His Responsibility Scale and Her Relationship Scale

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A wife emails, "We began to have our usual discussion about his mom when the subject of priorities came up. This time it was linked to how each of us prioritized life. In short, he prioritizes on a scale of several things: task at hand, commitments, immediacy or emergency, etc. I prioritize based on relationships: a pecking order or hierarchy. This seemed odd to him, as his way seemed odd to me. But the more we talked, the more I thought this might be an instance of "pink" versus "blue"—neither one is wrong, just different.”

She then asks, "How does each one prioritize things/relationships in life, and how do each work within that structure, if you will? And how do those views affect the marriage relationship?”

Here is my opinion, which helps explain why we hear so often about a wife having a problem with her mother-in-law or the husband having tension with his mother-in-law.

As this wife said, a man establishes in his mind a set of priorities based on a scale of responsibilities, whereas a woman creates in her mind a set of priorities based on a scale of relationships.

For instance, the husband feels responsible for attending to his mother's needs. But the wife thinks that as his wife she should be more valued relationally than his mother. The wife complains that he gives his mother more attention than he gives to her. As this wife shared, "If it is true that in the world of women priorities are based on relationship, then I felt his mom was competition—in the world of women, he was choosing her over me whenever he ‘sided’ with her. He thought I was insane for thinking this.”

You see, he views himself acting responsibly based on his "mental responsibility scale." But his wife considers him uncaring because she sees him as prioritizing his mother above her. She makes this judgment based on her "mental relationship scale." He reacts toward his mother as he does because he is doing the noble and honorable thing and it makes little sense to him that his wife would interpret his responsible actions as evidence that he prefers his mother above her.

On the other hand, a wife can express her concern about her husband's apparent neglect of her own mother. Thinking relationally based on her "mental relationship scale" she concludes that her mother is at the bottom of the list of important people in his life. He rarely talks to her. Why does he not call her every so often? She concludes that her mother is not a priority to him.

He, on the other hand, sees his mother-in-law as safe and secure and well-funded. In his opinion, based on his "mental responsibility scale," he is not neglecting her one iota, and frankly isn't responsible for her. His father-in-law, who is deceased, insured her to the hilt; she has no debt, is fit and trim, and lives in a gated community. If anything, he wishes she'd contribute to her grandchildren's college fund. Yes, he agrees he could reach out to her more than he does, but he is hardly uncaring. She is well-cared for and happy.

Another point this wife surfaced related to security and if there were pink and blue differences here as well. I thought her question intriguing and agreed with her. Yes, each has a mental security checklist. A man feels secure when he has responsibly c­­­­hecked on their physical vulnerability and made sure all is as it should be, like confirming the doors have been locked and the security system turned on. Again, related to his mental responsibility scale.

A woman feels secure when she has relationally checked on their emotional vulnerability and made sure all is as it should be, like making sure they have resolved all tension between them. Here, too, this is related to her mental relationship scale.

What are your thoughts?

-Dr. E

Questions to Consider

  1. Do you agree with the points made above about his responsibility scale and her relationship scale? Why or why not? How have you seen that play out in your marriage?

  2. Do you agree that many of the “mother-in-law” problems many marriages seem to have can be attributed to his responsibility scale versus her relationship scale? Why or why not? How have you seen that play out in your marriage?

  3. In what ways that a wife may not recognize immediately should his responsibility scale provide comfort and security for her? In what ways that a husband may not recognize immediately should her relationship scale provide comfort and security for him?

  4. If neither is wrong, just different, how can clearer communication between husband and wife help nullify so many of the problems and misunderstandings that come up related to mothers-in-law, priorities, and hurt feelings?