Dealing With a Chronically Late Spouse

How do I deal with a chronically late spouse? He's late for everything except work. I know I'm not responsible for this behavior, but it makes me late too when we're going somewhere together, and that reflects poorly on my reputation. More importantly, this constant tardiness inconveniences and is disrespectful to the people we invariably keep waiting. A friend has advised me to overlook the problem in order to promote peaceful co-existence, but I think marriage should be an "iron sharpens iron" relationship where spouses hold each other accountable. What's your perspective?

It might be helpful to begin by pointing out that punctuality is not a moral issue. In other words, it isn’t necessarily “right” to be on time and “wrong” to be late. All to say that if you’re looking to enlist our support in a campaign to reform your spouse by showing him the wickedness of his ways, you’re out of luck. Holding a partner “accountable” to your standards of correct behavior is not necessarily what marriage is all about.

Don’t misunderstand. We realize that punctuality can be more critical in some situations than in others. Buses, airplanes, college professors, and traffic court judges won’t wait. That’s probably why your spouse has no trouble making it to work on time. Somewhere deep down inside he understands that the definition of “punctual” can flex with the circumstances.

We’d suggest that this question of definition is precisely what you and your spouse need to hammer out between yourselves. “On time” can mean one thing at the office or in the classroom, but in less formal settings there’s a lot more room for interpretation. In the social realm, for instance, ideas about “punctuality” often reflect personal temperament or cultural assumptions. You may have noticed this if you’ve traveled abroad. Whereas Americans generally allow a grace period of about five to ten minutes, Swiss, Germans, and Austrians tend to watch the clock far more scrupulously. In Latin countries, on the other hand, it’s not unusual for people to show up for social events as much as two hours after the arranged “start” time. That’s not to mention that, in certain circles, “fashionably late” has always been considered “cool” and perfectly “correct.” A great deal depends upon the context.

If you want to work your way through this difficulty in your marriage, you need to begin with an honest conversation. Talk to your spouse. Find out what “punctuality” means to him. Open up a dialogue in which the two of you can compare and contrast your personal definitions of the phrase “on time.” As the discussion proceeds, remember to use “I-based” language as much as possible. Instead of blaming and accusing, say something like, “Here’s what I’m aiming for when I think in terms of getting somewhere within a reasonable time-frame. And this is how I feel when we’re late. Can you see where I’m coming from? What do you think we should do about it?”

As you grapple with the issue, try to get a feel for the reasons and motives behind your spouse’s chronic lateness. Do you honestly believe that this behavior is driven by malice or a conscious intent to annoy or offend? Is it a manifestation of irresponsibility, passive-aggressive behavior, or some other serious character flaw? In either case, some tough “accountability” may be just what the doctor ordered.

If, on the other hand, this tendency towards tardiness is simply part of your spouse’s personality, you may need to take this opportunity to learn what it means to exercise grace. Remember, different people approach life differently. Some are left-brained accountants or mathematicians while others are right-brained artists and dreamers. Some are highly organized while others are creative and scattered. Some operate on a schedule while others live so intensely “in the moment” that they have no sense of time and pay no attention to the ticking of the clock. If differences of this kind are the source of the conflict between you, you may have to figure out a way to accept the situation and move on. If you can’t accept it, even though you are convinced that there is no ill will on your spouse’s part, you may need to examine yourself to find out why his lateness bothers you so much. If worse comes to worst, it might be necessary to take two cars when you’re trying to make it to a party or dinner date on time.

What about the people on the other end – the hosts of the party or the other couple waiting at the restaurant? That’s a different question, of course, and you are absolutely right to insist that somebody needs to pay attention to their feelings as well. If others are regularly being put out and inconvenienced by your spouse’s behavior, we suggest that you invite your friends over to discuss the problem as a group. Find out what’s important to everyone involved. Give the other couple(s) a chance to present their point of view. If your friendship with them is strong, they should have no trouble expressing themselves honestly and openly. This could be an eye-opening experience for your spouse. That’s not to mention that it’s a far more effective way of holding him accountable than simply nagging him in the privacy of your own home.

If you’d like to discuss this at greater length with a member of the Focus staff, contact our Counseling department for a free phone consultation. Our staff counselors can also provide you with referrals to Christian therapists in your area who can help you iron out the rough spots in your marriage.


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