How do you ACTUALLY confront your spouse when something’s bugging you?

We’re in the middle of our iron sharpening iron series on the blog this month, where I’m talking about how marriage is supposed to make us better people. We’re supposed to grow. Yet too often Christian teaching has been taken the wrong way, to make it sound as if wanting things to get better or confronting your spouse on something that’s bugging you is somehow a sin.

In general, it really isn’t. And so today I want to get super practical and show you several examples of how to speak up when something’s bugging you.

I’m assuming here that people have goodwill towards each other.

When you got married, chances are you did so because you genuinely loved your fiance and wanted the best for him, and he genuinely loved you and wanted the best for you. If that’s not true in your case, it’s still important to speak up (unless to do so would risk harm; if so, you need to get to safety). We’ll talk next week about what to do if things still don’t change, and for those married to people with major character flaws, the advice today is unlikely to result in positive change. Most of us, however, are married to someone who does have goodwill, but who also may suffer from blind spots and laziness (as we all do), and who needs some support to fix those things

I’ve talked on the blog profusely about the importance of drawing boundaries and on asking for what you want, but sometimes people don’t understand what that looks like in real life. Here, then, are some practical examples!

They all follow a similar pattern. When you’re going to discuss something, the first thing to do is to ask for what you want. If that still doesn’t change, then you can become firmer and suggest some new ways of doing things. In general, the length of the conversation you’ll need to have is directly related to the amount of time that’s gone by. If it’s a new issue, it’s easy to have a quick conversation. If it’s a preference that has developed into a habit and has become engrained as a lifestyle, you’re going to need a lot more conversations over a longer period of time.

In general, then, it would look like this:

Starting the conversation early:

A few days in to marriage: “I don’t like this. Can this change?’

Conversation Part 2, several weeks later: “I’m worried this is a pattern that is developing in our marriage. How can we break this bad habit?”

Delaying the conversation for years: 

You’ll need several different conversations likely, focusing on these themes: “I’m sorry that I haven’t spoken up and I’ve allowed resentment to build up about this without you knowing. However, I am not willing to allow this to continue, and things need to change. Here’s what I am going to do myself, and here’s what I propose we do together. What are your thoughts?”

Now, one qualification.

Often people think that they’ve discussed an issue repeatedly, because they frequently become so upset they’ve yelled at their spouse about it.

That’s quite common:

Keep things inside–grow resentful–blow up–calm down and return to the status quo.

Because you’ve blown up, you feel as if you’ve raised the issue. But things that are raised during fights are rarely changed. Yelling is not the same thing as drawing boundaries or having consequences or even stopping putting up with certain behaviour. It’s just releasing a pressure valve without changing anything. Yelling is also profoundly disrespectful, and so people often tune out whatever points are made in yelling.

Let’s look at some specific examples now. I’ll elaborate more on the first than the rest, so that you can see how this can play out, but you’ll see the patterns!

Problem: Husband leaves laundry all over the floor and makes no effort to put it in the hamper

First week after the honeymoon: “Hey, sweetie, would you mind putting your laundry in the hamper? Let’s keep our bedroom a welcoming room to come into!”

Often that’s all it takes. Just alert your spouse to the behaviour first thing in the marriage, and it will likely take care of itself. If it doesn’t:

Several months into marriage: “Hon, I have no problem doing laundry, but I’m only going to wash what’s in the hamper.”

Then just take the clothes that don’t make it to the hamper and kick them into a pile.

What happens if you don’t do this? Often several years have gone by, and the husband stops noticing that he’s even making a mess. His stuff gets cleaned up automatically, so he finds it easy to be lazy (see this hilarious “Magic Coffee Table” YouTube video on this; it does have a bit of swearing so I won’t embed it, but it gets the point across). This laziness likely extends to other areas of his life (and the house), and he likely doesn’t see how much his wife feels taken for granted.

