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When Helping Isn’t Helping You OR Your Spouse

The scene is a couple driving in the car on the way to dinner:
Silence for several minutes.
“What’s wrong?”
A few more minutes of silence passed, “I know something is wrong. What’s going on?”
“Nothing! Jeez, what am I doing?”
“That’s just it! You’re not doing or saying anything, and now you’re biting my head off.”
“I’m just driving.”
“How can I help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong?”
“I’m not asking for your help, and you’re making things worse by trying to push your help onto me!”
In married life we can easily misread and overstep our bounds with each other, and think all along we’re helping. Even when this is under the umbrella of trying to help – we overreach when we attempt to help when help isn’t wanted.

But … helping is a good thing.

We are often taught to look out for others. Or to serve one another.
So how can helping be a bad thing?

The problem is that unsolicited help often feels more like judgement – which very few of us respond to well. Plus, uninvited help is based on the assumption of what we think is needed – not what may actually be happening. We use our own experiences and perceptions to fill in the gaps, which turn our solutions in to wild guesses or blind shots in the dark.
This happens quite a bit in our important relationships.
After all, we really do know those closest to us? Right?
Uh, not really.
Many years ago my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas. At the time I was getting in to backpacking so I was in the process of acquiring all the necessary gear. I had most everything I wanted, only lacking a headlamp and a compass.
So that’s what I asked for.
But that’s not what I got.
Perhaps my parents didn’t want me to think they didn’t put any effort or creativity in to their gift. Or they simply forgot what I had asked for when they finally got around to picking up their gifts.
Regardless, when we aren’t asked – or choose to ignore exactly what is asked for – we have to fill in the blanks with our own assumptions. Sometimes, we may guess right and wind up looking great, but chances are better that we’ll wind up feeling resentful because our efforts aren’t appreciated.
In her book, An Amateur’s Guide to the Pursuit of Happiness, Britt Reints proposes two rules to follow when it comes to helping:

  1. Give help only when help is asked for.
  2. Help those who first try to help themselves.
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Both these play out in marriage.
A wife wants to help her husband improve his mood. A husband wants to help solve a problem his wife is facing. It’s a logical desire. After all, your spouse’s moods and struggles fall out on you to a degree as well.
Plus, it’s easier to try to help (even when the help isn’t asked for) than to trust your spouse to handle themselves and their life’s circumstances. Allowing room for those around you to take charge of their own life is a tremendous opportunity for you to grow.
It’s a step of faith, and trust.
You have to have faith that they know what happiness looks like for them. You have to trust that they’ll find their own path, in their own time. You have to trust that they possess everything they need to live the life they truly desire. You have to trust them to ask for help if they need or want it.
And, most importantly, you have to trust yourself to be able to handle whatever happens.
The path to a marriage fully alive is one where each person is in charge of their own emotions.
Where you can tell yourself when you have the overwhelming desire to help when help isn’t asked for — the person I care about already possesses everything they need to be happy. And, whether or not they use the tools they have – and even when – is up to them.