Good Husband Points: A Woman’s Guide

Posted on February 28, 2013


“Build me up, Buttercup.  Don’t break my heart.” The Foundations[1]

“The man may be the head, but the woman is the neck that turns the head any way she wants.”  My Big Fat Greek Wedding

“I just want you to feel you are doing well.  I hate for anyone to die embarrassed.  Fezzik, The Princess Bride

“I’ll be the greatest fan of your life.” Edwin McCain

In my last post, I (sort of) cited a study that indicated that men work slightly longer hours outside the home than women, but that women work substantially more with homemaking and childcare tasks.  I went on to offer a guide for men on the acquisition and negotiation of martyr points.  I wanted to create an analogous piece for women.  However, women don’t really accumulate martyr points for the same tasks that yield great returns for men.  It is generally assumed that a woman knows how to care for children, cook, and do laundry, and that she will, in fact, engage in these task on a regular basis.  This may seem an unfair double standard, and perhaps it is.  At the same time, she has power in the economy of the relationship that makes martyr points unnecessary for her.

There is an old email that continues to circulate that pokes fun at the differences between men and women.  Two of the bullets on the email offer this observation: “A woman marries a man expecting him to change, and he doesn’t.  A man marries a woman expecting her not to change, and she does.”[2]  Contrary to this and other conventional wisdom, it is possible for a man to change, but it is not generally from the direct efforts of his wife to change him.  Husbands generally do not like the feeling that they are viewed by their wives as a project.

If only husbands get martyr points, then they are actually “good husband points.”  If good husband points are the currency, the wife is the federal reserve.  She sets fiscal policy.  She determines what activities warrant GHP’s and how many points an activity is worth.  As I pointed out to the men, this is not purely a quid pro quo relationship; there is more subtlety to it.

When I was in undergrad (back before we had electric lights), I had a class on behaviorism that included the pigeon lab.  Students would train pigeons to peck on a lighted key to get access to food.  The processed utilized was called “shaping.”  The problem was that you wanted to take an untrained bird and teach it to perform a behavior that was not currently in its repertoire.  The way you did this was by reinforcing “successive approximations” of the behavior you wanted.  With the pigeon, finding an appropriate reinforcement was pretty simple.  The bird was hungry; it wanted to eat.  In a very few sessions, you could get the bird to where it was pecking at the key 40 times to get three seconds of access to food.  Though we men are comparatively simple creatures, our behavior and motivations are quite a bit more complex than that of a pigeon.

Applying “shaping” to your marriage and to the currency policy of GHP’s is fraught with pitfalls.  The first is that inherent in shaping is the idea that what earned you access to the food last session is not enough to get the same reward this session.  There is very little problem with the pigeon feeling taken for granted.  If a husband no longer gets GHP’s from efforts for which he was previously shown appreciation, he will start feeling taken for granted.  Second, to keep the pigeon pecking at the key, the pigeon had to be kept in a state of deprivation (i.e. hungry).  It may seem counter-intuitive, but a husband who is deprived of GHP’s is less likely to do the tasks that could earn him the GHP’s than the husband who already has a good supply of GHP’s.

When I work with distressed couples where the relationship has been taken over by negative cycles of interaction, it is frequent that what drives the husband’s side of the cycle is a fear that he can never be good enough for his wife.  That which comes across as anger or withdrawal is often a wound of feeling like his wife is disappointed in him.  Here is the source of the wife’s power.  You want him to feel that he is doing well; that he is being successful with you; that he is valued and respected.  You can do this by awarding him his good husband points.  You do that by expressing appreciation for his efforts.  A man who feels appreciated will walk through fire and slay dragons (or even do laundry and bathe the kids) for the woman who makes him feel that way.

Consequently, I would urge a generous fiscal policy when it comes to GHP’s.  Award them generously with words of encouragement, smiles, and affection.  Let him feel that you are his biggest fan (which is a huge compliment coming from someone who has to live with you).  Then you can ask him for more help and find him there for you.

As with so many aspects of relationships, appreciation begets appreciation, empathy begets empathy.  Positive cycles can become self-perpetuating just as the negative cycles before them.

[1] I know.  Having pop culture references that are over 40 years old really shows my age.

[2] Gender stereotypes are always a risky business as they don’t apply to everyone.  There can be as much difference within genders as between genders.