When our partner is unresponsive to requests that he or she do more, we need to stop the old fights, and begin to conserve our time and energy. To say, “This is all I can do,” is an important position to define in a marriage. The challenge is to keep our actions congruent with our words.

Consider Lisa, who came to therapy complaining about her husband, Richard, who wouldn’t help out at home, despite the fact that both worked full-time. How did Lisa stop the old fights and clarify a new position?

First she chose a calm time when she felt good about him. She said, “Richard, you know I’m having a problem with the amount of work I’m doing in the house. Part of the problem is that I end up feeling resentful because, the way I see it, I’m carrying more than my fair share of the load. An even bigger problem is I’m exhausted much of the time and I need to find a way to have more time for myself.” Lisa asked Richard for his thoughts, and also told him specifically what she’d like him to do to help out. Richard said he’d do better.

Several months passed, and he made no changes at all.

The day came when Lisa made her actions congruent with her words. She made a list of tasks she’d continue to do (for example, a clean living room and kitchen mattered to her, so she wouldn’t let things pile up there) and a list of things she would no longer do and hoped Richard would take over. Then she shared the plan with Richard, who tested her for two months by sulking, complaining, and becoming an even bigger slob than usual.

Lisa calmly held to her position without anger or defensiveness. She continued to do more housework, because a clean house was more important to her than it was to Richard, but she let go of the things she said she wouldn’t do.

Lisa stuck to cooking only three nights a week, and let Richard fend for himself the other nights and when he came home late. Lisa also found additional ways to conserve her time and energy. If Richard invited friends or colleagues to dinner, she didn’t shop or cook for the event although she was glad to help out.

It was hard for Lisa to let Richard sulk, but I reassured her that as far as I knew, no one had died of sulking. Richard eventually started doing more, but even if he hadn’t, Lisa had learned to do less.

Lisa took this new position in her marriage out of a sense of responsibility for herself, and not as a move against Richard. She shared her vulnerability and limits. (“I’m too exhausted and depleted to keep going this way”), which wasn’t easy for her. As a first-born, card-carrying overfunctioner, it was not in Lisa’s natural repertoire to share her needs in a soft way, so that others could see that she needed help. Sharing her limits with Richard was an important step toward taking care of herself and ensuring her own happiness.

If you need help clarifying a bottom line (an especially difficult challenge in marriage and other family relationships), read The Dance of Anger.  When you can't exceed the other person's threshold of deafness, you need to do something different.

Keep in mind that change is a process and doesn’t occur in a hit-and-run conversation where you announce what you will no longer do.  You’ll be tested over and over to see if you “really mean it.” That’s how change works.

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