The 4 Easy Steps for Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You

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The Art of Conversation
“How do I talk to my husband about this without making him defensive?” is a variation of the question I probably get asked most often in emails and blog comments.

I try really hard to keep my focus on speaking to men, because it feels unfair and out of line for me to address wives when discussing broken marriages. But this post is for all of the wives on a desperate search for answers.

For reasons I still don’t understand, I have managed to write a bunch of things that somehow communicate the feelings of many frustrated wives in bad marriages or those on the brink of divorce.

Many read, then cry, then say “Thank you” because reading their feelings and frustrations spelled out from a guy willing to accept responsibility for his divorce sometimes validates their pain and sadness in a way they desperately crave from their own husbands. In a way my wife probably craved from me, but never received.

I’ve been repeating and rehashing a lot of the same turf lately. I know this, and I’m sorry.

Just a few weeks ago, I attempted to address this frequently asked question in a post titled How to Avoid Spit in Your Food and Get Your Spouse to Work on Your Marriage, where the crux of the message was encouraging people to be kind even when they don’t feel like it. Tone of voice and word choice has a major effect on how the person we’re speaking to reacts to us, or whether they “hear” us at all.

This is something that’s super-easy to talk and write about, and incredibly hard to execute in a live-fire exercise when feeling ragey and nuclear.

But since strong, healthy marriages are way more important than trying to out-anger our spouses, intentional kindness is always a pretty great place to start—even if it’s forced as a means to an end.

You want to be heard. Being kind will help.

But I think I found something that will help even more.

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I saw this impossible-to-not-click headline from Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova:

Hey, Frustrated Wives! THIS is How You Get Through to Him

Popova’s nearly two-year-old post, perhaps divinely gifted to me like a walk-on-water miracle (I spend very little time perusing my Twitter feed, or any other social media), delivers the goods with brief and substantive clarity. She nails it in the very first sentence:

“In disputes upon moral or scientific points,” Arthur Martine counseled in his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation, “let your aim be to come at truth, not to conquer your opponent. So you never shall be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In other words, if you want to argue or criticize effectively, your goal can’t be to WIN. The goal must be to ARRIVE AT TRUTH.

The goal can’t be to win an argument in which you might not actually be correct, or in which there is no obvious right or wrong answer (Example: Watching a football game is more fun than watching a reality show on TLC). The goal, when offering criticism to someone else should aim “…not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.”

So if you’re married to a shitty husband hell-bent on leaving dishes by the sink and accusing you of being irrational when you suggest such a “petty” thing is somehow worth fighting about, this is how you get your husband to listen to you, read things you wish he would read to better understand you, and transform—overnight—the way you communicate and connect for the rest of your relationship which is hopefully forever.

From philosopher and social psychologist Daniel Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking via Brain Pickings: 

How to Compose a Successful Critical Commentary

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

He leaves his dishes by the sink. He doesn’t actively listen when you speak to him. He appears to value his personal interests more than you and your family.

And now you want to communicate that in a way he will understand, but every time you try, you guys end up having the same old fight you always have.

You keep saying the same things in the same way, and his reaction and the results are always the same. Your husband will likely have to look in the mirror and ask himself some really hard and uncomfortable questions for your marriage to last. If he’s honest with himself, some of the answers will make him squirm. He will have to meet you halfway, and possibly come even further if your marriage is to arrive at Ever After.

But maybe right now you’re looking for a way to affect change. To be active in healing old wounds.

You asked, and I didn’t really know what to say.

Then Life delivered.

And now you have a tangible way to get through to him. Maybe this is something that can truly help your marriage if you’re willing to swallow the pride necessary to cooperatively seek truth more than victory.

To borrow an oft-used phrase in my posts to substandard husbands: Maybe you could start right now.

66 thoughts on “The 4 Easy Steps for Getting Your Husband to Finally Listen to You”

  1. Does your ex-wife also have a blog? I think comparing them would make for very interesting reading.

    1. Ha! No. She certainly does not. But yes. I’m sure it would be interesting, and would further my understanding of all the things I’m constantly trying to work out.

      She has a better memory than I do, so I probably forget a bunch of stuff I messed up. 🙂

    2. Elizabeth Anne Socolow

      I have a memoir of knowing Rebecca Elson well in 1991 and of her return to Cambridge and her views on her marriage.

      I LOVED the UNIVERSE IN VERSE which I saw on Lifestream. I know Billy Hayes and love his work, and I was a friend of Oliver Sacks. Would you like to see the 11 page memoir (a bit over 3,000 words)? If so, tell me a safe e mail address to which I can send it. It is what we used to call “blue.” About eroticism and quite frank.

      Yours sincerely,
      Liz Black (pen name)

      I am the Barnard Poetry Winner from 1987, for a book you might want to find on the internet second hand (out of print, Beacon Press 1988) LAUGHING AT GRAVITY: CONVERSATIONS WITH ISAAC NEWTON

  2. This is so helpful and is in the spirit of loving kindness that I’d like to maintain in my marriage. It’s respecting the other person’s intentions and deepest needs instead of focussing on the poor way they (and oneself) may express them. It just makes so much sense and would work in any conflict management situation. Focussing on shared values and the solution! Thanks for bringing this to light! Marriage in so many ways is a ripe and fertile ground to practice all the virtues that make us better humans. Many thanks

    1. Thank you very much for reading and caring about it. I wasn’t kidding. I really believe learning how to speak to those we love, and TRULY having the proper motivation for doing so (truth, not victory), we will be able to understand one another while we try to communicate these things that bother us.

  3. Excellent advice. As you said, easier said than done. Reminds me of this prayer of St. Francis:

    Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.

    O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned…

    1. No one will ever accuse me of praying too much or even an adequate amount. But that is my favorite prayer. Because it’s awesome and asks for all the right things.

      Which I desperately need. 🙂

      Thank you for sharing. If you make room in there for a little mischief and “laugh with the sinners” a la Billy Joel, that prayer says very specifically who I want to be. I get a lot of it wrong. Obviously.

