The Surprising Benefit Of Being Less Helpful

Go on. Admit it.

You know it’s utterly fruitless, yet deep down, you’re still hoping to get your partner to change.

“Who couldn’t benefit from a bit of improvement?” you say. And who better than you to point out what to improve?

There’s no denying that we all have our rough edges and blind spots— some of us with rougher edges than others. Even so, the “helpful” commentary we offer is neither helpful nor welcome.

robert-weber-do-you-mind-if-i-say-something-helpful-about-your-personality-new-yorker-cartoonWhat if your spouse tells a story with minor inaccuracies? Or major ones, for that matter? What if she botches the punch line or bores the guests at a dinner party? What if he’s certain it happened in Paris when you know full well that it happened in Rome?

Why is it so hard to resist throwing in our indispensable two-cents about the most efficient way to get to the freeway, the proper way to hold silverware, the number of times one should chew?

Who cares if your husband wears white socks with sandals or your wife laughs in a way that can make an entire restaurant go silent?

Like it or not, we’re married to people who are, well… who they are. They sneeze too loud, swallow too loud, or speak too loud— occasionally about things we wouldn’t dare to mention. They eat foods we wouldn’t touch even if we were starving and they laugh at jokes that only an eight-year-old would find the least bit amusing.

iStock_000015943882XSmallAnd absolutely none of it is any of our business.

Couples regularly come into therapy complaining about the things they want their partners to change. And while some issues they raise are crucial to address— a partner’s drinking or infidelity or uncontrolled rage— quite often the complaints are less about behaviors and more about their partner’s essence, the dissatisfaction they have with who their partner actually is.

It’s as if what they’re looking to change about Bob isn’t what Bob says or does. It’s his very “Bob-ness” that they find hard to endure.*

Most of the “helpful” comments we make are aimed at modifying the fundamental nature of the person we chose. We may rationalize that we’re commenting for our loved one’s own good, but our unsolicited suggestions for improvement have far less to do with him or her than we wish to believe.

Resisting the pull to be “helpful” calls for some of the same skills that enable us to quiet down in the midst of an argument. (Mastering The Art of Shutting Up) Both take self-awareness and discipline. Both require acknowledging the ways that our behaviors are influenced by anxiety.

Though some of us may be able to tolerate more uncertainty than others, most of us feel unsettled when we’re not in control. It’s no surprise, then, that we spend inordinate amounts of time trying to make our world and those around us line up with how we prefer things to be.

When things don’t go our way, rather than managing the disequilibrium inside us, we aim to manage those around us instead.

Minding our own business and simply letting our partner “be” is then a matter of trust: trust that we can tolerate more discomfort than we’re used to and trust that without our oh-so-crucial intervention things won’t, in fact, go to hell in a hand-basket. And, if they do, trust that we can gain a solid footing and keep a steady enough keel. Quite often, this requires that we let go of thinking we’re right.

An additional challenge is that for many of us, our identity can become entangled with the identity of our partner. Rather than maintaining a needed separateness, we merge into one. The consequence, then, is that we need our partner to look and act as we prefer in order for us to look good to ourselves and to others. Hard as is it, it’s crucial to recognize that our partner is a separate person and his or her behavior is not a reflection of us.

Being less “helpful” means being less judgmental, less critical and less verbal about our disappointments. It means that we be honest enough with ourselves to know the difference between helpful and meddlesome, between lending support and micromanaging.

When we stop controlling each other, the surprising benefit is that we can let down our guard. No longer needing to be vigilant about the next “correction” from our partner, we can make our own needed changes, grow in the ways that would be beneficial to us, instead of adjusting to or reacting to our partner’s opinions.

Better still, we create a marriage of respect and acceptance, a marriage big enough to embrace our strengths and our flaws.


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* Thanks to Bill O’Hanlon for the term “Bob-ness.”

13 thoughts on “The Surprising Benefit Of Being Less Helpful

  1. Goodness, but I love these posts. How true. So often we obsess about the trivial in relationships, disregarding the big picture. What we fail to see is that it’s often our own insecurities about what others may think of us that drives our responses to our spouses. We project our anxieties of own own imperfections onto our spouse.

    What a wonderful reminder. See the whole person whom we have married. Love the whole person whom we actually married, and not our morbid idealization of our “perfect” mate.

    That person doesn’t exist. Thanks for a great reminder, Winifred. You write the most beautiful articles on marriage.


  2. This is a huge problem in my relationship. I am so overwhelmed and exhausted by this exact issue. Really wears me out…

    Hoping things will change.


  3. Yeah, I know what you mean on this one. My hubby, and I knew it when I married him, is a loner. He isn’t much of a talker and never has been, but lately, I have needed a bit more positive reenforcement and I know he can’t tend to do that, but it still hurts.


    • People don’t change their essential nature but they can learn new behaviors and can take steps outside their comfort zone if they want.

      I like to think that we can ASK for the things we want from our partner while recognizing and accepting that we may or may not get it. One of the hardest parts of marriage, in my opinion.

      Thanks for your comment. I imagine there are many others who have that same experience.


  4. I can’t believe the timeliness of “your partner wears white socks with sandals.” Which he DID just last week, going to a public lecture and dinner at a nice restaurant. When I saw his feet as we walked downstairs in the parking garage, I couldn’t resist commenting , “Oh dear, you forgot your good shoes!” although I knew that he just wanted to be comfortable and didn’t care. And then I thought, “Shut up, you can’t do anything about it now and you will ruin the evening”. So I did. But it seemed so very boorish to me, and here you are reminding me that it really doesn’t matter, or at least is not my business. Fabulous!


    • Ahh, yes.
      Amazing how much of being successful in marriage has to to with having good boundaries.

      Glad the example hit home. I debated between that one and going out without shaving. Funny how this stuff is important and not important.


  5. What a beautiful, amazing post. Thank you so much for this! I truly enjoy your work and thank you. I particularly liked the part about WHY we (and others) do this and the underlying cause. I have not heard that addressed before. Just a suggestion, would love to hear the flipside of this post: how to handle when others try to be ‘helpful’ to you.

    Thank you again


    • There are two sides to every issue, aren’t there.
      I’m my experience, the “help” from others can cause us to feel shame or anger, depending on whether we take it “in” or push it out. Good idea for a future post.

      Curious what you and other readers would say about this?


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