Reader Question: My Husband is So Passive!

Reader Question of the WeekWhat do you do when you’re married to a passive husband?

Every Monday I like to post a Reader Question and take a stab at answering it. Today we’ve got a question from a woman who feels like her husband doesn’t initiate or take the lead.

A little background–we are not a “traditional” newlywed couple–my husband and I just celebrated our second anniversary, I’m older and have grown children from a previous long term marriage, he was briefly married as a very young man, I am his first “roomie” ever, he is still in the military.

Our situation–I need and want my husband to be more decisive, a leader, and take charge (in and out of the bedroom). He is a generous, kind, caring man and I’m grateful and love him dearly. We have a good sex life (2-4/ week) but I’d say I’m the higher drive spouse and initiate almost all of the time–however after much reinforcement and affirmation and really just getting tired of always initiating–I’ve notice a slight improvement in he starting to initiate. I long to feel desired and pursued! I long for him to be more in charge-need his strong, masculine self to make me feel more feminine. I long for him to have an opinion when I ask what he’d like to do, eat, watch etc. It is nice that he wants to please me and make sure I’m happy but I’m concerned how this passivity will affect the long term health of our marriage.

The last thing I want to do is hurt my husband or make him feel like he’s “doing something wrong”. I heard that term in the beginning of our marriage when I tried to bring up things that were bothering me and have worked on finding ways to communicate more effectively. I’m more hesitant and seeking help in this area bc this obviously ties to his being a man and his masculinity and in no way do I want to unintentionally disrespect or demean him!

Do you have suggestions, resources, a way to encourage him? A way to start talking?

Let’s look at this from a number of different angles:

Living with a Passive Husband: Accepting Personality Differences

1. Some People May Seem Passive, But Their Personality is Just Laid Back

She seems to want her husband to be decisive and have opinions, and she views this as a character defect because he doesn’t. But these are also different sides of personality. There are umpteen ways to measure personality, and I’ve talked on this blog before about my favourite–the MBTI. Basically it divides personality into four spectrums:

Sensing/Intuitive (are you a detail person or a big picture person)
Thinking/Feeling (do you value logic or feelings when making decisions)
Judging/Perceiving (are you quick to have an opinion, or do you like to be spontaneous?)

I’m totally guessing here, but it sounds like he may be an FP, and she may be a TJ. Thinking/Judgers are big on opinions and action and just DOING something. FPs are big on living in the moment, enjoying things, and not getting too worked up over anything.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with either.

We need to be very careful in marriage that we do not attribute a character flaw to someone when it is simply a personality difference. I’m a TJ, so I understand the woman’s urge to want someone to make a decision and to express it quickly. But I also married a TJ. If she chose to marry someone who was not like that, she really can’t blame him for it. Even the fact that she’s saying he’s a passive husband instead of saying he’s a laid back husband already means a value judgment.

In marriage we all have to adjust to each other. Perhaps what God really wants her to learn is how to be more spontaneous, how to live life without definite plans, how to enjoy the moment, and how to just relax. These are all good things, too.

Don’t try to change him. He’s a good and generous man, but he’s simply different from you, and that honestly is okay. It may be a good idea to take a personality test so that you can see this in black and white. It isn’t a character problem, but instead differences in how you approach life. Sometimes it’s those differences that can make life fun!

2. Be Careful of Overcompensating

Different Parenting StylesThere’s a funny dynamic in marriage that goes something like this, and let me use parenting as an example because we all get it. Let’s say that you could measure leniency as a parent on a scale of 1-100, and discipline on a scale of 1-100. Let’s say that one parent falls at about 25 on the discipline scale, and one parent falls at about 25 on the leniency scale. One parent wants more order, and one parent wants more fun.

Here’s what often happens as the two parents interact with the kids: the lenient parent sees the discipline parent discipline, and so they became concerned. That makes them become even more lenient, because they want to give their kids a break. As the discipline parent sees the lenient parent grow even more lenient, they feel that the discipline is even more in their hands, and so they start coming down even harder. Both parents are trying to make up for what they see the other parent not doing.

Now, suddenly, they’re both 75 on their scales. They’re comfortable at 25, but they’ve become a caricature of themselves while they try to compensate for the other.

That’s a common dynamic, but it’s one we need to make sure we don’t follow. In this case, the wife could be so concerned the husband makes no decisions that she starts to make even more. That reinforces him as the passive one, and her as the decisive one. Soon she’s become more decisive than she even wants to be, but she’s also given him permission to be even more passive. It’s not healthy.