    1. I can! Let’s say my guy is upset that I am “using chairs as tables” by setting down things that I can’t deal with right this minute on the spare dining-room chairs and then not necessarily getting them put away in a timely manner. He yells that I’m setting a bad example for the kids and that’s why they leave stuff everywhere.

      1. “The clutter around here is really getting to you. It seems like every horizontal surface collects things that shouldn’t be there. We want the kids to put their things away, so they need to see that we put things away, too.”

      2. “Clutter really is a problem. It bugs me, too, when everywhere I look I see something out of place.”

      3. “I didn’t realize stuff on chairs was bothering you so much. Because we have so many extra chairs when it’s just us eating, they seem available as surfaces. But now I hear that you don’t want them used that way.”

      4. “For months now it’s been hard for me to pick things up off the floor because of my back injury. That’s why I put things on a chair instead of on the floor–so that they’ll be easier to pick up–but maybe then I see them as ‘part of the furniture’ and it takes me longer to remember to put them away. I’ll still need to set things on a chair for a moment, sometimes, but I’m going to work harder on getting them put away as soon as possible. Like when I brought in the groceries on Monday and then I only put away the cold stuff and the rest of it’s still there–next time I’ll make sure to do it the same day, okay? But please forgive me if I don’t do it instantly because I’m changing a diaper. And speaking of clutter, you sorted your dirty laundry all over the bedroom floor on Tuesday, and some of it’s still there! I’ve asked you many times not to do that. Could you please pick it up now?”

      That’s an actual example–condensed to leave out all the interruptions from my son, who wanted to argue that leaving stuff on chairs forever is a perfectly normal behavior and Daddy does it too and furthermore…cutting straight to the “speaking of clutter” to avoid dealing with the specific issue.

    2. I thought the same. I understand the context but I’m sitting here trying to put it into play. With me, you have to draw a picture for me to see it. I’d like to see it played-out in a real life so situation.

  4. Ha! I love this Matt, but I’m afraid we’re dealing with men here. I’m not trying to be unkind, but men often just don’t listen to women. Period. You can be calm, sweet, have the truth on your side, be a masterful communicator who knows how to engage in a win-win discussion, and many men will simply dismiss what you have to say. It has to do with both lack of respect for women in general, and a male need for constant dominance. Not always bad things, mind you, but problematic in a discussion that requires balanced power.

    Here’s one issue, “…not to be right at all costs but to understand and advance the collective understanding.” Men really don’t do things collectively with women. I wish they did, but
    I sure haven’t seen it. Men tend to cooperate when they see some benefit in doing so, when they are responding to some hierarchy. Men as people invested in advancing the collective understanding? Doesn’t ring true to me.

    Kindness of course is always a good idea, as is softening yourself, letting go of the need for control, relinguishing the war over the glass, using positive reinforcement to praise him for the good things he does do, practicing constant gratitude and appreciation.

    I’m not being critical Matt, it’s not bad advice and it certainly wouldn’t hurt anyone, but I’m just saying, it’s rarely women that struggle with the idea of “advancing the collective understanding.”

    1. You’re going to make me defend men! You could call me the biggest asshole on the face of the earth, and as a steady voice of reason and hope in these comments for a long time, it would feel like a friendly hug.

      You very much understand me, demonstrate deep thoughtfulness, and make cogent arguments both with and against the ideas being discussed.

      This is the first time I have EVER seen you write something I consider slightly unfair and painted with a broad-brushed stroke in rich colors of cynicism.

      I hope I’ve demonstrated that I believe many men to be intolerable assholes who deserve the misery and life of loneliness that comes from behaving as they do.

      But MOST men are not intolerable assholes. Most men are good guys. Most men love their wives. Most men love their families. Most men genuinely respect and care about their wives’ feelings, but typically go through life and the emotional ups and downs of marital fights not realizing how painful his reactions and words are to his wife.

      Most men ACCIDENTALLY ruin their marriages.

      There’s no way I can co-sign that men are somehow inherently disrespectful to, uncooperative with, and lack the pragmatism and kindness and desire to better humanity across the board.

      I loved my wife very much. I am not a bad person. I did NOT want to get a divorce.

      And without badmouthing her (as she was absolutely justified in her pain, anger and sadness as documented throughout this blog), I hope you can trust me that there was a way to speak to me constructively that would have greatly improved our communication and the effectiveness of various criticisim or requests for change.

      I write often about how little husbands truly understand their wives’ emotional makeup, and how they frequently demonstrate an inability to explain why a dish left by the sink could be such a big deal to her in an emotional-pain sense.

      The 4 Steps to Criticizing Effectively requires that a wife be able to clearly articulate her husband’s position when they are having an argument (and vice versa).

      I’m not convinced wives have demonstrated the ability to effectively and accurately argue their husbands’ positions in a disagreement any more than the other way around.

      I invite your thoughts (and criticism!) as much you’ll share them. And I can’t remember ever overtly disagreeing with anything you’ve said before.

      But I think I do here.

      Operating from a premise that men are constantly looking to dominate and “win” rather than achieve harmonious relationships seems every bit as dangerous to me as all those idiots claiming all women are manipulative, self-serving man haters.

      In fact, if every human since the beginning of time spoke to one another as Dennett suggested, this cultural division wouldn’t exist at all.

      People are flawed and broken. Men are among the ranks.

      But they are not the enemy. And I believe in them. In us.

      1. Ha! You’re charming, Matt. There’s no need to defend men, I love them flaws and all. Women are far from perfect, too.

        “There’s no way I can co-sign that men are somehow inherently disrespectful to, uncooperative with, and lack the pragmatism and kindness and desire to better humanity across the board.”

        I know you can’t. That’s because you see the world through your own eyes and you project your own goodness upon others. If you look about at what we’ve created in the world however, it becomes obvious that no, men are not motivated by kindness and a desire to better humanity. Those kind of men are actually rare.

