How to Maintain “the Hand” in Your Relationship - #1 Romantic Partners

When I was a teenager, my best gf had an old granny who was always whispering in her ear about “how to maintain the hand” with her boyfriends (as well as girlfriends, bosses, teachers, etc). What she really meant was how to be assertive, get what you want, stand up for yourself, not be trampled on. Researching this topic, I found many “p.c.” news articles and blogs about power and abuse in relationships, what to do, not to do, how to recognize when you are being victimized, etc. This post is not about that. Instead, it is about the rather old-fashioned idea that involves using psychology to manage people and situations. Many of my suggestions I have learned the hard way; I write so you can learn from my mistakes.

1)Set your expectations high, early.

2)There is no Number 2

This applies to husbands, pets, students (if you are a teacher), children (if you are a parent), relatives and in-laws, even services and repairmen, friends, bosses and more. Without being arrogant, foolish, selfish, demanding, mean, or unrealistic, set your expectations high early in the relationship. Be calm, but firm about them. It is always easier to relax your standards later, if need be, than to increase them once established as lax.

#1 Romantic Partners
When I married hubster he had been a grad student for well over a decade. He had been used to living an extremely frugal lifestyle, although he originally came from a well off upper middle-class background. Although he had just recently graduated and found a good paying job, he hadn’t yet transitioned to adult living standards. He was also a bit OCD, a “confirmed old bachelor”, set in his ways, and crusty around the edges. As we ladies say to each other in the frequent conversations we had about choosing husbands, he needed a lot of “house training.” I could see that my work was cut out for me when I started, and was nervous with the task that lay before me.

From the very beginning of our relationship, I let him know that I expected to be “dated” in the traditional sense. I did this by offering him a choice, not between doing it or not, but between two mutually acceptable choices to him and me. I was not entirely selfish, and also selected things to do that I knew he liked, at about a 50% ratio.  “Would you rather go out to for a quick bite to eat, then to the movies/sporting event/theater/concert, etc, or would you like to save that for next weekend, and have a more leisurely gourmet dinner, tonight? Which restaurant do you recommend for ……. (whichever he chose.) Or, “Would like to look up recipes, shop, and cook it together?” Or,  “Where would like to eat after we grab a Happy Hour drink with your friends?” See? It’s not hard. You make him feel like it was all his idea, while shaping it into situations that fit your needs and lifestyle expectations. Versions of this became our conversation, week in, week out. It’s not just about spending money, either, but about what you envision as an acceptable way to live your life, which to me, does not involve each of you staring at your phones, alone, while eating take-out pizza at home in front of the tv. Included in your list of activities I highly recommend a variety of dress-up occasions. I deliberately took the hubster out to a fancy-dress meal, early on (and paid for it myself) just to see if he had decent table manners and owned a suit and tie. I dragged him to church, to social events with my friends and family and work as well as his, to see him in action in a variety of scenarios. We had to have some conversations about many topics, such as the public emission of gas from various bodily orifices. Correct tipping amounts and strategies. The level of hotels that were acceptable to stay in. From the very start, I revved things up for special dates: my birthday, Mother’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day, our anniversary. “I am going to make a reservation for our …. dinner. What are you in the mood to eat? Would you rather go to ….. or …..?” (For hubster’s birthday, I throw him a large party each year, invite all his friends, because that is what HE wants. I make a big effort with themes, decor, menu, costumes, etc. If he wanted something else, I would do something else. It’s not just about what you want, but tit-for-tat.)  I use the same strategy for gift-giving situations. I pre-select about 5 or 6 items I want, at various price points, available online, and send him the links about 2 weeks before my birthday, Christmas, V.D., M.D., and our anniversary, then again at 1 week, before every major gift-giving holiday. He gets to pick which one, or find something himself that is similar (at least knowing my tastes) and we are both happy. Same with planning a vacation, a major furniture purchase, a new car, or just about anything.

As I said before, this strategy is not just about eating out and buying things. From the very start, I set the table for dinner, because I grew up in a home where people ate meals at the dinner table, together, every single day. Hubster’s family of origin did not, but by taking the lead on this one, it became part of our family routine. I asked the hubs to please wear a shirt at the table, to close the bathroom door when using it, not wander around naked while complaining that the house was too cold, put down the toilet seat when finished, (aim for the toilet, not the floor), the purpose and use of “decorative hand towels for guests only”, that I would not sleep with a pack of dogs in the bed with us (chose: either them, or me), bought him a separate beer fridge and made him use it ( bc having your entire refrigerator full of only beer was not conducive to living and eating healthfully), how to load a dishwasher, how to do laundry, to not go out and fetch the paper in his sagging underwear with his junk hanging out, which drawers/shelves/closets were mine and which were his, how to scrub a bathroom, make a bed, budget planning, menu planning, and more. That together we would clean our home once a week. That we would each take turns cooking dinner for the other (from acceptable menu choices.) All to my level of satisfaction, which became a catchphrase both he, and later our children, learned well. You can’t just say you cleaned your room by throwing a blanket over the piles of crap. You can’t just say you cleaned the den when all you did was throw stuff in the closet, and you didn’t even bother to vacuum the floor.