If you see something lacking, don’t fill the gap. Sometimes it’s best to back off. She backed off on initiating, and he did begin to initiate more. That’s good!

3. Accept Him as He Is

Here’s what I see from this letter: she’s tried all kinds of different ways to make her “passive husband” open up more, because she feels that something is holding him back and he’s missing out on life. She wants him to communicate better and to initiate more.

But few guys like talking. And he’s in the military! That means that he’s been taught to keep his feelings under wraps and just do what you need to in the moment. Sitting around and analyzing what’s going on in your head isn’t a big part of his experience.

She suddenly wants him to start opening up, and she’s frustrated that he’s not.

I guess I’d ask, why? What did you expect him to do?

Let me be perfectly blunt here. Stop trying to change him and stop trying to have these big communication sessions. Just accept him. He seems like a decent, responsible, kind person, who doesn’t like to talk about his feelings. In other words, he seems like the vast majority of men. It doesn’t mean he’s hiding anything, and it doesn’t mean that he has things bottled up. He just would prefer not to look too deeply, and that’s okay.

Instead of trying to get him to sit down and talk, why don’t you spend time with him? Find a hobby you can do together. Have him take you to the shooting range. Take up jogging. It doesn’t matter what it is; but do things together. That’s when you’re likely to start talking; it’s far more likely to happen outdoors when you’re doing something than at night when you say, “now’s when we’re going to communicate.”

4. Be Grateful for Your Sex Life

It sounds like you two have a great sex life. 2-4 times a week is wonderful! And it sounds like he’s a good lover, interested in pleasing you. No, it’s not absolutely everything you want, but it sounds pretty good. Why not start focusing on what you do like, instead of on what you’re missing?

Thank him for what he does do. Send him flirty texts referring to something that happened last night. Just be generous!

If there really is something that you’re missing, you can suggest having “His/Her Saturdays” or something, where one week you do what you want (and you lay out how he’s supposed to initiate), and the next week you do what he wants. That works for some couples. But I think learning to laugh together and appreciate what you do have is far better than mentioning inadequacies, especially when you’re doing well. When you both feel like good lovers, it’s far easier to continue to improve. When you both feel judged, people tend to retreat.

Those are my initial thoughts, but I’d love to hear yours! I’m also quite aware that this woman has a great husband–he may be passive, but overall he sounds like a solid guy. I know some of you don’t have that. Your passive husband won’t get a job, or plays video games all the time, or something like that. In those cases my advice would be quite different. But this man doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong; they simply have different personalities. And in that case, I still think the best route is acceptance, not trying to change someone.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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  1. Oh my—-YES! to this whole post. My husband is an ISTP and I’m an ENFJ…exact opposites. Thank you for mentioning this test because it taught us a lot about ourselves. Passivity is probably the hardest thing for me to accept—it feels like rejection. But I need to remember it’s a personality difference like you said, not a flaw. Also, think if how many different personalities their are in the Bible—and God used them for good in different ways! From passionate Peter to shy Moses….he doesn’t judge us based on our tendencies.
    Heather recently posted…on being a milk cow and other sacrificesMy Profile

    • Yes, exactly! It really isn’t a flaw, just a difference. That’s too funny that you guys are complete opposites! Sometimes that can work really well, though, as long as you’re aware of it.

  2. If you will allow me, Sheila, here is a post I ran across over the weekend written by a self-labeled, ‘passive husband.’ I found it to be insightful. It may be of some value to your readers.
    Bonny @oysterbed7 recently posted…What Spurred My Thaw?My Profile

    • Bonny, that is a GREAT article. Thanks so much for linking it! It articulated something I’ve been mulling over in my head while trying to finish up writing my book, too–how leadership is mostly about initiative. I love it!

  3. I’m ENFP, hubby is ISTP. We are so different. It makes for some interesting happenings at our house. Sometimes I think God has a twisted sense of humor, other times I can see that he wants us to grow. Either way, I’m grateful that we find each other, because deep down, no one really gets me.

    • “I can see that he wants us to grow.” I think that’s so true! And that’s one of God’s purposes in marriage. It’s hard to walk through, but it does make us better people.