        What does tend to bring about more civilized behavior however, is love, marriage, children, family. Men who are invested in these things, tend to want to create a better place for their loved ones, to leave a legacy for their children. In the absence of these relationships, both men and women become even more self serving, even more driven towards quests for power, conflict, violence.

    2. Fromscratchmom

      IB, I sometimes tend to see men in quite negative generalizations. Some of them are the same ones you mentioned. Some of them are simply true in our society right now more often than not. But all of them, true or not, derive from my experiences. Certain negatives my father always displayed, my brother, my first husband (who cheated early and often), my husband who recently walked out (forsaking his vows after over 18 years), men who actually made me a victim of a crime for their own reasons, or all of the above. And, sadly, I often see displays in the men all around me in the world of the exact same things without knowing if those men are just acting out in a moment or if they make such things their regular m.o. During bad times in the past I was often too quick to think or to fear it’s their regular thing and it’s my constant repeating experience because all (or nearly all) men are bad.

      The good news is that I’ve been blessed to also be exposed to some truly good men who through striving for godliness have become great husbands and fathers, great leaders in their homes, wise and thoughtful, intelligent and educated, meek and yet also strong in the home and in the church. Admittedly they are not nearly so plentiful as bad guys and lazy or apathetic I-make-my-choices-by-default guys. But they give me hope. If they can do it, then others can too. For that matter, if God can accept me and help me to learn and improve then he can help anyone who genuinely seeks Him and His ways!

      And as I’ve been starting to heal from having given the last twenty years of my life to a bad guy, I’ve realized several times over that if they exist it’s also possible that God may have a plan for my future that doesn’t require staying alone in order to avoid bonding myself to yet another bad guy. Some days being forever single still feels like the more likely and more safe scenario. But not always. And that’s a blessing.

      It is really just like (and I know you’ll agree with me) the fact that a man who would value a really good woman, whose worth is far above rubies, may have to work hard at it and be patient for who knows how long before finding one.

      I should mention to Matt, although I was tempted while reading this post, to get whiny (that’s doesn’t apply to this or that past problem I faced!) I chose instead to look at the validity of it and the idea that I need to practice the technique. I can pray to God to protect me from men who would never use it or respond well to it. I also should pray about it in other ways and probably determine that if I ever do date in future this or similar techniques would have to be practiced as a couple along the way before considering getting serious!

    3. I agree with insanitybytes. Too many husbands percieve and treat their wives as nagging mothers and too many wives treat their husbands as man teenagers.

      Teenagers ignore their mothers a lot.

      1. Chicken and egg. What came first? The nagging-mom wife or the man-teenager husband ignoring her?

        Mutual respect. Legitimate efforts to understand one another. Changes everything.

        How we speak matters.

  5. I recently reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, which is a fabulous book by the way, and it gives exactly the same advice: When you want to talk with your child about a persistent problem, start by stating what you understand to be the child’s take on the situation, like, “I’ve noticed you don’t like taking a shower in the evening. You feel like it wakes you up just as you’re starting to get tired, and then you stay up late reading.” Only after the child shows some agreement that you see where he’s coming from do you explain YOUR perspective. It’s hard to be patient about this, but it pays off in communicating with anybody, in my experience, not only because he then feels like you understand so maybe you’re on his side, but also because figuring out what it looks like through his eyes helps you see how you might resolve the situation.

    1. Oops, apparently I forgot to turn off italics, making a long book title look like a REALLY long one! 😀

    2. The most important life lesson I’ve learned during my marriage failing, and the three years exploring why post-divorce, is, without question: The need for empathy.

      I think it matters with all people about nearly all things.

      But it’s particularly crucial for couples to survive.

      I really appreciate that book suggestion. Thank you for sharing it. It’s not lost on me that for all the fretting I do about marriage today, I’ll be doing the same thing about raising a teenager in five or six years.

      I’m glad it’s Friday and I can go drink tequila soon following the typing of that sentence.

      1. Be thankful that you’re thinking of communication conflicts as something that will happen when he’s a teenager, instead of a constant challenge you’ve faced since he learned to talk! My 11-year-old is an exhaustive negotiator. It’s a good skill, really, but very trying when we just want him to take a shower already.

    3. That is one of my favorite parenting books and really it’s more about communication than parenting. If you can communicate with a teenager who you happen to be the parent of (or one of those kids who are especially skilled negotiating) then you can probably effectively communicate with pretty much anyone and that’s a great skill to have.

    1. The book I recommended above, and also the 1970s classic Parent Effectiveness Training, include examples of using empathy to communicate effectively with very young children.

      My daughter is 22 months old. Last night, she was lying on the bed with me, her brother lay down next to her, and she immediately, wordlessly (although she CAN talk well) kicked him in the face! I said, “You didn’t want Nick on the bed. You were mad that he was there, so you tried to push him off. That hurt him! You may NOT kick him. Instead, say, ‘Please get up.’ Try it now.” That doesn’t go through all 4 steps above, but it does express understanding of what she wanted before I criticize what she did. (The way this played out was that she said, “Peez up!” but he stayed on the bed grumbling, “Say you’re sorry!” and she started pushing on him, but more gently, while repeating, “Peez up!!” and I had to tell him, “Get up, to show her that being polite works. After you’re up, we’ll work on saying sorry.” We didn’t get her to say sorry this time, though I did try.)

  6. Good stuff, as usual. I do think, though, that the way to have this work with the most success is to get both sides to agree to “argue” this way. If I just change it up, and he doesn’t….then he still tries to “win.”

    That said, can we pass a rule stating ALL politicians MUST argue this way? I think it would change politics forever, in a way that would blow our collective MINDS.

  7. Relationships, whether marital or not, should NOT be that hard. If they are so difficult that the people can’t even have a constructive conversation about an issue, then they need to split.

    1. I love that book! Feeling Good Together changed my life For those who haven’t read it, it is a step by step guide to how to respond to a criticism or bring up a complaint in a way similar to the post indicates. David Burns, one of the pioneers of Cognitive Therapy, is the author. Great book!