After it’s become a big problem:

“Honey, we need to talk. First, I need to own my part of this problem. I’ve been really bothered by something for years, and I haven’t really spoken up about it. Sometimes I get so frustrated I just yell about everything, but I’ve never just sat down and had a real conversation about this. I’m sorry about that, because I’ve allowed resentment to grow. But I now want to deal with this. I feel as if you take me for granted. I am constantly cleaning up after you, and it feels as if you don’t treat me with respect. When you leave dirty underwear and socks everywhere, it signals to me, ‘Picking up this stuff is beneath me, so I’ll just let my wife do it and she can wash everything and put it away for me.’ That’s really bothering me. If we’re going to have a good marriage, I need to feel as if you respect me. And so here’s what I’m going to do from now on: I will gladly do the laundry, but I will no longer clean anything that isn’t put in the hamper first. I think that’s reasonable. Again, I wish I had spoken up earlier, but I’d like to move towards a relationship where we can share more freely. Are there things that I’m doing that have caused some resentment? Because I’d like to deal with that as well.”

Problem: Husband plays video games for hours at a time, ignoring his other responsibilities

Early Days: “Hon, you’ve been gaming for 4 hours and the trash people came and recycling didn’t go out this week. That’s not okay with me.”

Several weeks in: “Hon, this is becoming a real problem, and I know this isn’t what you want for your life or for our marriage. Let’s sit down and figure out what the appropriate boundaries around gaming should be.”

Examples might be: creating a list of chores and tasks that have to be done before the game comes on; time of day when you’ll game; what types of games you can play; etc. Rebecca and Connor, for instance, have a rule that no game that can’t be paused starts after 9:45 pm.

After it’s become a big problem:

Start with apologizing for not speaking up sooner, as above.

“This has become a completely untenable situation. It is inconsiderate for you to continue to choose gaming over appropriate adult responsibilities, and it needs to stop. I would like to sit down and create some rules for boundaries around gaming, because I know this isn’t how you want to spend your life, either. I recognize that since this has been going on for so long, it’s going to be hard to change, so let’s talk about how I can make it easier for you. Let’s work on this together–but we do need to do something, because we can’t go on like this.”

For more help in this area, please see:

Problem: Wife leaves the kitchen–indeed the whole house–a mess, and the husband spends a lot of time cleaning up after everyone else

Early days: “Hey, hon, we share a space now, and I find it hard to live with this amount of mess. When you’re done in a room, can you tidy up before you leave that room?”

Several weeks in: “We obviously have a different idea of what our home should be like, but I’m finding it very difficult to live in this mess. Let’s talk about what our standards for housework should be, and set up a routine so that chores can be maintained.”

And then just talk about it and make some chore lists. It could be that he has a much higher standard than is practical, and he may have to compromise, too. But that’s where talking comes in!

Several years in:

Apologize for not speaking up earlier and own your part of the problem. Then say:

“I find living in the house the way it is discouraging and stressful. I think that we should each get free time in the marriage, and yet I am spending my free time cleaning up messes that you have made, and that needs to stop. I realize this would have been easier to address earlier, but what would make it easier now for you to clean up? Do we need to downsize? Get rid of stuff? Let’s sit down and figure out chore charts, routines, and what needs to change.”

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Do You Have a Difficult Time Standing up to your Husband?

God wants us aiming for His will. That sometimes will mean that we need to confront our husbands when they’re doing something wrong.

Struggle with how to do that? Are boundaries a difficult concept for you? 9 Thoughts can help!

Problem: Wife talks to her mother constantly, and confides in the mom more than the husband

(this one can go the other way around just as easily, but you’ll get the principle here)

Early days: “It hurts me when you tell your mom stuff before you tell me. It makes me feel that you’re not leaning on me for support, and that’s my job as your husband. It would mean a lot if you would make an effort to tell me important things first.”

Several weeks in: “I’ve been feeling more alienated from you because I feel as if you talk to your mom more than you talk to me. I don’t want to feel like I’m your second choice. Let’s put limits on the time of day that you will talk to your mom and preserve our couple time together.”

