advice

Ask Polly: How Do I Get My Husband to Act Like a Man?

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Dear Polly,

Several years ago I had a frightening incident with a man and was kind of scared of men for a while. I felt a little lost after that and looked for love in different places. I dated a woman, a bisexual man, and then finally settled down with a very gentle man. I’d always been attracted to tall, dark, and handsome men, but this guy was about the same size as me and completely nonthreatening. I was pretty happy with him. We quickly settled into a fairly happy life and started raising my child together. We’ve lived together for a few years now, own a home, and have a nice life.

Here is my problem. I’m so bored and frustrated with this man. He is so beta, he won’t make any decisions or plans or take responsibility for anything. I find myself longing for an alpha man. We live in a pretty traditional area and are surrounded by traditional relationships but at our home I am the one who wears the pants and I hate it. I don’t want to be the one who makes all the decisions, it’s exhausting! I want a man to lead me. I have tried to gently ask him to be more of a leader in our household and he’s made a few references to having trouble leading because I don’t follow, but when I try to submit I feel like we are a captainless ship. My husband just doesn’t lead the household. Examples range from my always planning every trip and vacation we take (I suggested he plan our vacation this year … we didn’t end up taking any) to my being responsible for repairs on the house, purchasing cars, money, etc. I also do almost all the cooking and cleaning, which I don’t mind — I only work part-time. But what I really want is someone to make me feel like everything is going to be okay, someone who makes me feel safe and secure in life, and I feel like I am the one who is doing that for him. I just want someone strong for me who I can rely on. I want to be the lady in this relationship. I find myself not sexually attracted to him … he’s not dominant in bed either.

But this guy isn’t bad. He’s a really nice guy! He works full-time, he’s nice to my kid, he always does whatever I want (ugh). Should I just resign myself to this life? Man up to being the man in the relationship? Because it is my fault I’m in this pickle, he hasn’t changed a bit. I liked that he was soft and gentle before, but now I’m annoyed that he’s girly and non-confident.

Frustrated Housewife

Dear Housewife,

If you don’t want to wear the pants, then take the fucking pants off.

Yes, I get that you want a break. You don’t want to be in charge of everything. Lots of smart, capable women in relationships feel that way. And I understand how you landed here. I’ve personally reacted to a bad breakup by choosing the exact opposite kind of man, which — well, that’s often a bad idea.

But look, your husband works full-time, he’s good to your kid, he always wants to please you, and instead of just making him a list of repairs that need to be done, or telling him he’s in charge of the vacuuming from now on, or that you want him to dominate you in the sack, you’re characterizing him as “girly” and “beta” and “non-confident”?

FUCK THAT NOISE. What’s more confident than taking on someone’s kid wholeheartedly? I can tell you from personal experience that’s not a small thing emotionally. I was not the greatest at it myself, and I’m a woman, which supposedly means that I’m custom-built to mother every lost lamb that wanders into my nurturing crosshairs. But my stepson had a mother already. He didn’t seem to need me. I should’ve known that kids need lots of different sorts of people in their lives, whether they’re biological mothers or not-all-that-nurturing, weirdo stepmothers or opinionated second cousins. We’re all just people! We each have to play to our own strengths.

Are you hearing what I’m saying? WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT. The world is not inhabited ONLY by sweet, loving beta females and capable, tough, provider alpha males. We are every fucking conceivable thing in the universe.

You have to give your husband some space to assert himself. That means asking him (a) how he feels, (b) what he wants, and (c) what’s going on in his head, and listening patiently and accepting what you hear. Unless you already welcome his input and opinions and emotions and initiatives and say, “Great idea! Let’s do it your way!” then my guess is that you want to have your cake and eat it, too. You want to have everything your way, but you want to blame every single thing that’s not quite right on your guy. You have a fantasy of some kind of cowboy leader-provider. And hey, who doesn’t? What woman alive isn’t partially poisoned by that nugget of heteronormative fool’s gold? But you need to wake the fuck up and listen to me: A cowboy leader-provider-protector is a fantasy, just like the fantasy of the sexy-cool dream girl who grills your steak just right and then blows you just right every single night. In reality, the cowboy has wiry ear hairs and more insecurities than a so-called beta male. The dream girl has a runny nose and daydreams about becoming a homicide detective.

Do you really want to be a traditional, passive sort of woman, or do you want to be a fucking person with your own particular strengths and weaknesses, none of which you ever have to feel ASHAMED OF? Do you want your husband to be a bossy cartoon of fuck-daddy machismo, or do you want him to be a human being who can show up and be himself and give you his absolute best?