      The most challenging part for me is to find something to agree on what the other person is complaining about and taking responsibility for it. So hard to be mature but I’m working on it every day!

      1. Agreed! Like anything, it takes some practice to become skilled at it but it’s been a super-effective life skill to have in my arsenal.

  8. Hmmm, I can’t really decide what I make of this as I can’t see how it would work in most of the situations I’ve found communication to be a problem in.

    The situation I find myself in repeatedly is that my basic needs are never met and yet my boyfriend’s needs are, so he is blissfully happy but I am not. So his position is one of contentment with a sense that everything is going very well. He is not angry or hostile to begin with.

    There isn’t really anything we agree on in the situation; I am unhappy and he can’t see that this should be something he needs to care about.

    While I sometimes feel I have learnt something from a partner it rarely has anything to do with the issue in hand. And often I don’t feel I learn anything at all from them.

    Nevertheless I have tried similar approaches in the past – you start off with “I know you’re a good person and I think a lot of you but it makes me feel really awful when you ….” It hasn’t created an argument – things have remained calm but usually once I’ve finished speaking they just get up and leave the room and then carry on as normal. Nothing ever changes. Until I end the relationship at which point they are inexplicably surprised and upset.

    And how does this work when the target’s position seems to be based on pure selfishness?Another issue I’ve had is where the man expects the full range of support and nurture when he is going through a rough patch but won’t give you the same level of support when you’re the one that needs it. Like when he says he’s had a really rough day and expects to be able to go through it all with you and have you offer support, advice, affection and a listening ear. But when you say you’ve had a rough ear you just get “that’s a shame.” And then he starts talking about his motorbike or something. How can you sum up his position when all you can see is selfishness? “I understand that it’s tedious hard work offering me basic support when you really just want to talk about yourself and I agree that it would be great if we had a partner that met our every need without us being expected to contribute anything…”.

    1. Well. Two things would have to happen first.

      1. The conversation would have to be reframed. I can’t be hard to pinpoint an area of disagreement if, by virtue of him disagreeing, you might be willing to end your relationship. The conversation must be framed that way. The honest and true way. Identify the disagreement. Label it accurately. There is obviously one there.

      2. He needs to be willing to actively engage in the conversation. I understand what it looks like (I’ve done it a million times including this week at work) to not even want to have the conversation. If a man knows something is serious enough to end his relationship (and he actually loves you), he WILL have the conversation. Honesty matters.

      Once he’s aware of the stakes, that you’re serious, and you’ve identified the area of disagreement, then you can have these important conversations exceeding kindness and empathy.

      I see a lot of people in this thread talking about the substandard communication habits and behaviors of men, and how wives can’t reason with him or get him to pay attention at all.

      I know none of us have time machines. I know we are all wiser and smarter today than we were yesterday.

      But, seriously. What the hell? What the damn hell was going on when everyone decided he was the right one to marry? How do people go through dating and engagement without having a sense of their partner’s communication habits?

      It’s hard for me to accept that husbands changed radically from the beginning of marriage to whatever they are today. In my experience, men’s behavior and personality stay very steady and consistent in the absence of dementia, brain damage, or mental illness.

      What is happening pre-marriage that is leading to all of these marriages with men incapable of intelligent conversation?

      Was it hot then, but not now?

      I don’t get it.

      That is not for you, specifically, Wanda.

      I’m legitimately wanting to understand how we get from Point A to Point B.

      Somewhere along the way, personal responsibility has to play a role.

      If we marry someone with a violent criminal history, it would seem silly to me to be shocked when he does prison time for committing a violent crime.

      If good conversation is very important, shouldn’t people accept responsibility for marrying good conversationalists?

      1. “If good conversation is very important, shouldn’t people accept responsibility for marrying good conversationalists?”

        Ahh Matt, I’m laughing here, because most of us don’t marry good conversationalists, we marry men! Those qualities that draw us towards men in the first place are awesome, wonderful, but some duality is required to make it work in relationships. As an example, you are drawn to the strong, tough guy…..but then you find yourself married to the strong silent type that never speaks to you.

        What many men often don’t get is that they think if they are content, then she ought to be too, and there’s really no reason for him to be the least bit concerned about how she feels.

        Wanda above says, “So his position is one of contentment with a sense that everything is going very well.” That is what is at the heart of the matter! Even my husband, lovely man that he is, will think, “well, my needs are being met so all is well.” It is not that I cannot communicate, it is that the very idea of that I may have needs beyond his own happiness is foreign territory. Are all men like that? Probably not, but it’s a common enough theme as to be recognizable. My husband can be kind, solicitous….and still completely clueless as to the fact that his needs are not my needs.

        It’s not that you are wrong at all Matt, it is just that men and women speak an entirely different language and they tend to perceive the world differently. Empathy is key, you are right, but we do have huge challenges around empathizing with one another.

      2. Fromscratchmom

        I’m working on this, Matt. How did I fall for and begin trusting this guy that I apparently shouldn’t have? There is truth on both sides of this thing you propose that they don’t change after marriage. There were red flags, things that I should have seen but did not properly recognize or assign enough value to in order to know how difficult they would make life later. But there were also things that changed drastically. It’s a very hard thing to understand how and why they changed but I think I’m making some progress with it.

        One area that I hear from many other women, and had in my own experience too, is the little details of how a man attracts a woman and capture her heart to make her feel desired, loved, etc really does change once he’s caught her permanently.

        You’ve written about people just gradually getting used to everything in their life so that anything eventually becomes boring and that is probably a factor. But there are also a lot of women who experience a rather abrupt change immediately after marriage or soonish afterward.

        My hand was never held anymore. Physical touch is my primary love language (or secondary depending on what day I take the test) His jacket was rarely offered. My door was rarely opened for me anymore. I was suddenly constantly criticized. (Before marriage his mom and sisters were. Red flag. I know that now. And words are affirmation are in that top two for me so all the negative words were truly crushing for me.)

