Maybe your partner said something about needing to get in a workout by 10 a.m. or it won’t happen. Maybe they mentioned wanting to take more short breaks during the workday. Or maybe they promised to be on their phone less. Whatever the case, you really want to help them, to hold them to their personal accountability. So when you see them slip up, you decide to help by saying, “You know you’re not …”
Ooh, stop talking. Hit the brakes. Hit the … Too late. You crashed.
Yes, you heard the words, and your intention was pure, but your spouse might have been venting or merely seeing how the idea sounded. It wasn’t a commitment and it certainly wasn’t a request for you to jump in and be the Accountability Police.
“If somebody says they want something, that’s good, but words are easy,” says Lesli Doares, licensed marriage and family therapist outside Raleigh, North Carolina and creator of the Hero Husband Project. What’s missing is the plan. It’s like going to the grocery store without a list. You end up wandering, guessing and coming home with everything except the one item that you needed, says Robin Norris, adjunct assistant professor of counseling and human services at Old Dominion University and a marriage and family therapist in Sterling, Virginia.
When you take that approach with your spouse, you’re highly likely going to come off as nagging, judging, and aggravating, three things that have never been greeted with, “Please, more of that.”
Learning how to hold someone accountable is an important part of a relationship. As a partner, you are there to keep them on track. But, without the proper details figured out, simply reminding someone of something they promised to do can result in everything from a side-eye or volley of swear words. So, how do you hold someone accountable without being a jerk? Here’s what to know.
Figure Out the Specifics
When your partner voices a wish, consider it an invitation to explore the topic, says Tonya Lester, a therapist in Brooklyn, New York. If the desire is real, first ask, “Would you like me help?” If that’s a yes, and you’re invited into the process, follow up with, “What would that help look like?” It’s direct, unlike the amorphous, “Let me know how I can help,” Doares says.
This particular approach lets your spouse spell out exactly what they want your role to be. It could be to wake up early with the kids, take over some chores, or to, in fact, be an enforcer. But if it doesn’t come up, ask, “Do you want me to hold you to it?”
Your partner will give specifics, but it’s an art form as well, because you know if a note on the counter, emoji or hand signal goes down best. You also know the trigger words to avoid and when it’s not the right time because of hunger, no coffee, or any other vibe that you just need to sense, Norris says.
One good move? Set up a word or phrase that you’ll use before you do your job. Norris suggests, “Friendly reminder,” which primes your spouse while also saying, “I come in peace.” It shifts the tone of what follows. You’re approaching it with caring and your partner won’t take it as being scrutinized.
How to Be Supportive When it’s Hard
Your spouse might have the internal motivation to take on whatever challenge was set and you never have to say anything. But you could also offer up a positive nudge and it’s disregarded or swatted away.
When the plan isn’t being executed, you can feel stressed, either directly or indirectly. The promise could have been to spend more time together, and that’s not happening, or it was to do daily meditation, and when that doesn’t happen, your partner becomes less relaxed and that mood can affect everyone in the house.
Before you purely react, something that rarely lands well, Norris offers a quick exercise that can calm you down and can be anywhere. Grab a nearby object and ask: Is it hot? Is it cold? Is it smooth? Is it rough? Is it soft? Is it hard? You’re trying to do two jobs, answering opposing questions while touching something, and “The brain can’t hold a third conversation about frustration,” she says.
Do that with some deep breathing where you elongate the exhale. If you need more, ask yourself, “Why do I care about this person?,” to remind yourself of love, friendship, and co-parenting. You’ve tapped into the needed empathy, because your partner, who you want the best for, is trying to change, when really, “We’re designed for things to be status quo,” Doares says.
Once you’re in a supportive mindset, bring up the subject when it’s not time for the intended activity, and say, “I’ve noticed something about the goal of …,” making sure that it’s “the” and not “your”, to avoid defensiveness, Doares says. You could add, “It seems to me it’s not going well.”
A conversation might follow where you could discover various things. The goal might not be right. The time might not be right. Your partner never wanted to do it in the first place, because, as Doares says, anything that starts with, “I should” is hard to maintain.
Or you might have to take on another chore or make sure that the running gear is easy to find in the morning. All good plans need tweaking once you see them in practice. Being flexible and not getting married to a specific outcome will be your friends, but it starts with having that initial structure. “You can always course correct,” Lester says, “but having no plan is a recipe for disaster.”