Can’t, Won’t, and Don’t
Published January 8, 1987. Three words are becoming more and more interesting to me as a marriage counselor and educator. They are “can’t,” “won’t” and “don’t.”
I hear them often. They are used repeatedly by husbands and wives describing their marital relationship. Wives will often say something like, “My husband can’t communicate,” or “He won’t help around the house.” Husbands will say something like, “She just won’t be affectionate,” or “Wives can’t understand certain things about men.”
There are many other sentences where we use “can’t/won’t/don’t” (or “does not”) in marriage. It may seem trivial to others, but I think it is very important how these three words are used. For instance, suppose a wife feels her husband is inattentive to her emotional needs. She tries to express herself to him, but there is no reciprocation. She could say the following to her husband:
“You can’t help me with my emotional needs.”
“You won’t help me with my emotional needs.”
“You do not help me with my emotional needs.”
The statement “You can’t . . .” suggests the husband does not nor likely will ever have the skills to relate to her emotional needs. It is as if he does not have the capability to do it. Using “You can’t . . .” statements is a judgment of sorts. It is an assessment of what an individual can and cannot do.
The statement “You won’t . . .” is an evaluation of stubbornness, and unwillingness to do something which one is capable of doing. It is an accusation that the other has made a conscious decision not to do something.
The statement “You don’t . . .” again is an evaluation, but one that can be based on more empirical evaluation. To say, “You don’t help enough with the housework” can more easily be verified and documented than to argue, “You can’t help with the housework.”
As husbands and wives, I suggest we be careful how we use these three words. Remember: “Can’t” suggest the lack of skills, “won't’” suggests unwillingness or stubbornness, and “don’t” suggests a lack of activity that can be more easily verified.
In relating concerns about your marriage, be careful in conveying 1. Inability, 2. Unwillingness or 3. Infrequency. If you seldom or infrequently go out as a couple, let that be the issue, rather than inability or unwillingness.
If you would like to share more frequent or more caring intimate moments in your marriage, discuss that rather than the other person’s supposed inability or stubbornness to do so.
You have heard the statement “A man who doesn’t read is not much better than a man who can’t.” So it is with marriage. A husband or wife who is capable of being loving, caring, and attentive but doesn’t do it, is not much better than a spouse who either “can’t” or “won’t”. And this tends to be the trend with very busy people.
I believe the majority of husbands and wives have the skills and capability to live in stable and satisfying marital relationships. The problem is, they often do not apply or use the skills and resources they already possess to do so.
“Can’t,” “won’t,” and “don’t.” Three important words in contemporary marriage. Be careful how you use them in yours.
For what it’s worth: Marriage is a social invention to discourage people from fighting strangers.