Because I’m guessing you haven’t seen his best yet. I’m guessing you’re not yet committed to letting him show you that HE really loves you, and what he wants and has to give. The second you let go of this elaborate dehumanizing fantasy of being led and kept safe and taken care of, that’s when you’ll see what a strong, capable man he actually is.

In the meantime, please stop characterizing him as “girly.” PLEASE. As a heroic toddler once said on The Simpsons, “This leash demeans us both.” You are making him feel ashamed of who he is. That would make it hard for ANYONE to behave in confident, decisive ways — domestically OR sexually. Your husband is not a beta male just because he doesn’t take a lot of initiative and he second-guesses himself occasionally. Get to know some of the wives in your neighborhood: This is what husbands are like sometimes. He’s not girly just because he can reveal his weaknesses and his vulnerabilities and his flaws. These things mean he’s more confident than your average guy! It’s much easier to make adjustments to your relationship when your partner is open and honest and accepts his flaws. Try teaching an alpha male to be more gentle. It can be done, but it’s not easy.

You are two people in a partnership. Instead of getting tangled up in what each person “should” or “shouldn’t” be good at, based on arcane, oppressive societal delusions about gender, why don’t you sit down and make a calm assessment of your strengths and weaknesses? What does he LIKE to do? What do you enjoy? What kind of a task list makes sense for each of you?

I had to do that with my husband. And like you, I’m pretty fucking arrogant, so when we had our first kid and sat down to assess how to split up the massive amount of work on our plates, I was like, “This is bullshit. We both have full-time jobs, but I’m better with money, I’m better at repairs, I’m reasonably organized, I’m better at keeping track of shit, I’m better at cleaning, and I’m also the Slurpee machine for the baby! WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU GOING TO DO?”

At first, I did way too much and my husband hardly even noticed. I still remember a dinner party where I ran around cooking and serving food, huffing and puffing and eight months pregnant with our second kid, while my husband chatted and sipped his wine. Finally, I yelled at him in front of the guests like a crazy lady. That’s what happens when you do way too much and resent it all the time.

No longer! I learned to hand over the babies. I learned how to say, “You cook this time,” and then shut up about his, er, unconventional cooking methods. I learned to make lists of repairs and errands for him to do. I learned not to watch when he was trying to spackle something and it took way too long and looked like shit. I learned to handle the gardening, because I enjoyed it. I learned to sit down and have a beer while he was doing the dishes.

The one sticking point was with money. I love numbers, spreadsheets, books by Suze Orman, all of it, but I stubbornly felt that we should share fiscal responsibilities. I didn’t want to pay all the stupid bills. I wanted my husband to get his shit together and stop paying fees on his credit cards. He was defensive about it, which made me mad, and made me dig my heels in even more.

You know what? Life is too fucking short. I’m great with money, he’s bad with money. PUZZLE SOLVED. Once I gave up on schooling him over it, I stopped resenting it and started enjoying it instead.

“So you’re a macho farmhand accountant,” you’re thinking. “Good for you and the little girly-man in your bed.” See how your knee-jerk mind rebels against fluidity and non-gendered egalitarian self-actualization? But it’s true that I’m not quite a straight woman. I’m more like a working breed of dog, trapped in a woman’s body. I like this body, thankfully! But my personality is not very straight-womanly in the traditional sense, and straight women (and non-working-breeds of dog?) don’t always appreciate my mix of aggression and whimsy, confidence and second-guessing, neuroticism and laziness, wise-ass remarks and self-reflection, dominance and submission, barking and rolling over.

You know what’s NICE, though? Knowing who you are and knowing what you’re good at. Then you can make room for other people to figure out who they are and what they’re good at. You can celebrate your differences! You can also let people fail, and forgive them their failures. You can let THEM decide to get up and try again.

Each of you will have to adapt. When one person is at home more, that creates an imbalance automatically. So you have to hammer out ways to share the work without overburdening anyone. You have to take into account the fact that he works full-time, and you have to try to relish doing the stuff that you’re actually GOOD at. Just because the sexy husband next door is great at cleaning out gutters doesn’t mean you should (a) stop cleaning your own gutters or (b) fantasize about fucking that guy.

