Crucial Conversations QA

How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse

Dear Joseph,

I love my wife dearly and enjoy spending our dinners and late nights together after our long work days and putting the kids to sleep. However, I have learned after careful experimenting, over a few weeks now, that my wife has endless spunk, energy, and interest in telling me what is on her mind—mostly work-related issues—and literally falls ill once I begin to share mine. For multiple nights, I have listened to her speak with zest for over an hour and then when I attempt to share a thought, she says she is too tired, it is too late, remembers a sale, a forgotten chore or task, gets pains, needs a drink, a sweater, etc. So, I let my thoughts slide. But, in due time, she finds her way back to sharing what’s on her mind. Once again, I’ll listen and try again to share a thought of my own and like clockwork, on comes the pain, tiredness, thirst, and anything to end it—until she starts back on her own thoughts. How would you handle it?

Signed,
Shunned

Dear Shunned,

I’ve got good news. While some conversations have a low likelihood of success and a high likelihood of turmoil, I predict good things for yours. Here’s why:

  • You “love your wife dearly.” The fact that your disappointment has not turned into disconnection gives you the kind of emotional climate within which she might be able to open up with you.
  • You are catching it relatively early. Many people put off addressing issues until they are good and mad. Or they wait until the patterns—and their reactions to them—are so entrenched that mutual stories and justifications get deeply ingrained. You say you have been experimenting for “a few weeks.” Good for you!
  • You have facts and frequency. You have good, concrete examples to share with her so she can understand the topic you are raising, and that seem to be circumspect about describing the frequency of the behavior without exaggeration.

The mistake you’re making is that you continue to address content rather than pattern. In other words, you’re attempting to open up conversations about your own thoughts and feelings but not addressing your real concern: the fact that she diverts the conversation when you make these attempts. That is the crucial conversation you need to hold.

The predictor of your success is your ability to come from a place of love, courage, and curiosity. Love—in that you see the goodness in your wife. Courage—in that you are willing to advocate for your own needs as strongly as you respond to hers. Curiosity—in that you have no idea why she is doing what she is doing. Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist—wanting to understand her behavior without personalizing it.

You might get it going as follows, “Sweetheart, I have noticed something in our conversations over the past few weeks that I’m really curious about. It involves how you respond when I begin to talk about some of my thoughts and feelings. When you feel comfortable doing so, I’d like to describe what I’ve seen and try to understand if there is something going on for you—or that you see in me—when this happens. When can we do that?”

Notice how I ended the invitation. I am trying to give her enough information that she doesn’t feel blind-sided. But I’m also assuming the very pattern you describe might emerge as you offer this invitation. That’s why I’m suggesting ending it with a request for an appointment, not an immediate demand. Hopefully, that gives her enough emotional flexibility to time it according to her needs.

If she fails to respond, I suggest you make two more attempts using largely the same script—so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.

If, after the third attempt, she similarly fails to respond, you have a decision to make. You need to take responsibility for your own needs. If being able to share equally in conversation is important to you, you will need to move the conversation to the relationship level. This means that you need to let her know that this affects you to such a degree that you must find a way to address it. Be open to options she suggests. Perhaps she would prefer to do so with the help of a counselor, at a different time of day, in a different setting. But be sure to let her know that this is important enough that you want to find a way to discuss it.

I am almost as curious as you are about what is going on. I suspect when you create enough safety and demonstrate enough sincerity in desiring the conversation, you will learn something important that will help you better connect with your wonderful wife.

Sincerely,
Joseph

Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.

Headshot

Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

9 thoughts on “How to Advocate for Your Needs With Your Spouse”

  1. I want to be realistic and say that I have to believe she knows exactly what she’s doing and have a hard time believing this behavior just started a few weeks ago. I also think he should not repeat himself – something like that should alarm the spouse into wanting to resolve this right away. If it does not, there is a very large problem. I wish the guy luck.

  2. I suggest that first he try this. The next time she starts, cut her off by interrupting and say, “Before you tell me about your day, I have something important I want to tell you about mine.” If she goes on talking about hers or you can tell she is just jumping at the bit to talk about hers and not listening to you, you have your answer.

  3. My wife is an extrovert, I am an introvert. I learned a long time ago that much (I wouldn’t say all) of the time she is “thinking out loud”, I listen closely enough to know when it is important, or if she wants an answer or needs help. For me, work is one of the last things I want to talk about, and being an introvert if I don’t get to talk (much of the time) it doesn’t matter.

  4. I know many women who will happily talk for an hour or longer but become fidgety and restless when myself or another woman begins to speak. I wouldn’t consider any of them selfish by nature but some of them are self-centered communicators. I doubt any of them are aware of the problem. I will also admit that I have been guilty of the same thing during a serious discussion. Sometimes I’ll nervously prattle on and then when my husband starts to speak, I realize how late it is and get anxious.

    I hope the writer is able to effectively communicate his needs to his spouse and that she is open to hearing him.

  5. I agree with the above. I think this likely has gone on for awhile, that said I do agree that there should be language inviting a good time to talk uninterrupted, or with her using the previous escapes identified in the question. Also I would practice your script so it sounds like you and unscripted; my husband would definitely look at me and say “did you go to a seminar today?” “try- I am curious and it’s important to me to understand …” So I would you to….”

    1. I agree that it probably has been going on for awhile, but that doesn’t change the content of the husband’s script – because he has not addressed it before. He still needs to start with himself, make it safe, etc.. My wife does this thing as well, and I don’t think it’s conscious. She’s energized by her own stories, but is not as considerate a listener as I am. There IS a lot more going on in her case, but that doesn’t excuse the behavior and I do call her on it when the pattern re-emerges (but not every instance if it’s not a pattern).

  6. I would really like to see how this goes if this guy takes your advice. I just read this to my husband as we both follow your articles. Something else is going on here.

  7. “Surrender any stories, speculation, and judgments you may have, and enter the conversation like a caring scientist

    so she sees that this is important enough to you that you are willing to lovingly, courageously, and curiously advocate for your need to have the conversation.”

    the latter sure is a lot of emotion — and for show no less — for someone who’s supposed to be scientific!

    i’m still interested to hear how you guys resolve this paradox wherein crucial skills are meant to protect everyone from the ill-effects of emotions on communication yet maintain engagement by not sacrificing the rest of the emotional repertoire… it’s like an emotional bias with which i really haven’t yet sided one way or the other…

    it’s most obvious when as one who practices crucial skills as best one can, the self-righteous thought nags that “the other side of this argument keeps indulging in derailing this using so many extraneous emotional obstacles, which i clearly am not!”

    so don’t be self-righteous, but at the same time … pearls before (beloved) swine… in some sense patronizing… what am i missing here in terms of how one is supposed to see the emotional dynamic play out in a crucial convo between the emotionally principled (whether or not those principles are in common) and the emotionally unstable???

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.