  4. I have a preference on EVERYTHING. My son has maybe two dozen preferences total. As an ENTJ I will never understand that, but I have learned it is who he is. When he days “I don’t care” he means he does not care – at all, in any way. When he got married we warned his wife about this.
    Paul H. Byerly recently posted…The Respect NoteMy Profile

  5. Anonymous says:

    This is a fantastic post. Thank you! It definitely cleared up some things for me. I just have one thing that I want to address. This really resonated with me. She said, “I long to feel desired and pursued! I long for him to be more in charge-need his strong, masculine self to make me feel more feminine. I long for him to have an opinion when I ask what he’d like to do, eat, watch etc.” It really has little to do with sex… it’s about the woman being fulfilled in the relationship as a whole. Is this another issue where the woman needs to change and adjust and accept, or is this a situation where the man is lacking, and it truly is affecting the marriage. What can the woman do to either change her desires and needs, or help her husband adjust to give her what she desires? Satan can really use this as a way to tempt the woman to find that strong masculinity elsewhere… which is a horrible thing to be constantly tempted with

    • Hi there,

      Yes, I’d agree that this isn’t all about sex, but I think it comes down to her conception of what masculine and feminine are. She’s equating masculine with being strong and decisive, yet not all men are like that (while plenty of women are). I don’t think a man needs to be decisive to still be a strong man. So the question is: how is this affecting the marriage, and why is it affecting the marriage?

      If it’s affecting the marriage because he has no motivation to do anything (get a job, clean up the dishes, do anything other than play video games), then that’s really a character issue which does need to be addressed. But from this email it really looks like it isn’t a character thing as much as a personality/preference thing. And you just can’t get someone to change their personality, even if the way they are really bugs us. Chances are that if his passivity bugs her, her dominance bugs him. So they just need to work it out.

      It’s a hard line to draw, because passivity can be really detrimental to a marriage, and I don’t mean to diminish that. But it could also simply be a personality clash, and I think that’s what’s going on here that they just have to address.

    • I would suggest you try to determine WHY the husband is being passive. Sometimes a husband’s passive attitude (“Well, honey, what would YOU like to do?”) is born out of desire to please the wife. As a husband, I can say that I’m bombarded with messages that the wife’s happiness will lead to a more harmonious marriage. This is not without basis in reality. Choose wrongly and she may be unhappy. If she’s unhappy, the husband WILL be unhappy even if he picked what he wanted. Husbands learn that choosing their wants is not the path to happiness but rather considering her desires more strongly is the right way to go about things.

      Does this completely explain passivity? Of course not. But it could be a factor. And I think the only way it’s going to be solved would be if the wife tells her husband (in a good way, of course… and that way will vary depending on the people involved) that she wants him to take charge. Then, when he does, go with it with a smile on your face and a song in your heart. Make sure he knows that you enjoyed the plan he made. If there’s a hint that you were displeased then it’s just going to undermine any future attempts to get him to lead out.

      I know this can be a complex issue, but I can say that in my own marriage I tend not to be the strong maker of decisions… I will eagerly try to find out if she has any preference. Thing is, ladies, we men have often learned that “I don’t care, do what you like” doesn’t mean that- it means “I have my preference and if you were smarter/more perceptive you’d know what it was, instead you’re doing something stupid, and good heavens my mother was right about you.” (Well, maybe not that last bit.)

      Ask yourself: is he really that passive or is he just eager to please? If the former, it’s going to take more work. If the latter, a good honest conversation should work.

  6. The thing that stuck out to me in this particular case is that she’s older and has had a lot more life experience when it comes to marriage, family, etc and likely has a fully developed set of expectations that go along with what married life is supposed to be like and how a husband is supposed to act.

    I would imagine that her husband might find that to be a bit intimidating, especially if she is prone to expressing her opinions a lot, as seems to be the case.

    I find that a lot of the time when I have more experience in an area and display my confidence in it, my husband is fine just sitting back and letting me take the reins. Even if he has an opinion he is less likely to express it to avoid arguing over it. And then I wonder why he isn’t being more of a leader in that area!

    My suggestion to her would be to simply stay quieter in the areas she wants him to be firmer in and not to argue with him if he actually does express himself. Obviously, she shouldn’t become a doormat, but just showing a meeker side can often encourage men to step up.
    Sarah @ Little Bus on the Prairie recently posted…Positive DevelopmentMy Profile

  7. I too would like to pick up on the original poster’s sentiment about wanting to be wanted/desired. My hubby is definitely reactive, not proactive (which is more me), and we (*I*) have eventually learned to accept and balance those differences harmoniously. However, in terms of our intimate life (and I mean all aspects of intimacy, not just sex) I am still struggling. Hubby has a very low libido, and therefore little in the way of natural urges to motivate or remind him that I long for tender touches, sweet words, and sex more than one or twice a month (or longer if I didn’t start things once in a while).