        We didn’t live together first so it’s not quite the same thing as the other changes, but immediately after we got married he suddenly wanted from 9 at night to midnight or even later to be alone on his computer which felt like sexual rejection to me. He thought me being too tired or drained from crying at one in the morning was me rejecting him and yet would never come to bed at a bedtime that would allow for intimacy and a good night’s sleep and getting up on time the next day. He was really good to my five year old son. Then he wasn’t. Then there was the porn. I don’t suppose when it was a first time within marriage but he certainly didn’t let on beforehand for me to have warning that I’d be expected to compete with fake and wildly, professionally slutty. That about destroyed me. The list goes on and on.

        So much work to do! I have to work on me and how I perceive men and relationships, how I communicate, how I handle my own emotions and reactions. I have to work on how to keep some distance in a relationship that has become very attractive and feels like it’s everything it needs to be on an emotional level, if that ever comes my way again, in order to examine those things intelligently and establish good communication and cooperation habits within it or be willing to walk away at any point that vows have yet to be exchanged. I think I’ve always tended to love too easily. And I’m certainly naturally loyal and constant; when I fall for someone other men sort of cease to exist as men in my eyes.

        I’m sorry it looks so bleak with women fussing and complaining and not trusting men. I do get it how bad that looks. I know you are doing an amazing and important job here. I know it’s a fine thing that you see your fellow men in a generally good light. I think for a lot of us women it’s true that a woman’s heart is a fragile thing. It’s barely possible to have it broken and trust in the same way or to that same level again. You definitely stay on guard more and more and notice every different kind of possibly negative indicator with men in general the more men misuse you/mistreat you. I fear, the more our society embraces the hookup culture thing and the divorce culture thing, the more men will face women who won’t or can’t trust them or who are emotionally dysfunctional as a result of past relationships.

        But, as I mentioned earlier, I do know that there are some outstanding men out there. So I’m working on me. I hope I can be good to someone AND for someone someday…and receive the same in return. Living a life of feeling and eventually believing in my core that I’m the last woman on the planet who could ever make him happy is not something I could survive repeating. But there is still hope. I can build a better life and be a healthier, happier person.

        1. It’s become almost cliche to say, but it tends to be true: We see and hear what we want to see and hear.

          I understand a lot of this. I promise. I did it all too. Some of it as the offender, and some of it as the person overlooking potential incompatibility signs or whatever.

          I, too, tend to be heavily influenced by emotion, and I tend to demonstrate the maybe-too-soon trust and loyalty thing.

          Natural tendencies that need fought when we meet people.

          You make some important observations about how this cycle could continue to get worse.

          Let me say that no one should ever have to feel guilty about or apologize for the people they feel attracted to. So much of that is involuntary. We like what we like.

          I just wish everyone was infinitely more prudent prior to marriage. That includes me too.

          Thank you for sharing so much.

      3. “If a man knows something is serious enough to end his relationship (and he actually loves you), he WILL have the conversation. Honesty matters.”

        See, this is a bit of an insight for me because I have always worked on the assumption that if a problem is serious enough for me to be bringing it up then it’s serious enough to break the relationship if unsolved. Why would I bring up a problem that didn’t matter to me all that much? If a man ever raised a relationship issue with me it would automatically set off alarm bells in my head that the relationship was in danger and I would assume that ignoring it would break the relationship, firstly because the original problem wasn’t resolved and secondly because I’ve demonstrated my contempt for him by ignoring something that is upsetting him. But men seem to see these issues differently which is interesting. Incidentally, if your boss (Matt and any other male readers) took you aside and highlighted an issue that he said needed to improve but didn’t specifically say “you will lose your job if this doesn’t change”, would you ever feel you could just ignore it if you didn’t fancy trying to tackle it?

        “But, seriously. What the hell? What the damn hell was going on when everyone decided he was the right one to marry? How do people go through dating and engagement without having a sense of their partner’s communication habits?”

        I think women fall into different categories on this one. The first category are women that don’t notice the poor communication skills because they are so in love. Their feelings blind them to the person’s failings and they are mostly focused on the fact that they have this gorgeous, successful, popular man on their arm. And in the early stages when they feel so strongly and there is less to argue about (no kids or chores etc) the communication thing doesn’t seem like a deal breaker.

        There’s another group who are very aware of the communication problem but who accept that if they want a relationship with a man this tends to come with the territory. There are men who are good communicators but they are so few and far between your chances of bagging one are slim. I actually spoke to a guy who works as a relationship coach for men and I asked him if trying to find a man who had these skills in the first place was a better strategy than finding someone kind and attractive and trying to teach him them (I have tried both strategies, so far without success from either but needed to decide on a strategy going forward). He implied that I’d be looking for a very very long time if I tried to find a man with these skills to begin with and suggested it was a better bet to find someone kind and decent and try to teach him. But then he works with men who come to him because they realise they don’t know it all. Most men don’t seem to have any doubts that they are getting everything right.

        Personally, I’m in the latter category but my dating has always followed a pattern. I will spend a huge amount of time and effort looking for someone with the skills in the first place but every 30 first dates or so (I do online dating) I get tired and I just think “I’ll give this a go” with someone who doesn’t have them but seems intelligent and kind and attractive. And then I’ll give it six months or so, trying to explain what he needs to do to make the relationship work, trying different strategies to get the message across, always failing, at which point I end it and go back to going on dozens of dates trying to find that elusive man who has the skills to begin with. And then getting tired again and wondering if I should just settle for someone and try to accept that this is a woman’s lot in life. If she wants kids she just has to suck up the feeling that she is the less important party in the relationship when it comes to needs.

        1. This is exactly why I asked to quote you Wandathefish:

          I communicated with my (ex)fiancé on the expectation that as I took any concern he mentioned to heart and attempted to resolve immediately he in turn would “assum(e) that if a problem is serious enough for me to be bringing it up then it’s serious enough to break the relationship if unsolved.” I imagined this because he took me serious on matters not of the heart so… seeing as he believed me on other things I surmised he would in these. I was wrong!

