Latter-day Saint Life

Ask a Latter-day Saint Therapist: My Spouse Gets Defensive When I Ask for Change


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Q:  I love my husband very much and we usually have a good relationship but only as long as I’m not making waves. By that I mean that he gets very defensive when I express to him things that bother me. He shuts me out and pouts, tells me I’m hurtful, or he gets angry and tells me I’m the one who needs to change. Do I need to just accept him for how he is?

A: Thank you so much for reaching out to me. This is a tough spot to be in. After all, it is important to accept and love our spouses as they are; otherwise, they may end up feeling that they’re not good enough. It’s also important to pick your battles and let minor annoyances go. They don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

On the other hand, some attitudes and behaviors can drive a wedge between us, keeping us from Christ’s command to “be one” (Doctrine and Covenants 38:27). We absolutely want to address these head on so that small things don’t become big things. As President Thomas S. Monson taught:

“Where do hidden wedges originate? Some come from unresolved disputes, which lead to ill feelings, followed by remorse and regret. Others find their beginnings in disappointments, jealousies, arguments, and imagined hurts. We must solve them—lay them to rest and not leave them to canker, fester, and ultimately destroy” ("Hidden Wedges," April 2002 General Conference).

But how to solve them? Your trial is a common one. Defensiveness appears to be one of the traits of the “natural man” with which we’re all afflicted unless we consistently work to overcome it. If I were speaking with your husband, I would guide him toward humility, accountability, and accepting your influence and feedback in order to grow as a person and experience closeness in your marriage. But since I’m working with you, let’s tailor your approach. This may help him do all that anyway.

You didn’t say this, but in many cases like yours, the one party gets defensive as a response to the other being critical. By this I mean saying, “You always,” “You never,” or by using pejorative labels like “jerk,” “slob,” “lazy,” and others. When we speak in any of these ways, we’re attacking the character and identity of the other person, who feels naturally inclined to defend themselves. Remember that “a soft answer turneth away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).

The best way to approach your partner is through what Dr. John Gottman calls “expressing a positive need.” The tone of this, though you don’t use these exact words, is “I want you to be the hero of my story and here’s how you do it.” This means instead of saying, “You always take the kids’ side!” you say, “If you could back me up in front of the kids and disagree with me in private, I’d feel so respected.” Instead of saying, “You never do the dishes!” you say, “When you do the dishes I find you incredibly attractive.”

My wife did this recently. I have a bad habit of leaving our youngest child’s pajamas on the ground when I get him dressed in the morning. I don’t do it on purpose; I’m usually just playing around with the child and forget to put the PJs away. Over time, this small annoyance turned into a larger one. But instead of using a harsh tone or critical language, my wife said, “I want to talk to you about something. If this never changes, I won’t love you any less. But if you’d be mindful to put the pajamas away so I don’t find them on the floor, it’s possible I might love you more.”

She delivered that last part with a bit of humor, but I took her meaning. I felt loved. I didn’t get defensive. And I’m fixing the problem.

Sometimes this doesn’t work. Sometimes you need to be more direct. Sometimes you need to “reprove betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” In that case, don’t forget to then show “afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:43). If you need to be blunt with your husband, make sure you’re even more frequently blunt about why you love and respect him. People generally will accept feedback without defensiveness if they feel loved. They tend to get defensive if they don’t feel respected and/or loved.

Finally, hold a weekly couples’ council. Plan your week. Give each other specific praise and gratitude. Share, every week, what you’d like each other to work on. This way constructive criticism isn’t upsetting the apple cart. It’s just something you do every week. It’s marriage maintenance. When you and your spouse both know that every week you’ll get a tip for being better from one another, it doesn’t sting anymore. We have an online courseto help you know how to do this.

Express your needs in a positive way, be direct in your affection and respect, and have a weekly couples’ council to clear the air. I hope this helped. God bless you.

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