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The Bossy Spouse: How Can You Communicate?
"Sometimes my husband tries to tell me how to do stuff and this really gets on my nerves; how can I tell him?"
Though it may appear minor, this indicates a possible major flaw in your relationship that can lead to extreme trouble. Often when one spouse continually tells the other what to do, or how to do it, he seldom realizes the destructive effect on the other. Every couple in crisis I have helped had one spouse attempting to control the other’s actions, thoughts, feelings, or beliefs, apparently never grasping the resentment swelling within the other until it finally exploded into rage, violence, adultery, separation, or a demand for divorce.
Ephesians 4:29 provides the solution. In the NIV it says, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Key on the last half of that sentence to get the point. In the Contemporary English Version it reads, “Say the right thing at the right time and help others by what you say.” In The Message, “Say only what helps, each word a gift.”
This wife's reaction to her husband’s unwanted instructions make it clear that his unsolicited advice is not perceived by her as helpful, beneficial, filling her needs, or a gift.
We all occasionally interrupt our spouses, friends, and even complete strangers with our instructions, methodologies, or preferences. When we commit that all-too-human intrusion regularly with a specific person, whether we intend to or not, we communicate to that person that we feel he or she is not competent to think for himself. That molehill grows quickly into a mountain. In my work with families I hear bitter complaints about how demeaning this feels and how it crumples self-image. Teens resent parents who insist on making all their decisions for them; adults avoid elderly parents who try to direct their lives and criticize any deviance from their demands; singles drop out of relationships with those who control; and marrieds gradually despise their spouses who act as parents rather than partners.
While this may happen with either gender, I most often see it in the way a husband treats his wife. During our workshop for marriages in crisis, A New Beginning, wives drag me aside to tell me how their husbands constantly instruct them or discount their thoughts. It finally destroys their self-confidence. It’s not just that they are told how to do things, but what to think and even what to feel. If she says, “I like our new neighbors,” he responds, “How in the world can you think that! He’s an idiot; she’s a bigger idiot.” If she tells him she intends to vote for one candidate, he marshals his verbal skills to wear her down so that she agrees to vote for his choice. In nearly every disagreement, he wears her down until she capitulates outwardly, but rebels in her heart. I’ve heard many wives say, “He doesn’t have to agree with me. I’d be so happy if he just would say that he understands why I see it that way and accepts the fact that my way is just as good as his.” Usually, the woman telling me this sobs quietly, in unbelievable pain that her husband doesn’t even realize she feels.
How do you fix it? These seven steps work well in answer to your question. Remember that in this process you must model for him what you want from him. You must say beneficial and helpful things to him, just as you want him to learn what words help and benefit you. Keep that in mind as you follow these steps.
1. First, analyze how you feel when your husband tells you what or how to do things, when he wears you down with arguments, or when he tries to tell you what to feel. When alone, write them until you’ve exhausted your emotions and then let the writing sit a couple days. Come back to them and read them aloud, asking yourself if they adequately explain how you feel. Rewrite them if they don’t. Repeat the process over several days. If you have an objective friend, ask her to listen to your words and ask her what she heard, understood, and felt in response. When you become comfortable with your wording and the message you want him to grasp, it’s time to tell him.
2. Share this with him when you are both at ease, calm, and have no conflict occurring. Tell him that you have something very important you want him to understand about you, and ask if he agrees to talk openly with you until you are able to explain how you feel.
3. Begin by praying together and then reading and discussing Ephesians 4:29. Your goal in this discussion is to model that verse to him, so that he will follow the teaching of that verse with you. Ask him his understanding of that verse and specifically how it applies to everyday life. When you are ready to lead him to understand how you wish him to apply that truth in his interactions with you, phrase every word in terms of what you feel, not in what he does. “I feel like I’m in the third grade again,” is much better than, “You treat me like a child.” If your goal is to help him understand how his actions affect you and then get him to change them, you have a far greater likelihood of success if you do not phrase things in a way that makes him feel attacked. Remember, as you share what you need, keep focused on what he needs that will benefit him. Make sure you don’t do to his emotions what he has been doing to yours.
4. Keep the conversation going until he understands and adequately explains to you what you feel. If you have trouble getting him to understand, read your writings from step one to him, or have him read it.
5. If you reach an impasse, ask if you can try again with a mentor couple, pastor, or professional counselor.
6. If during the conversation, he purposely or inadvertently takes a “parenting” role and your negative feelings rise, calmly tell him what you feel and what he said that gave birth to them.
7. When he does “get it,” ask him what he will do differently, then get his agreement that you may use the code phrase, “I wish to do (think, feel, etc.) this my way,” whenever he forgets and again starts telling you how to do things. Use that phrase from now on.
Whatever you do, don’t put this conversation off, thinking it will get better on its own. Fix it now before it becomes a major problem in your marriage.
Joe Beam is a Christian marriage expert who founded Family Dynamics Institute. Family Dynamics provides a seminar for marriages having problems as well as training for those who want to lead marriage-enrichment classes. He authored the best-selling book on marriage, Becoming One: Emotionally, Spiritually and Sexually.