Obviously, the sex thing is a problem. But all of these things are interrelated. How’s he supposed to fuck you in a reasonably self-assured manner when you’re walking around calling him beta and girly, even if it’s only inside your head? There’s something wrong with this picture. You’re so afraid of your own weakness that you want to call it out in someone else. It’s like he’s become a whipping boy for your own deepest fears and anxieties. You have a lot of vulnerability that you’re not letting out, and you’re acting like he needs to be a cowboy mechanic for you to do that. Bullshit! Dare to be weak and soft in his presence, lean on him. You can trust him! Stop blaming him and turning away from him. Open up to everything he brings you already.

Enjoy your own strengths and admit your own weaknesses, and you’ll find it much easier to tolerate your husband’s strengths and weaknesses. What weaknesses are you denying and shutting off and pushing away that you need to admit? What strengths are you refusing to recognize and relish, because you’re so sure that if you show them, he’ll take advantage of it and make you do all the work?

Do you want to be happy? Or do you want your life to adhere to a shared cultural delusion regarding gender roles, one that DOESN’T EVEN MAKE MOST PEOPLE HAPPY?

Please note, I’m not saying the all-American heteronormative fantasy doesn’t make ANYONE happy, anywhere. Somewhere in the world right now, there is a cowboy mechanic breadwinner who brings home the fucking bacon, and his little babycakes fries that shit up in a pan and then does all the dishes and then puts the kids to bed and then rides the cowboy mechanic breadwinner into the multi-orgasmic sunset, and everything is peachy fucking keen. Their lives are a cross between a Pioneer Woman blog post, an episode of Martha Stewart, and a Playgirl photo spread. If these people actually exist, they are A-okay in my book! I applaud their passionate adherence to roles that satisfy them completely and feed their very souls!

I want to argue, though, that most of us do not fit neatly into such roles. Instead, we are gorgeously creepy melancholy artist-insects and superpowered geisha assassins. We are vibrant attack rats with a passion for white wine and science-fiction paperbacks. We are straight-male poets trapped in the bodies of fashion-loving lipstick lesbians. We are angelic wildebeests who love scrapbooking. We are gruff little skunks with a knack for verbal sparring. We are book-loving girly girls who just want to crochet crazy hats all day long. We are sexy man-worshiping tomboys with literal and figurative buns in the oven. We are alien demons with soft, childlike hands that long to be squeezed affectionately.

We are stereophonic kaleidoscopes, full of vivid colors and gigantic walls of sound, you and me and everyone else. We have worlds inside of us, and every single cell sings with longing and love for this strange life. It’s hard to serve the giant crowd of freaks that lives inside our bodies! When we let the alien inside us scream, the little kittens have to be quiet. The gay man and the predatory female wasp want to grab some man-ass, but the working breed of dog wants to bite some sheep-ass.

When no one wants anything, that’s when you have to worry. I don’t think you want anything, Frustrated Housewife. I think you want rest so badly that you’ve stopped wanting EVERYTHING BESIDES REST. You want safety so badly that you are laying blame wherever you can, and your strong, sexy husband is getting fucked over by that.

Open your heart to him. Open your mind to who you really are and what you want to do and who you want to be. Maybe you want more than a part-time job. Maybe you want to hire a housecleaner and get out of the house more. I don’t believe for a second that what you really want is an alpha male. Most alpha males are just giant bags of endless insecurity with a lot of defensiveness and anger covering it all up. Aww. I love alpha males, actually. They need our love more than almost anyone. They need our help to soften up and feel their feelings. It sucks not to feel anything. It sucks to think you have to hold the world together with your bare hands, or you’ll get destroyed by your enemies.

That’s just an illusion. All you really need is LET GO, let down your defenses, breathe, and start to accept yourself for the strange little mixed-up freak-magnet baby boy you are.

In fact? YOU are an alpha male, Frustrated Housewife! Accept who you are. Maybe you need some time to be weak and lost. Tell your husband, “I need a week to feel soft and aimless. We can order in if you don’t want to cook most nights. But I need a break. Will you help me take a break?” You’ll be very calm when you say this, and because he’s a good guy, he will do this for you. And it will give his confidence a boost, to be able to give you something that you really need.

Sit and watch him handle things. Don’t focus on what he’s doing wrong. Focus on what’s inside of you. What’s inside of the alpha male who’s inside of the frustrated housewife? Is there a lonely, romantic girl with a camera in there? Is there a industrious, selfish little woodland creature with a heart of gold who digs blue cheese and crazy wallpaper? Relax and let your inner freaks come out to play. You are a million different creatures. Welcome them. There is no alpha and no beta. There is no power structure or hierarchy or strong pack leader. Let them all come rushing in, let them all have a voice. This is how it feels to be safe.

Polly

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.

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Ask Polly: How Do I Make My Husband Man Up?