Megan and Jake have been through this many times before, or rather Megan has been through this many times before: She asks Jake if he can pick up his clothes rather than leaving them scattered on the bedroom floor. He does, for about a week, but then goes back to his old ways. But it's not just about clothes, it can be about almost anything that Megan asks Jake to do—glasses left on the kitchen counter, windows left open. Megan tries not to sound like the nagging mommy, but nothing seems to work. She is getting fed up.
A request, seeming agreement, but then no follow-through. A common problem for couples that can be an ongoing source of frustration and trigger arguments that all too easily take on a parent-child quality. Here are some of the reasons that things breakdown:
Jake agrees to avoid conflict
This is where Megan is having a bad day, sees the clothes all over the floor or the glasses on the counter, and angrily lashes out at Jake, calling him a slop. "Fine," says Jake, "I'll pick up the clothes, the glasses, I'll close the windows." But he is saying so only to avoid an argument and get Megan off his back.
Megan’s request is too vague
Megan doesn't come home stressed out and ranting, but instead says in a calm way that she’d like Jake to not leave the kitchen "messy" or leave his "stuff" on the floor. Jake agrees and thinks he is trying to do what Megan wants, but it’s not. They are operating on different pages: What he thinks Megan wants is not what Megan wants.
It's not important enough to Jake
Here Jake is not trying to get Megan off his back, but genuinely makes an attempt to comply because he knows this bothers Megan. But he runs out steam, basically because it is her problem not his, and while he cares about her, he, in his heart of hearts, really doesn’t care at all about the clothes, the glasses, or windows. Without strong motivation, it becomes all too easy for him to fall back into his own habits and priorities.
Jake has expectations
Jake picks up his clothes, the glasses, and closes the window, but Megan doesn’t seem to notice, or doesn’t give him any positive feedback, or he has expectations that he hasn’t verbalized—that Megan will be more appreciative, less crabby, or that she'll be more affectionate, or that they'll have more sex. His expectations are not met, Jake feels he is not getting anything back for his efforts, and so stops.
Jake has undiagnosed, untreated ADHD
Jake has some form of attention-deficit disorder that makes executive functioning, organizational skills, and follow-through more difficult. While his intentions are genuine, he too easily gets scattered and as a result these things too easily become forgotten and fall by the wayside.
It's the tip of the iceberg
The clothes, the glasses, and the open windows are not about clothes, glasses, or windows but about other, bigger problems that aren't being talked about but are adding tension to the relationship that gets dumped into the clothes, etc. Or it's about bigger dynamics like Jake feeling always micromanaged or criticized, that Megan always feels dismissed, and the clothes are just the tip of the iceberg to this overall pattern that is never openly discussed. All this results in both feeling sensitive, both feeling hurt, both engaged in a power struggle, both keeping score. In such an environment it doesn't take much for agreements and problem-solving to get derailed
While one of these may be the driver, the others may also come into play. What's the best Megan can do?
Megan needs to clearly state her request
What this means is Megan, in a calm way, talks to Jake about her problem, because it is—she is the one who is upset—rather than framing it as Jake’s problem, that he is a slop. She asks for help with her problem and is concrete in describing what she wants—putting glasses in the dishwasher rather than leaving them out, and putting dirty clothes in the clothes hamper rather than leaving them on the floor. She explains how it rattles her seeing them scattered about.
Megan needs to get a solid yes
After making her request she needs to make sure she has solid buy-in from Jake. If he seems hesitant, if he seems passive, she gets a whatever/sure response, she needs to say that he seems hesitant. Hopefully, Jake will then say that he is willing to pick up his clothes at night but not in the morning or is willing to pick up his clothes three times a week or put the glasses in the sink but not in the dishwasher, or he explains why he thinks it is important to leave the window open. Or Jake pushes back a bit talks about his expectations—that he’d like Megan, by the way, to be more affectionate, or talks about the larger issue of his feeling micromanaged. Megan replies with her own concern about feeling dismissed.
Through this conversation, they can cut a deal or negotiate a compromise, a win-win situation, and side-step a power struggle, my-way-or-the-highway approach.
Megan doesn’t nitpick or nag
Once Jake steps up Megan needs to resist any nitpicking—about how the glasses are put in the dishwasher, how the clothes are put in the hamper, or that the window isn't locked. And she doesn’t naggingly remind him. The goal is to move forward at this point, change the emotional climate, and fine-tune later.
Megan provides positive feedback
She thanks Jake for the clothes, the glasses, the window. And if she agreed to be more affectionate, less micromanaging overall, she is.
If it falls apart, Megan follows up
If Jake quits after two weeks, it’s time for a sane, adult follow-up conversation on following-through. Here it is about drilling down, finding the problem under the problem—is it the tip of the iceberg, about ADHD perhaps, about Jake feeling he is not getting enough credit and needs more? Megan doesn’t need to figure it out in her head, but simply asks Jake in a calm way. If Jake seems closed, she can do the 10 questions—"Is it because ...?"—to help Jake to open up. The goal is to have an open, honest conversation.
This is the best the Megan can do. And if it still doesn’t work?
Time for Plan B
Megan doesn’t want to be a victim or a martyr. This, again, is ultimately Megan’s problem, not Jake’s, and she needs to decide what she is willing to do next to solve it besides pestering Jake more. She needs to decide how important an issue this really is for her, one she is willing to go to the mat about, or whether it is the tip of the iceberg for both of them. She may decide to go ahead and pick up the clothes or let it go, or think outside the box and hire a house-cleaner.
The goals here are three: to have sane, productive conversations; to take responsibility for your own problem, and to put the problem to rest.