Several years in:

Apologize for not speaking up earlier and own your part of the problem. Then say:

“I’ve let this distance grow between us, and I regret that. We need to rebuild our marriage and feel connected again, and I’d like to look at ways we can do this. One thing that’s important to me is that we each feel as if the other is our main source of support. I feel as if you turn to your mom more than me, and to feel connected in our marriage, I need that to change. I would like to put limits on when you’ll talk to your mom, and carve out time just for us.”

Now, cutting spouses off from family members and friends can be a sign of controlling behaviour, and that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re simply saying, let’s reserve a few hours of the night when we only talk to each other, and let’s make sure we prioritize the marriage relationship. If your spouse is cutting you off from family, this post on a controlling spouse is better for you.

Problem: Spouse spends too much money frivolously and won’t stick to a budget

Early days: “I notice there are some charges on the credit card that are really high, and I’m worried about our spending. I’d like to make a budget.”

Several weeks in: “I know that we come into marriage with different ideas about money, but I believe that being responsible means that we have a budget and that we have financial goals. Can we sit down tonight and make a budget and decide how much is reasonable to spend on ourselves?

Several years in:

Apologize for not speaking up earlier and own your part of the problem. Then say:

“I am feeling increasingly stressed because we are going so far into debt, and after a few years of marriage, we have nothing to show for all the work we’ve done. I can’t live with this level of stress anymore, and I want things to change. We need to make a budget and have our spending money be in cash, so that we don’t wrack up debt each month. If we’re going to continue to share finances, I need to know that we’re being good stewards, we have a plan, and we’re making progress.”

Note: this can be quite a serious problem, and we’ll talk more next week about what to do if this doesn’t change.

It’s much easier to speak up earlier than to let things fester.

Problem: Husband doesn’t call to let wife know when he’s working late, and the wife often doesn’t know where he is

First days in: “Hey, I was worried about you when you came home so late. Please text or call me when you’re going to be late!”

Several weeks in: “I worry when I don’t know where you are, and I find it hard to plan dinner when I don’t know when you’ll be home. Can we talk about your work schedule and how we’ll prioritize our marriage with your schedule? And I don’t want to wait indefinitely for dinner, so I’ll be eating every night at 6:45, and I hope you’ll be home to join me.”

Several years in:

Apologize for not speaking up earlier and own your part of the problem. Then say:

“I am feeling increasingly like the last thing on  your priority list when you don’t let me know where you are or when you’ll be home. It’s as if you expect us to wait for you for dinner, but you don’t have the courtesy to let us know when that will be. I can’t continue to live in limbo like this. I think we need to sit down and figure out how to arrange our schedules so that we prioritize our marriage and so that you have time with the kids. I’d like to make sure, too, that we all eat dinner together as a family at least 3 times a week. Let’s figure out what those days will be.”

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What you’ll notice from all of these examples is that it’s much easier to speak up earlier than to let things fester.

The earlier you speak up, the easier it is to deal with a problem. When you don’t speak up, you implicitly give your approval to the behaviour you don’t like. That means that behaviour is far more likely to happen again. Not just that, but you set the thermostat to a new “normal” in your marriage. Your spouse will likely keep moving in that direction until they face resistance (as we talked about in the first post about iron sharpening iron, people don’t change direction until something happens to prompt that). It’s much easier to make a small issue about a small thing early in the marriage than it is to have that small thing become a big thing after a few years!

Speaking up doesn’t mean that you’re being disrespectful. On the contrary, it’s actually respectful of someone to expect behaviour that is good, reasonable, and healthy, and it’s respectful to share your concerns rather than letting yourself become bitter.

But what if you do this, and still nothing changes? We’ll talk about that next week in the conclusion to our series!

Do you find it difficult to speak up in your marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!


What are your thoughts? Let’s talk in the comments below!

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