How to deal with a partner who procrastinates

Procrastination, the repeated pattern of delaying doing something important, is a frustrating conduct to the procrastinator and his partner. Yet, this is a difficult habit to change.

One would think that since procrastination causes the individual grave distress, he or she would seek quick solutions to eradicate it. However, for some people this behavior is habitual and long lasting. There are several explanations for the duration and tenacity of procrastination, despite its harsh consequences.

Much of the research on procrastination is done with college students, who are available for research and are in the early stage of adulthood, where self-motivating behavior is expected. It is also assumed that students want to succeed in their studies and would rejoice at getting help with their procrastination. Though 65 percent of college students say they want to get their term papers done earlier, and 62 percent wish they did study for exams more promptly, many of the sensible suggestions given to them are unheeded.

There are several assumed causes for procrastination. Some researchers attribute procrastination to poor organizational skills and avoidance of disliked tasks. More recent research concentrated on the emotional aspect of this behavior. Fears of success or failure are viewed as the most likely emotions blocking action. The student may perceive success at school as a baseline of expectations for life, which he fears he may not continue to attain. The fear of failure is obviously a deterrent due to the perception that it confirms one’s worthlessness. The emotion of defiance and resistance of control is another suspected contributor to passivity. Depression is by definition a slowing down mechanism that can lead to withdrawal and even failure. The desire to pursue pleasure is also a suspected culprit in creating procrastination in students. Though these factors are emotional, most of the tools offered to students are behavioral. Students are advised to make lists, devise a study schedule, advise themselves of the merits of early completions of tasks, dissociate their worth from grades, confront their fears, become self motivated and more independent.

The most common type of procrastination I see in couples seems to be associated with pleasure seeking relaxation and resistance to being controlled. A partner’s procrastination is a common source of stress in relationships. A wife of a construction supervisor whose own deck has not been completed in seven years, wonders why her husband has helped many friends with their building projects, while hers is left begging. Another partner is exhausted at repeating certain requests of his mate, which are often promised and rarely done.

Most commonly, the procrastinator is a kind, sincere and caring person who seeks harmony and peace internally and in his or her relationship. Much of the energy of this individual is invested in creating a calm and stable emotional state. The procrastinator often enjoys serenity, relaxation, and pleasurable non-demanding environment. Any expectation from the outside may destabilize the balance and is thus resisted. The procrastinator wants to please the partner and will promise action later, to maintain the status quo of the moment.

The partner of the procrastinator finds it initially difficult to become angry with a hard working mate, who uses the weekends to relax, while avowing interest and intent in completing (or starting) the asked for task. The mate often accepts the logical reasons why things have not been done yet. He or she trusts the sincere promises, hopes and waits. With time, the patience wears thin and frustration gives way to criticism, which only guarantees the further delay of any action.

For most couples this becomes the dynamic of their major power struggle. The more she nags, the less he does. What is important to understand is that the inactivity may be a pattern of resisting control. Many procrastinators are individuals who cherish autonomy and resist authority. The more they are coerced to perform, the more inactive they become.

In relationships, the undone tasks often become a symbol of the partner’s unmet needs and a measure of disrespect and lack of caring by the procrastinator. The mate may feel ignored, untended to, unimportant and unloved.

With the pattern of inactivity and several uncompleted projects, procrastinators also develop bad feelings about themselves, such as shame, confusion and doubts about their competency. The self-talk of “I should really get this finished”, “I don’t want to continue to upset my partner”, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me”, only decrease confidence and add insecurity to the procrastinator. The fear of failure becomes an anticipated reality and further immobilizes the procrastinator.

Some procrastinators end up feeling depressed, ill, and unmotivated. They are discouraged by the notion that any action they do take will not be the one of the partner’s highest priority, would be too late, insufficient or unappreciated. The partner develops an attitude of resignation associated with low self-view: “she is never going to do this for me, because I am not that important to her”.

Both mates resort to viewing each other and themselves in an unfavorable light that seriously interferes with their love and intimacy.

The partner of a procrastinator may choose to:

• Realize that the calm and peaceful demeanor of the mate is an asset that requires intense energy to maintain.
• Support your partner’s need for down time.
• List, rather than speak, the tasks to be done. It defuses the tendency to resist control.
• Be as patient as you can, and then hire someone else to do the work, while stating your respect for your mate’s busy schedule.
• Trust that your partner loves you and avoid seeing the procrastination at home as a measure of his or her affection.
• The procrastinator is also upset with him or herself. Affirm your partner for his or her competence and achievements.
• Loving your partner means, in part, helping him or her, in action or passivity.

March 27, 2005

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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