The Power of the Right Kind of Listening for Struggling Spouses

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This is a guest post written by Toni Nieuwhof.  Toni and Carey Nieuwhof met in law school and have been married for three decades. Toni is the author of Before You Split: Find What You Really Want For The Future Of Your Marriage (available here). 

By Toni Nieuwhof

As a leader, I’m sure you’ve met people whose marriages have benefitted from some extra margin in their relationship, and with others who are on the brink of giving up. I bet you’ve met with at least one couple and concluded, “it’ll take a miracle.”

We’re all witnessing the changes in employment, schooling, lifestyle, healthy relationships, and finances brought about during the past few years. How well-positioned couples are to re-negotiate important decisions, sometimes while coping with grief, becomes critical in this context.

Pastors are by no means exempt.

So, how about you? Chances are, you’ve been navigating disappointments, losses, and grief in your leadership and at home.

Recent research from the Barna Group reported that stress has hit pastors to the point where 29% are considering leaving full-time ministry.

How do you navigate the tension of marriage after a global crisis has left your stress level at an all-time high?

Not a Marriage Issue…A Human Issue

You’ve probably seen all the dysfunctional tactics that trip spouses up: Not actively listening to each other. Being controlling. Arguing as if to say, “I’m always right.” Treating an issue as if it’s binary – his solution or hers, with no other options.

One person acts as if it’s their right to have veto power.

Commonly, it’s easier to recognize unhealthy communication patterns when they’re not our own. What I’m talking about today is an issue we all share to some extent – leader or not. It’s a human issue. People tend to get attached to their perspective or opinion. So attached to the ends that the means in terms of communication tactics feel justified, even when they’re not.

How do you interrupt that downward spiral for the husband and wife who are intent on winning an argument and on changing their spouse’s mind?

Experts are saying one of the keys is how we listen.

That power is found in the right kind of listening.

Whether through others in your church or your own personal experience, you know that influencing your partner or changing their mind is no small feat.

When your people are caught up in trying to change each other’s minds, how do you help? (Not to mention, a little self-help might apply here, too) I’m recommending these three steps: admitting it; reflecting on ‘why’, and applying the right kind of listening.

In marriage, influencing your partner or changing their mind is no small feat. - @toninieuwhof Click To Tweet

1. Admit You Want to Change or Influence Your Spouse

People get married and turn a blind eye to the views or qualities of their spouse that are less than ideal. They think, “That’s okay because we’re in love, and I’ll be able to sway them over to my view. They’re already showing some hints of change.”

But then, after settling into married life for a few years, their desire to change their spouse may become more pressing. And perhaps not-so-secret:

  • “You’re not making time for “us” a priority”
  • “Our sex life isn’t working for me, but that doesn’t seem to bother you”
  • “We need help, but you won’t see a counselor.”

These are not theoretical problems with textbook solutions. They’re real problems with complex solutions.

For example, I’ve had a friend ask me recently, “What can I do about my spouse’s drinking problem? It’s been getting worse, but it’s a touchy subject, so I’m afraid to open the conversation.”

Even helping people to recognize and be honest about their desire to change their spouse’s views, beliefs, or behaviors by admitting it to themselves, whether or not they confess it to their spouse, is a first necessary step toward self-awareness.

Next comes step two: ask a spouse to reflect on their motivations for desiring their spouse to change their mind.

2. Check your Motives By Asking, “Why?”

The second step is to reflect on the following:

The ‘why’ of wanting your spouse to change is complicated. There are times you have a desire for change in your spouse that is altruistic. You want them to take a chance on applying to that Master’s program, not because there will be lifestyle benefits for you (actually, you’ll make sacrifices), but because you want something for them. You may believe that for your partner to move past their fears to take on a challenging program would be life-giving.

The ‘why’ of wanting your spouse to change is complicated. - @toninieuwhof Click To Tweet

On the other hand, sometimes you want your spouse to change their mind because their behavior reflects on you. Not so altruistic. You want your spouse to decide to start giving away some of their several-years-old clothing. You want them to ditch the ‘lazy pants’ and become more fashion-conscious.

Sometimes, your desire is attached to an outcome that will improve your spouse’s well-being, objectively speaking. An example? You want your spouse to become more committed to eating nutritious food instead of crappy carbs. But at other times, the connection between your desire and your spouse’s actual well-being is more tenuous. For instance? You want your spouse to purchase a status-symbol car. Or, your partner actually lost enough weight to satisfy the doctor, but you’re looking for more.

These few checkpoints will help you explore this question of ‘why?’:

  1. What are your motives?
  2. Is this something you desire for them, or something you want from them?
  3. Will this change improve their well-being or yours or both? Is your assessment a matter of personal preference or opinion?
  4. Are you at risk of interfering with their ability to make up their own mind about what they value or desire? In trying to change their mind, are you being controlling?

Take some reflective time on your own to explore the ‘why’ question.

At times, the best thing you can do is to drop your agenda to change your spouse’s mind. Or perhaps, for your particular issue, engaging in a process where you both examine and adjust your expectations may be helpful.

Perhaps this is the ideal time to seek advice from a wise mentor or a professional counselor.

Keep in mind that marriage experts say it’s normal for happily married couples to live with some unresolved differences.

At times, the best thing you can do is to drop your agenda to change your spouse’s mind. - @toninieuwhof Click To Tweet

So, let’s say the first two questions of admitting an agenda and examining ‘why’ have already been thoughtfully engaged, and they (or you) are ready to move ahead.

How to have a positive influence is the crux of the matter.

3. Re-think How You Listen to Your Spouse

Which approaches are proven to be effective? Alternatively, what approaches are counterproductive?

What does the science have to say?

To answer these questions, I recommend organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s recent book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. He outlines the approaches that tend to cause people to dig in their heels versus the ones that invite people to move toward changing their minds.

It’s not the emotional force, sheer logic, or sincerity of our arguments that make a difference. It’s the right kind of listening that motivates change.

To separate the common truths from the myths about what works, according to Grant, here’s a high-level view of the right kind of listening:

  1. The approaches of a preacher, a prosecutor, or a politician are common, but doomed, communication strategies between married people. You already know this. The proselytizing you might have tried or the cross-examining you’ve engaged in only seemed to move you and your spouse further apart on the issue. You’ve probably had experience with political- style lobbying completely shutting down the conversation;
  2. No surprise that the bottom line of the approach he advocates is grounded in caring and respect. This sounds like, “I’ll respect you regardless of the choice you make, and you’re free to make whatever choice you think is best.”
  3. To influence your spouse to change their mind, learn more about motivational interviewing and influential listening. The key character qualities that ground these particular listening styles are curiosity and humility. Focus on asking ‘why’ and listening with respect, without a controlling mindset, a pre-determined agenda, or believing you know all there is to know about your partner. Your spouse is being influenced by an ever-changing world, just as you are.
  4. The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques:
    • Ask open-ended questions;
    • Engage in reflective listening;
    • Affirm the person’s desire and ability to change.
  5. Ultimately, how you handle your desire to change your spouse’s mind is up to you. What means to an end are justified? What kind of person do you want to be? Grant reminds us, “When we succeed in changing someone’s mind, we shouldn’t only ask whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.”

It’s common for spouses to make assumptions about each other that leave little room for curiosity or celebrating their actual growth over time. Cynicism, skepticism and disrespect creep in. 

The more you can shed light on the approaches that strip away human dignity, the more space there is for truth AND grace to move in.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.