When you feel like you’ve got some pretty big marriage problems, tackling them can seem daunting. How do you get your husband to understand what you’re feeling?
We’ve been talking all week about how to have more productive conversations with our husbands, so that we each understand each other and feel heard.
Today I want to talk about one of the most important concepts when it comes to marriage problems that I’ve ever discussed. Seriously, if we could get this right–we could change everything! When Keith and I share this when we’re speaking at marriage conferences, people all of a sudden grab that pen and start taking notes.
So I hope you’re listening.
(All of this is taken from Thought #7 of my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, and if you are struggling with this in your marriage, please pick up the book! It teaches what I’m saying here in much greater depth, and it will help you resolve those marriage problems without attacking each other!)
Here goes: usually when we’re talking about resolving conflict, we think of it as a difference of opinion: he sees the world one way, and she sees it another way.
As soon as you frame your marriage problems like that, you set yourselves up where one of you will win and one of you will lose.
Then the goal becomes convincing the other person that they are wrong.
That’s antagonistic. It’s ugly. And it’s often really counterproductive.
And it’s one reason that husbands often shy away from those important conversations–and why we may, too! We don’t want to feel attacked. One husband who commented last week wrote this:
During the first 20+ years of marriage, when my wife would say “we need to talk”, she had no intention of either listening to or understanding my point of view. “We need to talk” was code for “I need to tell you how I think you should behave or act”. Expressing my opinion would be met with an initial attempt to convert me to her point of view. If unsuccessful, she would unleash a verbal attack, both guns blazing. After a few such “discussions” where I left feeling like a defendant whose testimony and credibility had been shredded to pieces by a skilled cross-examination, “we need to talk” was a signal for me to withdraw to my office.
What if there were a better way?
Let’s look at specific marriage problem and see how it could be solved WITHOUT attacking each other and without one person winning and one losing.
Here’s the scenario: The husband’s dad passed away six months ago, and his mom, who has always been a little fragile, isn’t coping well. She doesn’t have a great support system. While she’s still relatively healthy and living in her home, there are lots of things she can’t do well–fixing up the house, raking leaves, shovelling snow. Plus she’s been overwhelmed with all the paperwork from her husband’s death.
She’s dealt with it by calling her son constantly to ask him to come over and help. For the last few months, his weekends have been eaten up by his mom.
At the same time, he and his wife have three young children under the age of 6 who no longer see their dad.
What should this couple do?
In the typical “resolving conflict” approach to this marriage problem, this is what would normally happen:
The wife comes to the husband and says:
We never see you anymore! You’re at work all week, and then you’re always with your mom. We need you, too! When are you going to spend some time with us and start being a husband again! You have more responsibilities than just to your mom!
What is the issue in this situation, according to the wife?
The husband spends too much time with the mom.
What will happen to this couple if they then have a heated discussion about this? They’ll end up debating how much time he should spend with his mom, and they will each feel attacked.
What if the underlying marriage problem here isn’t actually how much time he spends with his mom?
What if they’ve just defined the issue wrong?
Here’s what I suggest: Instead of seeing the issue as the thing that you disagree about, recognize that every time you get upset at each other, it’s because you have unmet needs.
The issue is not how much time he spends with his mom. The issue is that they both have unmet needs.
In this case, hers are likely loneliness and worrying that she’s not a priority. His are guilt over feeling like he’s a good enough son, likely with some grief for his dad thrown in.
What would happen if instead of debating how much time he should spend with his mom, this couple instead just talked about their unmet needs?
They could then brainstorm, “how can we help her feel less lonely and know that she’s a priority to him?” They could talk about starting a weekly date night, even if it’s just an at home date night. They could talk about starting a hobby they do together in the evenings. They could talk about texting more throughout the day. They could talk about reserving some weekends for family activities.
Then they could talk about his needs. How can she help him minister to his mom? Maybe she can go with his mom to some women’s events at church. Maybe they could have his mom over for dinner more. Maybe he could talk to a counselor about his grief over his dad, or take a weekend just to himself to pray.
And as they talked about these things, likely they’d work out a schedule that worked for both of them, because they’re acknowledging: you have a right to feel the way you do, and we can fix this together!
Instead of it being a him vs. her, it’s now an “us” issue–what can we do to help each other? It’s a totally different dynamic! And it’s changed the way that Keith and I handle conflict, and how we see these issues, too.
Last week a commenter gave an example that was really very similar. She said:
My husband and I have a pretty good marriage. We get along pretty well, share the same values. But he flat out refuses to talk about some things. He never ever helps me with our budget, he’s almost completely uninvolved in homeschooling our kids.
I’ve asked any way you can think of for us to talk about these important life issues. I don’t start out nagging. I try to be excited and open and happy.we got in a huge argument this weekend about it.
We finally talked a little, but it was me showing him the budget I’ve already made for the year. He didn’t give any input whatsoever. I told him i was putting my foot down. He needed to talk because this is too much on my plate.
He opened up and told me that my budget confuses him. I keep track of our spending in kind of a weird way. I don’t keep a register. It works for me. But it confuses him. He told me he needs to see all the transactions. Neither of us are wrong, we just need to work together so were on the same page. All these years of arguments about the budget and he needs to see all the transactions laid out. Its such a simple fix!
Do you see how things changed when instead of the issue being “you’re not making a budget or sticking to a budget”, it became, “what do we each need in order to make a budget that works for both of us?”
I don’t know what marriage problems you’re having right now, or what issues you’re facing.
But do you think you could try to reframe those issues and try instead to identify the unmet needs you both have? Just see how it can change the whole tone of the conversation!
I have so much more about this in 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage–including what to do if the needs that he’s expressing aren’t really legitimate (like he’s saying I need complete privacy, or I need to have the freedom to watch anything I want online). Start your path to healthier conflict here!
Let me know in the comments: is there an issue that you go round and round on, and never resolve? Do you think framing it like this could be helpful?