          I struggle to identify how it can be expected and simply executed to take care of any issues in a work setting where a boss or coworker should express concern. It is simply recognized and acknowledged to potentially corrode and thus eliminate the position so is taken care of, hopefully anyway… but this did not translate to our relationship- the one he said is the most important thing to him???

          It is almost like the religious statement of “Either Jesus was a good teacher or crazy but he can’t be both.”

          I am not trying to make a religious debate out this… please take this allegory into account…

          He told me I am intelligent, wonderful, caring, loving, and that I amazed him with my authenticity. How then did this not apply to my concerns which I did verbalize, repeatedly and in different methods? He identified me as the things above and yet it somehow did not connect with what I told him to be true of my feelings.

          Therefore, I can only conclude he thought one of the following:

          1) I am crazy

          But yet he loved me and told me I am approachable and logical… this answer would not make sense to me because logical =/= crazy.

          2) I do not know my feelings or wants but he does

          So… why bother? I brought it up and nothing happened as a result other than being told I nag… What Matt gave as a warning sign to men approaching failed marriage, the silence… NOT silent treatment. I no longer felt recognized as a human being on equal footing. I no longer felt safe. He did not treat my concerns at the same level of importance as his own. Why, at this stage attempt to validate anything?

          3) They are true but he did not care

          After so much jumping up and down x times and struggling to maintain his/her wants and needs without compromise the conclusion many significant others come to when a resolution is not met is that the lack of care has to be the case. In addition, there were boundaries set in place and crossed but when I made note of it they were dodged.

          My reasoning was- My expressing it as a concern IS identifying there is an issue that needs resolve. Therefore, I am requesting help for us to resolve it by mentioning it. The more times it is brought up the BIGGER the issue and means it lacks resolution.

          I expressed the occasional to continuous failure of my needs being met, careful not to yell or demean (something he always said I did well), but suddenly I became considered irrational in that I was hurting. I did not sprout insanity or a second personality overnight just as I recognize he similarly did not develop this communication “issue” overnight. I did not marry him- so close to it though! Perhaps my opinion can be discarded on that but I wish to say I caught on. It is not always present initially. It was not for my mother before me. He DID change, the wedding night. He was a real piece of work. I know there are differences between PoS’s and those that do not realize they are hurting their spouse.

          “But, seriously. What the hell? What the damn hell was going on when everyone decided he was the right one to marry? How do people go through dating and engagement without having a sense of their partner’s communication habits?”

          Like Fromscratchmom & ‘Beca say there are changes when marriage, or my case engagement status, is achieved. Warning signs became apparent more and more. I learned much in identifying them and hopefully preventing this kind of “relationship” again.

          I wonder how much of it is we as women are taught to submit and I dropped the ball allowing him, in some cases there WERE boundaries set, to walk all over me. I thought I was doing the dutiful loving thing by trying to be supportive emotionally and with love and forgiveness which he said I was but then I was also demanding or nagging- I became “illogical” or “emotionally unbalanced”.

          Is it perhaps that we project our own insecurities and failures on our significant other? I approached him in full honest disclosure with something of grave importance that could alter our future union forever and he reacted by immersing himself in porn while I drove home and his excuse was he thought my coming forward was a way to exclude him and back out. It was so very painful. I came clean about something I felt he should know (the very day this concern arose) and he responded by withdrawing and participating in something he proclaimed disdainful and stated he did not want.

          I am beginning to consider it must be projection. I think it was that I take what is communicated at face value. He says it bothers him so it must. I want to change this because I do not want to cause dissension between us so I do change it. I honestly thought this was a universal concept.

          I take full personal responsibility for my naivety. Perhaps I watched too much Disney.

          Like Fromscratchmom I ask myself “How did I fall for and begin trusting this guy that I apparently shouldn’t have?”

          I really want to know why expression of feelings is not received with the same level of belief as other aspects of life and how many times/ways the expression of hurt it takes to identify it is lack of care versus ignorance to the depth of hurt.

          Thank you for the amazing blog post, yet again! I especially love Male Commenters Are From Mars, Female Commenters Are From Venus- keep up the good work.

      4. The changes Fromscratchmom mentions are good examples of the kind of thing that often happens when a relationship becomes a marriage: One or both partners changes treatment of or attitude toward the other because they are now treating her as a Wife or treating him as a Husband. I don’t have a reference handy, but I read a couple of research studies documenting this as a problem in living-together relationships that broke up after marriage. To give an example from a person I know: He had been fine with doing his own laundry, but when he had a Wife he expected (without saying so) that she would do all the laundry because, in his mind, everyone knows that a Wife does laundry.

        It’s when the two people’s assumptions don’t align that things go wrong. If she wants to be the kind of Wife he’s expecting and he wants to be the kind of Husband she’s expecting, the changes will be fine–but if not, one or both of them will be thinking, “Why isn’t he as nice to me as he used to be?!”

        And that’s one way a woman can end up married to a man who does something she can’t stand: He literally didn’t do it when she was his girlfriend.

      5. streamsidepicnic

        Communications needs and styles change over time. They aren’t constant. My spouse is a good conversationalist.

        The issue is I’m no longer interesting to talk to, he knows pretty much everything I’m doing or worrying about and if he doesn’t it’s something he doesn’t find interesting and I’ve heard all his jokes (they are still funny). So I take him out on our anniversary, he jokes with the waiters and has interesting conversations with the people at the tables next to us and is happy as a clam. If he’s trying to talk to only me, he’s bored and miserable, or he’s telling me I can’t possibly believe what I’m saying because it’s irrational and he knows I’m not an irrational person, ergo I must agree with him. He’s still a good conversationalist, he simply no longer desires to have conversation with me.

