If He Wanted To He Would, And If He Doesn’t …

By now, we’ve all heard the phrase “if he wanted to, he would.” Its purpose is to remind women that we shouldn’t accept the bare minimum — that men do indeed have the capacity to show up for a woman in all the ways she needs, but they simply won’t do it for someone they don’t have a deep sense of love and devotion toward.

Too often, women choose to hang on to a man who doesn’t offer her the same time, attention, and energy that she offers him. We tell ourselves that they just have “a different way of showing their feelings” than we do. We make men a priority when they treat us as an option. If he wanted to, he would is a reminder that the right man will make us a priority, too.

My husband and I have been on a very long journey of learning how to show up for each other. It was work we both had to do. Having come from dysfunctional relationships ourselves, neither of us had a solid idea of how operating as an equally invested team really worked. It’s taken going to therapy, having many difficult conversations, and raising our expectations of ourselves and of each other to reach the place we are now. Today, we show up incredibly for each other on just about every front. But it wasn’t always like this.

I get emails from women every week who say that they are begging for morsels of consideration, compassion, and interest from their husbands and getting nothing in return. They ask them to help with the kids, to participate in the household labor, to go to therapy, or even just to go on dates, but their husbands will not oblige. Their question is always the same: How do I get my husband to show up for me?

The sad truth is that we can’t make our partners choose to give us what we need. We can plead and argue all we want, but until they make the decision themselves, we will continue having nothing to show for it.

My advice to women who send me these emails is always the same. I ask them if they have clearly and directly stated to their husbands what they require from them in order to be happy. And then, if they have done this and their husband still hasn’t stepped up, my next question is: why don’t you think you deserve better?

If there is anything my long journey of marriage healing and restoration has taught me, it’s that if he wanted to, he would is such a popular phrase because it is true. I have seen how radically a person can change when they realize they might lose what they love; how fully they will change their mindset and behavior when the stakes are high.

In our marriage, it took almost losing everything to spark change. Do I wish it hadn’t needed to go that far before we stepped up to do the work we needed to do for each other? Of course. But sometimes it takes an enormous wake-up call for two people to open their eyes and see what has to be done. For us, it took me going to therapy on my own (because my husband, at the time, wouldn’t go) and eventually asking for a separation to get change to happen. But that wake-up call motivated my husband to change his ways, and in turn, I changed too. We began deeply investing in each other, listening fully and responding dutifully to each other’s needs. It was a long and arduous road, but we got there. In our case, there were things underpinning our troubles that needed to be addressed before we could show up for each other the right way. We had to get our depression and anxiety under control. My husband got diagnosed with ADHD and began gaining the tools he needed to navigate it more effectively. We both had old wounds that needed healing. And in the end, once those things were taken care of, showing up for each other was easy because we both wanted to.

If your spouse isn’t showing up for you, giving you what you need in order to be happy and fulfilled, consider why you are putting up with it. Why don’t you believe you deserve a partner who wants to? Knowing your worth and what you deserve sometimes means drawing a line in the sand. It means telling them, “if you don’t want to, then neither do I.”

I understand that it’s not always that simple—life is seldom black and white. I know that not everyone can just up and leave their marriages when they’re not getting what they need. But I think an important first step, one that you can work on within your marriage, is the difficult inner work of figuring out why you keep putting up with less than what you deserve. Sometimes, simply doing that hard but significant work is enough to elucidate the difficult questions around your partnership. It helps you get an idea of who you are and what you deserve, and to see more clearly why your partner isn’t showing up the way you need him to. It may also reveal ways you could be showing up better, too.

We all deserve a partner who shows up for us like they give a shit. It’s really as simple as that. Every person possesses the capacity to give a shit. If they won’t give it, it’s time to ask ourselves why we stick around.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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