Within the first month that we had been married, I had enlisted the help of hubster’s sister, and together we went through all his closets/drawers/cabinets/boxes, and pulled out all the ugly, tattered, worn out, stained, hideous, out of date clothing items he had. Bagged them all and gave to charity what we didn’t throw out, then went shopping and bought him new underwear and clothes similar to the sort that he liked, only not ragged frayed stained and hideous. This involved swapping out his denim for the current style, boxing up and saving in the attic his sentimental college team shirts/items that he could no longer fit but didn’t want to get rid of, etc. We filled the attic with a lot of boxes! Involving his sister was key to my success in this event, bc it felt more like a fashion and lifestyle makeover to him, “Female Eye for the Straight Guy”, rather than a one-on-one assault of him by me. It diffused the tension. We also went through his household possessions and did the same: The chipped mis-matched dishes and glasses, scraggly bedding and broken furniture cast-offs, “gifts” from his mother or stolen from bars, went bye-bye and were replaced by items from our wedding registry. His “hand-made” coffee table constructed of 2 x 4’s became a garden shelf, painted a bright new color and covered with plants, outside.

I planned holidays and vacations the same way. Someone has to be in charge and make decisions; if not you, then who? Do you want to spend every vacation for the rest of your life with your mother-in-law or his college roommates/drinking buddies?

The trickier part of “maintaining the hand” has come in the juggling of his family of origin, vs my family of origin, vs the family that the two of us created together with our own children. (Fortunately, my family of origin is almost nonexistent and non-demanding, so it is easier to shape their demands on our time.) Over the course of 25 years, naturally, there is an ebb and flow to which family members get priority at any given moment, as needs and situations change. In the early years of our marriage, I firmly established that our children’s Christmas, Thanksgiving, other holidays, vacations and birthdays would be celebrated with our family as the center of the action, with extended family members invited as guests. (I will go somewhere for Thanksgiving only if all the following conditions are met: 1)the travel is not a nightmare, 2)the living conditions are tolerable, and 3)the food is decent- as in, not giving you food poisoning. First ex-husband’s family Thanksgivings were a “no, no and no” so we only did it once. Hubster’s family earned a “ yes, yes, but no” so it reverted back to our house.) This was in direct contrast to what my mother-in-law imagined would happen, and as we were the first adult children to get married on her side of the equation, the power struggles were rough for a few years. My m-i-l somehow imagined that we would go to her house, across town, to go trick-or-treating, rather than start from our own home. That my children would wake up on Christmas morning at her house, rather than in their own beds. This is where the word “No” comes in handy. Hard to say and do the first time, but increasingly easier after you take that first plunge. Just don’t give in after you have said it, whether to m-i-ls or children or dogs, or you will never see the end of it. Over the years I have followed the same strategies throughout a wide variety of situations: offering hubster choices when it came to those tricky family get-together scenarios. Yes, we can go visit your grandmother in Pa this weekend. No, we will not go see your grandmother in Pa AND also visit your mother in NC this weekend. You will have to choose which one. The kids are going to their school carnival this weekend, so we will not be available to come to your mother’s house and sit around in her backyard drinking beer. The key in all this is to develop an understanding of pacing, and how many events you can comfortably handle in a day/ weekend/ at all. Yes, you may invite up to 6 family members for Christmas, but no more than that. You will have to decide which 6 you invite. Or whatever your limits are.

Perhaps the most important issue in all of this is to put the marriage first. Set firm boundaries for yourself, for each other, and for the relationship. You have to balance the two. I know it feels counter-intuitive to do this, to think this way, once the kids start arriving. But if you don’t have good feelings -kind, warm, loving, respectful feelings - towards each other, you can’t manage the stressors that will come shooting at you, like a flying through an asteroid belt without a guidance system, day after day after day. You have to fill the well of goodwill towards each other in order to have the patience, selflessness and kindness to give of your selves and care for others, endlessly. It’s crucial to get your needs met: individually, whether that means a nice birthday dinner out, or saying “No” to another drop in by relatives; and as a couple, setting aside time together to remember why you once liked each other in the first place. I highly recommend you take mini-breaks or small vacations without the kids. Get grandma to babysit and go out to dinner, or spend an afternoon doing whatever makes you happy, or take a short trip someplace fun. I’m also a big believer that individuals, i.e. each parent one at a time, need a night off from parenting, work, and relationship duty a couple of times a month. I used to see my therapist every other Monday, then take myself out to a quiet, unhurried dinner, with food of my choosing, and no squabbling kids “I don’t like…..!”, afterwards. I needed this to maintain my sanity during the little kid years.  Hubster’s night out involved drinking beer in pubs with his buddies. We each got one night every two weeks, in rotation. Years later, one of my now grown sons was talking about his various friends he’d grown up with, and whose parents were divorced or should be. In spite of my seemingly selfish bimonthly mom’s night out, and his dad and my once a year couples only short vacations, he said to me, “….but then, they don’t have as stable a relationship as you and dad do.” This was how I knew I had made the right choice: to preserve my sanity, and that of our relationship, all those years, so we could have more, emotionally, to give to our children. It’s like when you are on the airplane, and the safety demo comes on: ”Put the mask over your own face, first. Then help those around you to put on yours.” You can’t help them if you haven’t helped yourself, first.