      6. Becca – I was really talking specifically about communication and conversation skills which I honestly believe are assessable with a high degree of accuracy from the first date. I was on for years and went on dates with around 120 men. I only met men who communicated well in their profiles and who were then able to have a balanced conversation over messaging; so I met men from the 10% of the population with the best communication skills. And yet in person only a tiny fraction of them could hold a balanced conversation and continue to hold balanced conversations past the second or third date. I honestly think when most women encounter communication problems later on it’s because they were always there but they just didn’t see them or else they were aware of them all along but there were no alternatives so they just had to put up with them with the hope of trying to fix them at some point in the future. That said, I reckon there are a very small minority of men who like you describe are great to begin with and then this changes although I’ve only met one man like this. He just announced one day that he now knew everything about me and that was that. All conversation from that point onwards was primarily about him.

        It is also possible though that things might be different in other countries. From what I can see American dating culture is actually quite different from UK dating culture, with men being expected to do a lot of “emotion work” – in choosing a venue, making arrangements and then often being expected to pay for everything too. So this higher level of effort is expected to begin with in a way it isn’t in the UK. Here you usually just pick a pub by mutual agreement, arrange to turn up and then everything tends to be split 50-50 and there isn’t usually any greater effort on the part of the man (although I do know women that make it clear they expect a more American model and in these cases I think the man does typically oblige).

        streamsidepicnic – I disagree that your husband is a good conversationalist unless you really are giving nothing back when he tries to talk to you (if he tries to talk to you). Part of being a good conversationalist is cultivating and sustaining an interest in those you are closest to – you can never come close to knowing everything about someone no matter how long you’ve lived with them. There are always new topics and if there aren’t there are ways of generating them – especially if both parties read a lot and are always exposing themselves and therefore each other to new ideas, opinions etc. And dismissing your opinions as irrational and thereby insisting you must agree with him is not the sign of a good conversationalist either. The point of conversation is to make the other person feel good about themselves, understood, listened to, heard. How do you feel about how he treats you?

      7. streamsidepicnic

        wandathefish: Then my definition of a good conversationalist isn’t the same as yours. I think it’s a friendly, enjoyable, and interesting exchange of ideas, exchanging understanding, yes, but to make the other person feel good about themselves, no. Not getting in yelling matches or generating anger, yes, but to be responsible for someone else’s happiness, no. Sometimes we’re great, sometimes we’re both frustrated. But in general he’s a much better conversationalist than I am, I’m the bigger introvert. 🙂

  9. >The situation I find myself in repeatedly is that my basic needs are never met and yet my >boyfriend’s needs are, so he is blissfully happy but I am not. So his position is one of >contentment with a sense that everything is going very well. He is not angry or hostile to >begin with.

    The exact problem I have with my husband. As long as he’s content and not inconvenienced in any way/shape/form/fashion, then he’s happy and he thinks everyone else should be also. Never mind me, I don’t count. This goes on until I have a blow up and he’s all confused as to why. You’d think after me explaining it for 33 years he’d understand.

    1. Yes, I empathize there. This is a frequent lament of women, even the happily married ones, “Never mind me, I don’t count.” We want to count, we want to be seen, we want to matter beyond simply being an extension of his needs.

      1. Fromscratchmom

        IB, you hit the nail on the head with your blog post that referenced “her desire will be for her husband.” The need for him to value you (and therefore the hurts) run very deep.

      2. Hi. Wow. First I want to openly acknowledge that I have never been married, so I don’t know the reality of this struggle. I cant say a word on the subject. I’ve known disillusionment, and constant struggle and fatigue in different areas of my life, but not relationally. (Though I wont say NOT having relationships is that great, either). …I wanted to respond to FromScratchMom’s response, and just give you some encouragement and tell you that you are doing so well and are on the right track! Gosh, right now is the time to take care of yourself, love yourself, nurture and enjoy yourself. I hope you find something nice to do for yourself every single day of the year!
        I’ve never been married, but I’ve had my fair share of heartache at the hands of men. Yet, I still want to be close to one of them (As cra-cra as that is!).
        Reading this blog is becoming an education for me. I grew up with a single mom, never really had a lot of male influences in my life and never really saw a lot of good relationship models around me, until I was an adult. I do currently have great people with strong, fun and enduring marriages around me that give me so much hope that, that sort of thing CAN exist. But it doesn’t just happen; I think we’ve gotten duped by the romantic comedy. It takes intentionality. It takes talking about the hard stuff honestly. Maybe, it takes applying those “4 easy steps”..
        I sort of have hope that I could one day develop a relationship with a man that was intimate and supportive and fun. But, I’m ok if that doesn’t happen. What I plan on doing as much and as often as I can is being honest, open and intentional with the people around me presently. I think there will be a natural “shake down” that happens that can be protective against some bad apples :). ..

    2. Yes, exactly. I’ve been working on this with my partner for the almost 22 years we’ve been together, finally making notable progress in the past 4 years. He’s weirdly oblivious to my feelings unless I express them “clearly” by his standards. We’re getting better on both counts, but it isn’t easy.

      The typically-male end of the problem is expressed well in the bit you quoted. The typically-female end is, “If you love me, you’ll notice my needs and feelings and do considerate things for me.”

  10. John Gottman’s research DOES show a gender difference with men less likely to accept influence. He talks about this as a major predictor for both the wife’s happiness and the happiness of the marriage.

    From his blog:
    “As briefly mentioned above, in a series of studies Dr. Gottman found that, “ the happiest, most stable marriages in the long run were those where the husband treated his wife with respect and did not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagreed, those husbands actively searched for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.” Obviously, husbands are not always the ones who refuse to compromise or accept their partner’s influence (and often make this mistake without even noticing), but according to our research, a significant gender difference exists in handling of areas of conflict. “

    1. I totally agree with you that most men are good guys who want to make their wives happy and have a good marriage. I think that there are parts of nature/nuture that make it harder for the average guy to listen and respond to a complaint from their wives.

