Active Wives and Passive Husbands

It's important to have a compatible pace in a relationship.

Posted Feb 27, 2017

When one partner is very active and the other is very passive, relationship strife may ensue. The active partner may appear more animated and energized. While this is not a gender-specific dynamic, I have found that active partners tend to be women and will thus limit my work to this end. The active wife oftentimes has numerous interests beyond her career and domestic responsibilities. She may ski, be a member of several clubs, and enjoy having people around her. It is not unusual for the passive partner to complain that people are in their home 24/7.

By contrast, the passive partner may work extremely hard but prefer to come home afterward, grab dinner, and settle in front of the television or computer. This dynamic isn’t as toxic when the differences are played out during the work week. But many wives have complained that their male counterparts appear to be paralyzed on the weekends as well. Janie said: “He won’t take a walk with me or even go to a movie. I get that he doesn’t like to exercise, but he can sit in a movie just as easily as he can at home in front of the television.”

Some wives complain that their husbands will only muster up enough energy to do something they enjoy, such as play golf. But in many cases, these men aren’t even interested in pursuing hobbies. Depression is sometimes a factor in passivity, but other times it is symptomatic of a good old-fashioned control struggle over “pace.” Simply put, one individual lives life at a faster pace than the other; a discrepancy that may evolve into a pursuer-distance dynamic: The wife pursues the husband to engage and the husband distances. The more the wife pursues the more the husband distances, and vice versa.

When asked if they noticed the difference in pace during the dating process, most couples answered in the affirmative,but claimed that it wasn’t as bad in the beginning. Kristen said: “I knew that he wasn’t as active as I was, but he still did a lot of things with me. Maybe he fooled me, or maybe I fooled myself. Maybe I just dragged a guy around who never wanted to be involved in the first place.”    

Active females tend to be charismatic, take-charge people. They are actors not reactors by nature; and they tend to be initiators. Some have role modeled a more active parent to whom they may have had a closer more nurturing relationship, and rejected by the passive, distant parent who may have rejected or abandoned them. Joel said: “All I ever wanted to do was throw the football around with my dad. He was a nice guy, but he was quiet and always seemed to have his head in a computer. My mom would have to push him to get things done but it was like trying to motivate a big blob. She used to call him a ‘stuffed animal.’ My mom took me places. She threw the ball around with me.”

Active women may be attracted to men they can train or mold into what they perceive as a better version of themselves, or the father figure they so sorely missed. While these men may prove to be a burden, they do allow the active partner control. To improve as individuals and mates the active partner may have to relinquish some power and responsibility in the relationship.

Passive males tend to be on the quiet side. They appear less aggressive than their active counterparts and somewhat comfortable with inactivity. They are reactors, and seem to have a limited capacity to snap into action when it is called for. The passive male may be attracted to the active partner’s energy and caretaking—skills the passive seem to lack. They may have been dominated or mistreated; others may have been coddled by a strong, active parent—most likely a mother—and in real time, expect no less attention. They may put their mate to work in the form of a substitute mother or nurturing parental figure. Letting go of this role may mean that they must own their suppressed masculine power—a role for which they have had no parental model for. They may also have to give up the only caretaker they ever had—the strong parent or mother. They must assume a greater level of responsibility in their relationships. Quite a lot to ask. Tom said: “I don’t know what I’ll do if Heather leaves me. I’ll be totally lost.”   

True to form, the active person usually initiates treatment. The passive partner may have been warned of a storm coming but decided to ignore the warnings until a crisis ensues. Active partners have told me time and again that they have pleaded with their passive counterparts to pick up the pace. But passive individuals tend to need more than idle threats. In character, they provoke the active mate to take action—to do something drastic like stop sex, move out of the family home, or contact a lawyer. Miraculously, this action may still be met with passivity. Many passive partners will fall into depression and play the paralyzed victim—a response which further rankles the active partner who at this point will not tolerate any more passivity—it "parentifies" them.

Pace is a variable to consider when marrying or forming a long-term relationship. Couples prone to this dynamic may have a significant age gap, which only exacerbates their energy discrepancy, such as men married to much younger women. Other vulnerable couples may have at least one partner who is handicapped physically or emotionally. Nonetheless, the concept of pace can be negotiated in treatment, but it isn’t easy. Once the couple enter therapy, the clinician will get a bird’s eye view of just how hard it is to put someone to work that isn’t used to it, and how difficult it will be to quell the other’s rage and slow them down long enough to attempt a relational paradigm shift.