Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at [email protected]
I love nature and sports and my husband is, how do I say it, more of a screen guy. He likes watching and re-watching shows and gaming, and he does so for several hours most days of the week. He contributes equally to finances and chores, so there isn’t a problem with his household contribution, but I can’t help feeling that he’s wasting his life away when he’s young and healthy and he’ll someday regret it. I also feel like being outdoors is inherently good and he does so little of it. Is there a nice way for me to say something without being a nag?
When I was a kid, my dad was very concerned with me being productive. He had a mental list of productive activities (reading, art, schoolwork, socializing with friends, any sort of sport, and so on) and non-productive activities (“you’ll know,” he told me), and though I wasn’t forbidden from doing the latter, I could usually sense his unease until I switched to something from the first list. Eventually I hacked the system, because I realized that the activity he thought was most productive—above all else—was thinking. When I heard his footprints coming down the hall, I’d hide the catalog I was flipping through (or whatever else “unproductive” task I was engaged in) and simply sit on the floor with my hands in my lap, doing nothing. Then, when he asked what I was doing, I’d say I was thinking. Thinking! He was immediately excited. Did I need anything?, he’d ask. A glass of water? And when I shook my head, sagely, he would scurry away—loathe to keep interrupting—and I’d have a few solid hours of time to amuse myself in peace.
As an adult, I’ve often reflected on this expectation of productivity, which was one of my defining experiences of childhood (and which has since become an ongoing joke with my dad). Overall, I think it served me well, with a few big caveats—namely that when I’m sick and can’t do things, I feel terrible about myself, which is not super conducive to either recovery or self-esteem. And while my father’s broad definition of productivity would certainly include resting when you need it, I’ve found it helpful to come up with my own personal guideline for activities—a little check-in, if you will. I ask myself: Is this activity productive, or restful, or fun? If yes to any of those, I keep at it. If no, I might start thinking about changing course sooner rather than later. (Incidentally, most of the things I choose to do fall into one of those three categories—and the ones that don’t, like doomscrolling on my phone, tend to make me feel actively bad if I do them for too long. So the check-in is a good reminder to put down the phone and go for a walk or call a friend instead.)
I suspect you see where I’m going with this. Is your husband experiencing his television and gaming time as fun? If so, then it’s a positive thing in his life! It might be different from your idea of fun, but one person’s fun isn’t better or worse than someone else’s; it’s just a matter of taste. The only change needed here is for you to do some reflection about why your husband’s recreational activities bother you so much, and how you can learn to relax and let go about it, both for your sake and his—I think you’ll both be a lot happier. (And for what it’s worth, when I mentioned your question to my dad, he said “Studies have shown that video games have a number of tangible benefits!” So there you go: even Mr. Productivity gives your husband the stamp of approval.)
If your husband isn’t experiencing the television or games as fun, then I’d be slightly concerned. Not because there’s something wrong with what he’s doing, but because he might be using it to cope with something else, like depression or burnout. In that case, the shows and games might still be helping him, because sometimes the best thing you can do for your health is literally anything that helps you get through a hard day, week, or year. But if his habits have changed recently, or you notice other ways that he’s struggling, it’s worth checking in on how he’s feeling, and asking if there’s any way you can support him in getting help.
Now, I want to address the last thing you said, about the outdoors being inherently good. That’s something I agree with strongly. I think just about anyone could benefit from a greater connection with fresh air and nature—but I don’t presume to suppose what that connection should look like.
Instead, I think of the benefits of nature as being similar to the benefits of, say, music. A connection to music can enrich just about anyone’s life, but the details of that connection itself are highly individual. Some people play an instrument—and of those, some love drums and others love viola. Some people sing for a living, and others sing only in the shower, or when something good comes on the radio. Some people listen to metal and others like folk. But regardless of what someone’s connection to music looks like, it’s almost always a force for good in their lives, in part because it’s so personal.
That’s like nature. There’s no one relationship to it that’s right. You may have an intense and active connection to the outdoors, and your husband’s may be far subtler—maybe he grows succulents, or loves cats, or enjoys thunderstorms, or looks up throughout the day to smile at hummingbirds through the window. If you want to nourish his connection to nature and the outdoors, it’s worth figuring out what that interest actually is—what he thrives on—and doing what you can to support it (get a new hummingbird feeder!). It may look incredibly different than yours, but that doesn’t mean it’s worse. It’s his, and for that reason alone, it’s perfect.