      From marriage researcher John Gottman’s blog again (love me some Gottman!)

      “In such situations, wives may express anger or other negative emotions, but they seldom increase the negativity. Instead, they either match it or try to tone it down. 65% of the husbands in Dr. Gottman’s study did not take these approaches; rather, they very frequently introduced what Dr. Gottman calls the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or stonewalling) into the conversation, escalating negativity! If a wife says, “You haven’t been paying any attention to me!” the husband may ignore her (stonewall), be defensive (“Yes I do!”), be critical (“You’re not always saying important things!”), or be contemptuous (“Oh, princess, spare me your hysterics!”). Instead of allowing his wife to influence him, he is attempting to trample all over her words and her feelings.Our research shows that, if such a pattern develops, you enormous risks: if both partners fail to arrive at solutions that satisfy both of their needs, there is an 81% chance of serious damage and destabilization of a relationship.

      Both partners are responsible for keeping the 4 Horsemen out of their relationships, but our research indicates that husbands are frequently the ones who let the horsemen run free. To see this from another perspective, Dr. Gottman’s research reveals that, “The wives of men who accept their influence are far less likely to be harsh with their husbands when broaching a difficult marital topic. This increases the odds their marriage will thrive.” “

      1. God knows I don’t think I know a millionth what Dr. Gottman knows. But that has long been my contention and what I ask of husbands here.

        Be good to your wives. Actively practice listening and empathy, even when it’s inconvenient.

        And I believe that, by doing so, the vast majority of husbands’ counter-accusations about their wives negative behaviors would predominantly vanish because she wouldn’t be reacting negatively to him much in the first place.

        I’m glad to see Gottman has a little data on that.

      2. Fromscratchmom

        Oh wow. That really resonates, the four horsemen! I often refer to the general atmosphere in our early married years of hostility. But those four were all present in those years. I’m lol have to look up Gottman. Thanks!

      3. Matt,

        Your blog has such great advice! I love your humility and all the effort you are putting in to learning how to be better rather than the easier response of bitterness and blaming women.

        I have been reading and thinking a lot about this. The good and bad news is that according to research the man’s response is often the critical piece of a happy marriage. These are big averages of data sets do there are plenty of exceptions but as a general rule men are biologically more easily “flooded” with stress hormones in a critical discussion than women. This makes it harder for them to stay engaged and listen.

        Another interesting marriage counselor, Terry Real, talks about the difficulties that men have because of being trained to not show weakness etc. I have great empathy for how hard it is for many men to have to unlearn these things to show real vulnerability and care for their wives. Or for them even to start with seeing the need to. Seeing that it is not an easy thing we are asking of them helps to see how good loving men could act in ways that are mind blowingly cruel and dismissive to their wives.

        Also, as the mother of a son and daughter I have seen the differences in the messages for “boy culture” vs. “girl culture”. Boys at a very young age are taught that expressing emotion is feminine and weak. Their culture is highly hierarchical and win-lose do they learn to protect themselves from losing position and also to minimize small upsets by dismissing them as unimportant. These things make it hard for them to accept influence from the women in their lives.

        Having empathy for their battle makes it easier to bring up things in a softer more understanding way.

  11. This is in response to many of the comments by women who feel disrespected by their husbands/partners, who feel like they are doing all the relational work and their husbands/boyfriends are selfish, clueless takers. I can relate to that feeling; that was me for a very long time–frustrated, seething with resentment and all the while keeping on doing the same things and expecting different results. (By the way, I’ve been married to the same man for almost 25 years now. It’s been a LOT of work but worth it.)

    I highly recommend the book “Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life,” by Drs. Henry Coud and John Townsend. The idea is that you have to know and respect -yourself- first and then communicate in such a way that others will take you seriously; and of course, show them the same respect that you expect them to show you.

    Reading this book was one of the biggest “Duh!” moments of my life. It is written from a Christian point of view, but the principles are valid for everyone. (In the comments, there is even a self-avowed atheist who can’t say enough good about the book!) It’s not just for women but for anyone who has trouble saying no, standing up for themselves or communicating in a way that actually gets through and produces change. (Note: make sure you get the full length book, not the mini.) You can order it from Amazon. There are also more specific versions for marriage, parenting, etc…, but I would recommend this general one first. It applies to all relationships, not just romantic ones.

    1. Taylor,

      I wonder if you would be willing to tell us what kind of things you did differently after reading the book and how the responses from your husband changed? Was it gradual or fairly rapid?

      1. It was gradual. I began to focus on my own issues and to work on myself more than focus on his issues and try to change him. That, after all, is the only thing we can actually change–ourselves. As for interacting with my husband, I began to develop a backbone and to use actions more than/instead of whining and pleading and passive-aggressive hints. And you know what? He likes me better as a strong woman who knows and respects herself. Before my kindness and gentleness was motivated by weakness and maybe even some manipulation. Now it is offered from strength.

  12. Oh gee. Finding your blog has made me one of the wives who laugh and cry. I do love my husband and kids (3) and am not looking to divorce, but I would love to get off of the hamster wheel of repeat requests, reminders and the feeling that I’m holding the whole circus together with willpower, gritted teeth and duct tape. Again, I’m not looking to divorce, but there are weeks at a time when I fantasize about wandering off to a cabin in the woods, with a case of books, a case of wine, a cat, some chocolate and no questions that start, “Honey/Mom, where are my…”

  13. This is good advice for anyone needing to talk with anyone else about an issue. Be in the frame of mind of respect, consideration and cooperation. I’d also add that it works to focus on the problem and consider addressing it together rather than considering your partner as the problem. Focusing on feelings can help – rather than fault. Ask for their help with the problem and give them an avenue to helping you feel better.

    I agree with some other commenters here that if someone doesn’t choose to listen, they’ve chosen not to listen. Some people will tune others out – often at their own peril. If your spouse has decided that you are being high maintenance, unreasonable or ridiculous and listens to you with contempt in that frame of mind, the relationship is pretty much doomed.

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