I Can Never Please Him No Matter What I Do

Happy January, friends! I hope you all had a safe and enjoyable holiday season. I was able to take a little time off to be with family and friends. The pace of life slowed down a little bit, but in some ways, it seemed busier than usual. Now that I am back to the normal routines of my life, I am finding it hard to remember to make time for the changes and intentions I set for this year. I am blessed to have a supportive community to help keep me on track! We can be stronger together and help one another be at our best. I am glad you are reading; I pray you find love and support here with LV&Co in 2024.

Today’s Question: My husband grew up in a home with very critical parents who never told him they were proud of him or loved him — their principal interaction with him was to point out his faults. Because of this, he is very critical of me and the children. It's extremely rare if he ever shows or expresses appreciation to me, but it's very common for him to “get on to me” or point out my faults or his disappointment in me. I feel that I can never please him no matter what I do. It's discouraging to constantly try hard to please him only to have him get on to me for something he doesn't like that I did. I may do 100 right things a day, but he points out the 1 thing I didn't do well. I feel like I might as well stop trying because even when I do try, the result is the same — he's disappointed.

Susan’s Response: Those initial relationships that we have in childhood are so impactful. They often set the standard for what feels normal in relationships as well as relational patterns that come naturally. So while you are seeing the relational pattern of criticism your husband learned in childhood as unhealthy, it may feel very typical to him. I wonder if the pattern of criticism is something he has been open about and if he is satisfied with the way he interacts. The question I would ask you to ponder is, what did you learn in your family of origin? Was it expected of you to focus on the needs and feelings of others above your own? 

If you have strong tendencies to please in your significant relationship, it is possible that you learned this as a way to cope with your early environment. Perhaps you were encouraged to be a good girl or rewarded as a compliant child. Maybe you were expected to be a high achiever. Or maybe you had an unpredictable parent, therefore you kept focus on how to keep things calm and your parents appeased. These skills were likely useful at one time in your life to provide safety. As an adult, you may recognize that these fear-based coping mechanisms are no longer serving you well. Are fears about disappointing others driving your behaviors? Could your efforts to please your husband be desperate attempts to earn his favor and appreciation? 

It can be a real challenge to not feel appreciated in a significant relationship. You didn’t mention it in the details you included; I’m curious if you have initiated a conversation about your feelings and concerns. Your husband may not have self-awareness in this area. If he is the kind of man who listens to you and trusts that you are for him, this may be a good first step. Your feedback may provide him with some insight that could help him improve his health and relationships.

The conversation might sound like, “I tend to feel really discouraged when I hear about my shortcomings so often. Would you be willing to help me see what I am good at as well? I think you can understand how hard it is to be criticized regularly. I find positive and supportive comments more energizing” If he is a man that won’t receive your comments or you have already tried to have a discussion, you may decide not to directly mention this issue. Even so, you can still do some things to better support yourself.

You may be tempted to give up when you are not getting the response you expect from your husband, but what are your expectations for yourself? What is your goal in working hard? As believers, we are instructed in Colossians 3.23-24, “whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.” In your service of the Lord, certainly, you will disappoint others. 

Instead of going to “I might as well stop trying”, what if you decided to be the person God calls you to be and practice not worrying about being what your spouse wants you to be? What if you could allow your husband his disappointment without feeling pressured to live up to his expectations or take his emotions away for him? With training, you can disappoint others with integrity and without losing your sense of self. 

Here are some practical tips to help you. Be kind and respectful but don't apologize if you haven’t done anything sinful, even if others are disappointed with your choices. Stop trying to resolve others’ feelings by over-functioning for them. Do your best to resist defending yourself or over-explaining. Don’t make someone else’s feelings of disappointment be about you; allow them to have their feelings and offer empathy and validation. If feelings of disappointment turn into abusive behavior, keep yourself safe by leaving the situation.

Let me give you an example of how you might choose to respond with empathy when your husband continues to be disappointed in you. You could validate his feelings of disappointment in the moment and learn how to tolerate the discomfort you feel as a result of his emotions.  Validation doesn’t mean that you agree with him or that you are in the wrong. What it does mean is that you are willing to hear and understand where he may be coming from. Take a moment to consider that it may not be completely about you and your behavior. His feelings may be coming from a deeper, more complex reaction to his history or assumptions. 

Validation without losing your sense of self might sound like, “I hear that you're disappointed that I didn't get the house in the order the way you wanted me to; could you be more specific about your expectations of me in the future so we can discuss it beforehand?”  Or, “I hear that you're disappointed that I didn't get the house in the order the way you wanted me to; I chose to spend time with the kids and I couldn't do both” Or, “I hear that you're disappointed that I didn't get the house in the order the way you wanted me to; It seems like our expectations are different. Let’s talk about how we want to handle our differences in that area.”

Here are some tips to handle the discomfort when experiencing someone else's disappointment. Take care of yourself by learning to tolerate distress. Breathe, ground yourself, soothe yourself in a healthy way through something like movement, singing, or spending time with a loved one. With compassion, understand that disappointment is a natural part of life.

If you struggle with the fear of disappointing others, keep these things in mind. Although it is a healthy relationship skill to care about others' unpleasant emotions, it is not your responsibility to manage or fix them, including those unpleasant emotions belonging to your partner. When you operate under this belief, you are actually doing that person a disservice because you are not treating them as an equal or a mature human being. Lastly, letting go of the fear of disappointing others frees you up to be who God calls you to be.  

