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Are You a Helicopter Spouse?

I like to think I’m a fairly easy person to live with.  But like anybody, I can slip into bad habits.  It happened the other night.  I was trying to finish some client files and keeping an eye on the stove, while my husband was fielding last-minute work calls and trying to figure out why the dishwasher was leaking.

He stood up and began to walk downstairs, at which point I asked, “Where are you going?”

He looked up at me.  “I’m going to sign up for the Mars mission. I have an interview with NASA downstairs in the laundry room.”

Yeah, that’s how we communicate.  Soft sarcasm.  It’s not for everyone, but it works for us.

I grinned and apologized, but made a mental note.  “Knock it off, Deb.”

Look, we’re all busy.  We’re all pulled in a thousand different directions. And sometimes, we’re so focused on our own “to do” list that we don’t stop to think about what our partner has on the go.  As a result, we assume that whatever we’re doing, or have yet to do, is a priority.

So we delegate a little too much.  We monitor and micromanage, even if we don’t mean to.  If we see our spouse sitting on the couch, even for a moment, we ask them to do something. “Can you take out the garbage?”  “Can you go online and pay the bills?”

And that’s just when we’re under the same roof.  Luckily for die-hard helicopter spouses, though, personal technology makes hovering possible regardless of location.  Is your husband enjoying a rare evening of drinks with his friends or co-workers?  Don’t worry, you can still text him.  “Do you remember where you put the broom?”  “When will you be home?”

Has your wife managed to slip away for an afternoon shopping trip with her sister?  That’s okay, you can still reach her via text.  “I can’t find Jake’s sippy cup…do you know where it is?”  “I need a new pair of shoes.  Can you pick some out for me since you’re at the mall?”

Sure, things need to get done.  But they don’t always need to get done on our timeline.  Sometimes giving our spouse the freedom to zone out and enjoy themselves can make our home life more pleasant.

Sometimes saying, “Go relax, you need a break,” is more important than emptying the garbage.  It shows our spouse that we respect them and appreciate all the things they do.  Sometimes putting a little more effort into finding that sippy cup on our own, without texting our spouse, is the wiser option.

In marriages that are otherwise happy, healthy and respectful, this approach is often the best and easiest way to prompt similar behavior in your spouse.  When your spouse feels appreciated by you, when they feel they have the liberty to move through their day without being monitored or micromanaged, they are far more likely to appreciate and prioritize you in return.

Yet not all helicopter behavior is so innocent or easily remedied. Sometimes it reflects more serious things, from frustration and insecurity to desperation and controlling behavior.

I often see helicopter behavior in situations of marital conflict.  For example, it’s very common for a betrayed spouse to “helicopter” their unfaithful partner.  “Are you ready to be honest about it yet?  Are you willing to talk about it yet?  Did you read the marriage I book I bought you?  Are you willing to be transparent with your phone yet?  Did you tell her/him it’s over yet?  Will you go to counseling with me yet?”

Not only does this keep the betrayed spouse in a position of powerlessness (not to mention pain and frustration), it doesn’t help the marriage move forward or motivate the unfaithful partner to step up.  Nonetheless, it’s easy to see why the betrayed spouse does it.  They are desperate for answers. Desperate for some sign that their partner cares or is invested in saving the marriage.

Helicopter behavior of this more serious sort is beyond the scope of this article.  If you’re struggling with it, and with deeper marriage problems like infidelity or an uncooperative spouse, you may wish to get professional marriage help.  My Marriage SOS practice has a variety of resources, but you have all kinds of options available to you.  Gaining some insight and learning some new strategies can go a long way toward landing that helicopter and having the confidence to live life on more solid ground.

But in many cases, the behavior is simply incidental to our busy lives.  So slow down.  Don’t treat every task like it’s urgent.  Don’t treat your spouse like your personal assistant or like someone who needs to be supervised at every step.  Helicopter spousing can be just as damaging to a marriage as helicopter parenting can be to a child.  Bite your tongue once in a while and resist the urge to monitor or micromanage.  It’s a small change that can make a good marriage even better.

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