    I don’t mind being the planner/chief idea generator in our marriage. And I *know* that he loves me. But my main “love languages” are verbal expressions and touch, and when I get only the occasional offering from him, I *feel* like he doesn’t care. In this one aspect of marriage, I want to be desired and pursued.

    We’re 31 years married, and still haven’t worked this out. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Laura! That is certainly a hard place, and I’d direct you here to a blog series I did on husbands with low libidos. The reason I didn’t stress that more was because it doesn’t sound like he has a LOW libido; it just sounds like he has a lowER libido. There’s a big difference in hurt with a woman whose husband will only have sex once a month versus a husband who does have sex 3 times a week–he just rarely initiates. If you’re in the once or twice a month category, that really is something quite different. I talk in that series about how to communicate your needs in a way that he’ll understand, how to get to the bottom of the problem, and more. I hope it helps!

  8. While this may or may not be the case in this particular relationship I remember something that we once heard in a pre-marriage class.

    They taught that often she wants him to be decisive but make the right decision, and the example we used was that of going out to dinner. The wife will say hey lets go out to dinner, and the husband will say sure, where would you like to go? The wife, wanting her husband to be decisive and take charge will say you decide. He picks place X, and then she says no… not there. He says where, and she says again you decide….

    Eventually a man will give up and not make that decision, he will back away and avoid the conflict… At least in my experience…. Sometimes when craving decisive leadership means you might not like the decision…

    This may or may not be the case, but for a man who does not desire conflict at home it may become quickly easier to just shy away from the decision making, unless he is sure he’s making the one she wants him to make.

    • My husband had been married before. When we were first together, he had no discernable preferences either. It took a long time of me rewarding (with a smile, immediate response, direct thanking him for expressing a preference) small efforts that even resembled a preference before he started feeling safe enough to voice any preferences. When he reflects back on that these days he said that his previous wife acknowleged two opinions, her opinion and “the wrong opinion”. So he learned to not have opinions (literally he stopped even consciously acknowledging to himself that he had opinions or preferences). It took a long time for him to learn to trust that I wouldn’t diss his preference or opinion when it didn’t agree with me. It took longer for him to learn what his preferences were.

      If you want a good book on this topic, pick up 7 Levels of Intimacy. It basically says we have to learn to trust that others are safe enough before we go to each level of intimacy. The 7 levels are (if I remember right), cliches, facts, opinions, hopes and dreams, feelings, faults fears and failures, legitimate needs. So for my husband to have a preference (opinions or feelings or legitimate needs depending on how you view what the preference is) meant he had to go fairly deep. It took a lot of time, a lot of love, a lot of building trust for this to happen.

      And for the man in this story, if he had never had a roomie before, he’s never had to even negotiate basic preferences like which way the toilet paper goes on the roll (unless that is dictated by the military). This would be a big step for him.

  9. In my experience, all women say that they want their husbands to be great leaders, but:

    1) Don’t try and tell them how to spend the money
    2) Don’t try and tell them how to raise the kids
    3) Don’t try and tell them how to run the home
    4) Don’t try and tell them how their sex life should be.

    That is, they want men to be leaders, but not in the areas of money, children, home, and sex. Other than that, they’re fine.

  10. I’m realy help me this post and take some advise, i realy like how the other peoples do realy good commens about thaks to all

  11. I agree and disagree with you, Sheila. First THANK YOU SO MUCH for organizing and leading us all towards healthy marriage!
    Second, from what I read there are so many things going on here and some of your insights don’t make sense to me. One in particular – your connection of passivity in bed to being an “FP”. I’m an FP married to a TJ and my husband is the passive one. His passivity does seem to come out of a desire to please me and the issues we have with his not initiating sex seem to partly come from his previous porn addiction. I can so relate to wanting to be desired in the way the question asker describes and to not wanting to stomp on my husband’s masculinity. I’m typically so much more decisive than he, but I’m an FP all the way! My heart goes out to this wife. It’s not an easy road by any means.
    Lastly, I also know that I have tried hard to change my husband in the past and that never got me anywhere good. So I do hear some of that going on as you describe, Sheila. I’m definitely no expert, just speaking from 8 years experience with a passive/ passive – aggressive sober porn addict ISTJ husband who’s married to a sober codependent/controlling/ manipulator ENFP. PRAISE THE LORD we’re still together and just had our 1st baby! It is possible to invite the Holy Spirit in and have him do the work we so eagerly desire to do ourselves…
    Thanks for letting me share. :o)

  12. Alchemist says:

    What struck me most both times reading this post is where she says she needs his big masculine self to make her feel feminine. I don’t think it really works like that. Feeling feminine is HER issue, not his. A man cannot make you feel feminine. If you have body issue problems or insecurity problems or questions/ doubts/ confusion about what it means to be a women in today’s messed up, militant feminist world, that’s Your issue. Not his. He can’t fix it. You have to work out your own identity or whatever with yourself/ female mentors/ God.

