Here's What to Do If You Married a Man Child, According to a Therapist
DEAR DR. JENN,
I saw your column about dating a man child and I realized I married one. We have two kids but I feel like I am raising three because he can be so immature. I'm always forced to be the disciplinarian and he gets to be the 'fun dad'. I feel frustrated and exhausted all the time. What should I do? —Raising My Husband
DEAR RAISING MY HUSBAND,
Being trapped in a marriage with a man child is one of the most frustrating experiences that a person can have. Typically, these types of personalities end up with Type A partners. Your great ability to over-function oftentimes allows someone like him to under-function. Once this pattern has been going on for long enough, it tends to be very difficult to break the cycle. But there are some things that you can do.
1. Do some self-examination.
Was he like this when you were dating? Did things change once you were married? What have you done to try to change this? It is important to look at your part in this system. What have been the secondary gains for you? Typically there are benefits to having an incompetent partner. For example, maybe this gives you more control, allows you to see yourself as capable, and, sometimes, can allow you to be the victim. It is important to look at what it is about you that drew you to this type of person. Changing yourself can change the dynamics in the relationship.
Along these lines, it is worthwhile to examine your own attachment issues. It is very common for people who are drawn to the man child to have fears that if they had a competent capable partner, that person might not stick around. Fears of abandonment can be a motivator to pick this type of personality.
2. Stop enabling.
If you ask him to do something and he does not do it, doing it for him only rewards the behavior. It can be painful to watch the trash pile up when he's promised to take it out for days but, you must understand, the minute you do it for him you have rewarded the behavior and he knows he can get out of the task by being negligent. Stop doing his work for him.
3. Don't make excuses for him.
Sometimes, a man child needs to reach rock bottom on his irresponsible behavior. The only way to do that is to suffer the pain that results from his lack of accountability. That means you need to stop making excuses and covering for him. He sleeps in and misses your kid's soccer game? Don't sweep it under the rug and tell him it's no big deal. He's late turning in a work assignment? Don't call his boss and claim your man has the flu. (This feels like an extreme example, but you'd be shocked what I've heard in my office!) Let him face the consequences of his actions. It is the only way that he will step up to the plate.
4. Get him help.
You might think your husband is a problem you can solve, but it's way better to have a professional handle this than you. You are probably already perceived as being the nagging mommy which is not effective. (Not good for your sex life, either!) Seek out a therapist, a career counselor, or a business coach. Do whatever it takes. If the cost is an issue, make sure you explore low-fee mental health centers in your area or that offer telemedicine. Getting advice from a neutral party who does not live with him can help.
5. Look at addiction issues.
A lot of man child types have addiction issues that get overlooked. Even someone who is not normally irresponsible and childlike can become that way when caught in the throes of addiction. Daily drinking, pills, or other drugs may be the culprit. And while the 'lazy stoner' stereotype is often just that, marijuana addiction is real. I've seen more instances of this in my office in the past five years than ever before in decades of private practice. In other words, don't overlook substances that you think may be benign that could be harming your partner's ability to function well.
6. Stop over-functioning.
The more you do for him, the less he's going to do for himself. Whether it is waking him up in the morning because he has a tendency to oversleep past his alarm or doing his laundry, you are helping him under-function. It is one thing when you have a well-functioning partner and you divide tasks in order to support each other's strengths and operate well, as a system. It is a different animal when you are doing things for a grown man that he should be able to do for himself and he is not stepping up to support you back.
7. Set clear boundaries.
Don't allow your partner to get away with abusive or disrespectful behavior. Let him know that if he speaks to you in a certain way you will call a "time out" and temporarily end the discussion until everyone is calm. If you ask him to do a task that he typically flakes on, make sure he understands what the consequences are if he does not do it.
8. Take the high road.
Do not yell, scream or hit below the belt. Fight fairly and always make sure that you can walk away from any conflict that you have feeling good about how you handled your side of the discussion. Bring your higher self to these conflicts and do not stoop to his level.
9. Reward good behavior.
Try to build on the positive. Look for opportunities to recognize when he does a good job, is competent, and keeps his word. Pointing those things out to inspire him to keep going is always better than nagging someone into doing what is right.
10. Don't feed the entitlement.
In a typical relationship, going out of your way to be giving and generous to them is met with gratitude. Man children, on the other hand, tend to just develop entitlement. Do not be overly generous to him or make his life too easy, as long as he is behaving like an adolescent.
11. Trust that the kids will figure things out.
A common frustration I hear from women who are married to a man child is that they appear to be the Disneyland dad. They are so lacking in responsibility that they just want to create fun with their kids. A test tomorrow? That's OK, we can stay up late watching movies! Dentist says you have too many cavities and need to cut back on sugar and brush your teeth more? Let's have a dessert-fest and go straight to sleep! Kids may enjoy these activities temporarily. But, if you take the high road and have respectful communication with them, they will figure it all out when they are old enough. Having a great relationship with your children means there is mutual respect. Man children have a difficult time getting respect from their kids since they do not earn it.
12. Consider leaving.
If all else fails and you cannot take his adolescent behavior any longer, you may want to consider leaving the marriage, or at least having a trial separation. Pain is a great motivator and sometimes the potential of having his family torn apart can motivate someone to change their behavior. Do not threaten divorce or separation as a way of manipulating him if you're not prepared to do it. However, if you have genuinely reached your breaking point, divorce or separation may be the only viable option.
Keep in mind, if you are with someone who is physically, verbally, emotionally, or sexually abusive, that is a whole different situation and you need to do whatever must be done to keep yourself and your children safe.
The bottom line:
Having a relationship or marriage with a man child is an exercise in frustration, patience, and anger. Practicing good self-care, having a strong support system, and adjusting your expectations are crucial for a relationship with this type of person to last.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.