You may not realize this, but leadership is inherent in every good marriage. Leadership is not a quality that comes immediately to mind when people consider key qualities for an intimate relationship; instead, they think of a partnership, where each party is equal. But good partners don’t have equal skills in every situation, so in this chapter, we’re going to examine what leadership looks like in a marriage, what behavior is not leadership, and how you can bring your relationship back into balance by employing specific leadership strategies.
Let’s take a look at three different situations:
Couple A was dining in a restaurant with their one year old child. The child was becoming fussy and beginning to make a mess. Mom was doing her best to soothe the child, to help him settle down and eat his meal. Losing patience with her technique, Dad says to Mom, “Don’t feed him that way! Do this instead!” His words immediately put her on the defensive, she became angry, and the conversation escalated into a heated argument. This type of behavior – Dad becoming impatient and giving Mom unsolicited parenting advice – has been a reoccurring theme in their relationship.
Couple B has difficulties communicating about money. He is a saver – he likes to budget, to be prepared, and to know that there is plenty of cash in the bank. He becomes stressed when finances are running low. His wife, on the other hand, is a spender. She feels a sense of deprivation when she is forced to follow a budget, and she doesn’t want to be involved in managing the family finances. He pleads with her to reign in the spending so they can build a nest egg for the future, but she continually ignores his requests.
Couple C has issues with control. The husband suffers with Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD). He has a successful career, and earns a good income. But when he comes home, his OCD takes over, and he handles everything from cleaning the house to directing every aspect of the relationship. As a result, his wife doesn’t do anything. The relationship is lopsided, and when conflict arises he accuses her of not actively participating in the relationship and not doing anything for him.
In these three scenarios, the common thread is lack of leadership.
Each parent in Couple A is trying to demonstrate that they know the best way to parent their child. This leads to constant friction and on-going conflicts. They both want to be the leader.
With Couple B, the husband wants to be the leader, but wants participation and validation from his wife. She wants nothing to do with handling the finances, and avoids becoming involved. In this case, there is no clear leadership.
In the third situation, Couple C, the husband dominates the relationship, but becomes upset when he perceives that all the responsibility falls on him. He blames his wife for not helping, but he doesn’t give her the opportunity to do so.
As a result of lack of leadership or a lack of direct leadership (where both partners are in agreement about who will lead), conflict automatically emerges. Even the most compatible partners feel uneasy when clear leadership isn’t defined, because when a crisis situation arises, there is no responsible person, no apparent boundaries. Sometimes the partners will work together to achieve a solution, but frequently they will begin fighting with one another since no one has been designated to lead. Best practices show that in a given situation, the person with the greatest level of expertise usually takes the leadership role in that particular area. This is true not only in familial relationships, but in business, government, and social relationships as well; indeed, it applies to any relationship where cooperation and achieving goals are involved.
Let’s take another look at our couples and their leadership issues.
Couple A is experiencing parenting issues. In this case, the person with the greatest level of expertise is Mom. She spends the most time with the child, and they have a close relationship. It makes sense for her to take the lead on most of the decisions regarding parenting, with Dad in the role of supportive helper. That does not mean that she makes all the parenting decisions, but on a day-to-day basis, she will be the most responsible for raising the child.
The situation with Couple B is a bit more difficult. Both are operating from a place of fear – he fears there will be lack in their future, and desires to avoid that by saving; she fears deprivation today, and “defeats” that by spending money freely. She experiences a lot of fear about money and prefers not to think about it. In this instance, the husband is the clear leader, since he has greater expertise in the financial arena and wants to handle the finances. To attain the best results, however, he needs to work with his wife, help her understand his position, and empower her to help achieve their shared financial goals. They can cooperate and manage their finances in a way that suits both their needs, but he carries the ultimate responsibility.
Our final pair, Couple C, has confused dominance with leadership. The husband controls everything in the relationship. That is not leadership – that is domination. In order to achieve more equality in the marriage, they need to look at all areas of the home, and divide the leadership responsibilities. If she spends more time with the children, she should be the parenting leader. If he is an expert in cleaning the house, he should take the lead. Finances, intimate relationships, social relationships – they need to work together to define responsibility for each area. When they both feel that they are contributing, that makes the relationship meaningful.
Think about your own relationship for a moment. In what area(s) are you experiencing conflict? Is there clear leadership in that area? If not, who has greater expertise? How can you work together to improve the situation?
Please bear in mind that I am not talking about one person abdicating relationship responsibilities. Partners should work together to the extent that they are able to do so. But one person should be responsible for making the big decisions in their designated area, while the other person functions in the support role. Leadership should be split amicably across the different areas of the relationship. Once this has been achieved, both partners will feel as though they are contributing equally, and goals will be achieved. Animosity for one another’s methods will decrease, and each will feel more understood, more valued. When a disagreement occurs, it’s less likely to turn into an all-out war, because the concept of identifying the natural leader will already be in place, providing an easier route to a solution.