    I also agree with a lot of the comments. My boyfriend is also rather passive/ way laid back. He wouldn’t openly tell me ANYTHING he thought or felt for more than a year of dating, because he was scared of losing me/ me judging him or whatever. He was also on eggshells because of previous girlfriends’ stupid mind games and such. The always deferring to women thing is a by-product of third wave feminist culture. Men are taught they should really be women, or always trying to please a women by always letting her have her way in everything.

    I just tell my bf when I want him to pick. Then I happily go with whatever he picks and we’re fine. If I really don’t want that particular thing I tell him and he suggests another thing. Just don’t be passive aggressive or try to guilt him because he “picked wrong” or couldn’t read your mind. I’m guessing the writer is more mature than that though.

    • Great insights, thanks! I think you’re right–a man cannot make up for a lack within us. I know some women do dream of the manly-man swooping them up and romancing them, but that is unrealistic, and I think unfair to put on a man that you’ve already married. We have to find ways to love the man we’re with, and deal with our own issues.

  13. Thanks for this post! I am married to a wonderful man we have been happily married for 23 years. I am a strong outgoing person my occupation is sales my husband is a more reserved calculating person he is an engineer …so you can see our difference are vast just based on our careers! Our children are almost out of the house and we are enjoying alot of time alone..I was beginning to really be concerned and resentful that my husband wasn’t opening up and really sharing deeply (because that is how I envisioned our time after kids looking like) this helped me to see that it is just how he is wired, not that he is intentionally holding back. We love doing things together and have a passionate love life, so I don’t know why I was so hung up on this one area that I felt needed to change! I would have put the label passive on him but after reading the comment here I realize he is just not a talker. That isn’t wrong just different from me and that is ok. I was just very encouraged by your post and thanks for reminding me I have a good man!

  14. I totally disagree! 100% My husband and I have been married 15 years and he is so passive. He is nice, kind, rubs my feet..But I am raising him. I have to ask and tell him everything to do. I have to initiate ever sexual experience we have ever had since we got married. Had no idea he was this way before..But I am so alone and very tired. Everything is laid on my shoulders..every decision..Its not fun!!! How can you relax and make anything fun of this. I want him to buck up and be a man!! I need a man to be the head of my house and lead my children by example. DO not sugar coat the fact and just accept this as personality. He follows me around like a puppy..Whats next? This is not a personality..its passive..He is using me like I’m his mother. Not to offend..but you obviously have never been in this relationship or you would not advise to have fun and enjoy his bend a slacker!! My daughter has been very Ill..I have had to deal with it all myself while he just sets there and looks and listens like a bump on a log…I have to lead my children to church..he never mentions it if we dont go. What has happened to strong men?? I layed in the hospital in 2010 with heart failure..Drs had no clue how to help me. He just brought me home and said well I dont know what to do. I would be dead today had I not got up and found a medical center to go to and was treated. He said we didn’t have the money to go there. But Im like its my life! about 3 years later he comes to me with a check for 14000 from his rich uncle. He had as for uncle to get him a penile Implant because he also cant keep and erection. I was stunned!! You mean you have a rich uncle who could have helped me with the medical??? Well he has the pump..he never touches me still..a total waste of time. He has been checked, he has no medical conditions, we have been to counseling at least 4 times. He just sets there. We waited until we were married for sex. Imagine my surprise when I found out on our honeymoon night that he could not make love to me.. We came home and immediately went to the Dr and counseling. I have stayed for 15 years..I have tried everything. I’m empty..I’m exhausted and I have no one to take care of me. Fun!!! no I do not think so..

    • Bela, I’m so sorry that you’re walking through this, but what you’re describing is not passivity but instead something more like a personality disorder where someone is immature and unable to think outside of themselves. That really is something quite different, and the fact that he ignores health needs is really quite concerning and rather strange, to say the least.

      I think a better, more relevant post for someone in your situation may be are you a spouse or an enabler? That seems more the dynamic that you’re experiencing. I hope that helps!

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