intuitively detect what we are thinking, to pay such rapt attention to us that they know without asking which Anthropologie candle we want for our birthdays, how it drives us mad when the cabinet doors are left open, and that we actually hate roses. Like, what a cliché, right?
Okay, so we don’t want undivided attention. We also want our men to have a life beyond us. But we really, really don’t want to tell them what we want. Don’t make us say the words out loud. Ugh.
To us, it feels like asking for intermittent displays of affection, say, a compliment, a bouquet for no obligatory holiday, or a planned date night (where we don’t have to call the sitter ourselves) isn’t genuine. We secretely believe asking our male partners for help with the dishes or carpool on a school day shouldn’t be necessary. They should see what needs to be done and do it. Without our asking.
“If they cared, they would notice,” we tell ourselves. “So when they don’t notice, they don’t care.”
The problem is our assumption. As women, we are experts at reading each other’s minds, although not always accurately, and we assume men do it as well. When they don’t accurately mind-read what we want and need in the family and romance departments of the relationship, we assume (again) it is an indication of their disinterest in us.
In the context of these two assumptions, asking for what we want is terrifying. Because, we believe, they already know we want to be told we are beautiful and go out for a scheduled date night once a month, but they just don’t care enough to do it.
Here is the secret men want us to know: they can’t read our minds. The inner roiling turmoil of a woman’s mind frightens them. If we aren’t saying anything is wrong, they assume everything is right. If we aren’t asking for help, they believe in us and think we got this. They don’t see the myriad safety hazards around the kitchen and that the toddler is about to fall off her chair but you can’t prevent it because your hands are covered in spaghetti sauce.
We have to ask for help, say what we are thinking. Out loud. We have to ask for what we want. Because if we don’t, they won’t know.
No, seriously. Our men are not holding out on us. They are not secretly thinking about how to hurt our feelings by not opening the car door like they did when we were dating, or how to give us a complex about whether or not our marriage still has that spark when they check their phone during dinner. They simply don’t know.
And so, we must ask.
I know, I know. This feels like breaking all the woman rules you’ve been taught. Ever since Cinderella, we’ve been hushed to keep our dreams and desires quiet. Don’t say it out loud, Cinderella urged us, or it won’t come true.
Sorry, Cinderella. Saying it out loud, whatever it is for us, is the only way to make our relationship and family dreams a reality.
When we have this conversation with our men, we can tell them we’re going to try asking for help from now on instead of assuming they know what we need. We can even suggest they say, “How can I help?” when they enter a room, or simply scan the room and select one incomplete task. Imagine how much resentment this will save you.
When they do help, we don’t have to stand on the table and applaud. But don’t disregard their contributions either. Basic human psychology informs us to reward behavior we want to see more. A simple, “Thank you for helping,” will do just fine, and lets your man know you see him trying to do that one thing you asked.
So let’s finally make our requests. Patiently and out loud. Not as if they’ve been ignoring us this whole time. Because I promise you, they haven’t.