Be well! 

Beloved reader, How do you manage the tension that arises between being your best, authentic self and not being all that your loved one wants you to be?

13 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on January 17, 2024 at 9:56 am

    Excellent advice Susan. I like your description of over functioning, and also your idea of learning to not need the other person to be okay with our choices. After trying to discuss it with her husband and dealing with her own desire to over function, she might have to take stock on the relationship. Being overly critical is one sign of an abusive person. If she sees no changes for a long period of time, she most likely won’t, ever. This is then something to be grieved, and a decision to be made. Do I stay with a person who means me harm for the rest of my life?

    • Susan K on January 27, 2024 at 12:18 pm

      Thank you for your comments, Caroline! Yes, this may be an abusive relationship. As she does her own work, she can gain clarity about the patterns in the relationship as well as the likelihood for change going forward. If she determines the her partner is harming her with no desire to change, there will be grief and a hard decision to be made. Each person must answer that question for themselves, “Do I stay with a person who means me harm for the rest of my life?” There are so many varying factors to consider but safety is paramount.

  2. Sara Rapp on January 18, 2024 at 11:26 am

    I can really relate. Both my husband & my mom are super critical of me. I appreciate your insight & advice here because ultimately I can only control how I deal with my own emotions & growth..

    • K on January 18, 2024 at 1:10 pm

      Excellent advice from Leslie, again! Living and sleeping with your harshest critic is not just disappointing, it’s harmful. Take Leslie’s advice and tackle it head on, every time he criticizes you without first considering your feelings and first praising you. I lived with my harshest critic for over two decades and it only got worse. Our Biblical counselors and my relatives diminished the significance, failing to see the long-term destruction of my ability to trust and respect him, along with the inner destruction of my spirit. It’s a type of sin and it’s evil. A man following the Holy Spirit’s lead will not choose such cutting words or behaviors. You deserve better, to have your God-given gifts, talents and efforts appreciated! I will pray for your strength to stand up to the abuse and stand up for yourself with the Lord by your side.

      • Pamela Reinhardt on January 18, 2024 at 7:45 pm

        I agree. If the husband has no awareness, has never done family of origin work…he will be clueless. There is no need to appeal to him… it will fall on deaf ears. I believe that it is YOU who must do your own family of origin homework & then you will be in a better position to “see” with healthier emotional eyes. Constant criticism is lethal for the human spirit whether one learns to ignore or live above it.

        • Susan K on January 27, 2024 at 12:23 pm

          Thank you, Pamela!

    • Susan K on January 27, 2024 at 12:20 pm

      I am sorry you are dealing with critical people in your life, Sara! It is difficult to manage, for sure. Stay strong and know your limits.

  3. K on January 18, 2024 at 1:13 pm

    Correction: Excellent advice from Susan! All of Leslie’s associates are wonderful too!

    • Susan K on January 27, 2024 at 12:23 pm

      Thank you for your support and comments, K! : )

  4. Lucy on January 19, 2024 at 1:30 am

    Thank you. I would like to be able to apply this to my work environment as well but it is hard. My boss does thank people, but is also expects everyone to do work far beyond their hiring job description, agreed hours, or pay. Mostly because they take on too much and then need help. It is hard to negotiate since employers do not really need a reason to fire you in most states.

    • Leslie Vernick on January 19, 2024 at 2:43 pm

      Lucy, I think sometimes employers aren’t always aware that they are overburdening their staff. The saying goes, “we teach people how to treat us”. So perhaps part of what you need to learn through this is to speak up for yourself. For example, when I (as an employer) have asked my staff to do something faster than they think they can do it – like I might say… “I need this before the end of the day” They have said back to me, “I would love to help you with that, but then I’ll have to not get this done before next week. Is that ok with you?” Or “I don’t think I can get this done today in an excellent way and I know you want excellent work.” That shows you are a team player, willing to help, but you are not a magician and you do have limitations. This way you give your employer feedback to make a next good decision -Like… “Just do the best you can, it still needs to get out today” or “OK, is it possible for you to get this finished by Monday?” Or, Yes, this is my priority, let everything else slide until you take care of this.” That way you are respecting his or her position or authority as your boss, you’re willing to help, but you aren’t allowing yourself to work all weekend unpaid just to complete what he or she asks. When you speak up in clarifying ways, it helps your boss to be a better manager and boss as well. It’s a win win. And if he or she comes back as a bully and pressures you to work all weekend (as a normal ask), you can then say, “OK I’ll get this done on my own time this weekend, but I’d like comp time for that next week taking off Wednesday and Friday if I work Saturday and Sunday this weekend. Will that work? He or she may look at you like you’ve lost your mind, and they can say no, but now you realize that it’s time to look for a new job before you get resentful and burnt out or blow up in anger.

  5. Ruth on January 20, 2024 at 11:00 pm

    The one lesson that I’m hearing over & over again is: I’m not responsible for my spouse’s feelings/ attitudes/ beliefs about me/ expectations/ actions, etc. I’m only responsible for me & how I choose to respond to him. After all, on Judgement Day, it will be God “grading” me, not my husband. I should work on pleasing God over man. Thanks for the advice.

    • Susan K on January 27, 2024 at 1:05 pm

      Well said, Ruth!

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