When you are the only one trying in your marriage…

aka "How wise women handle unloving behavior"

I know it hurts when it seems you are the only one trying in your marriage. You might wonder if it is you, and struggle with why he won’t change. You don’t know what to do, and maybe you are crying yourself to sleep at night, lonely as all get-out.

Last week, we talked through a typical conversation in a dysfunctional marriage and picked apart the anatomy of a conflict – where things went wrong, and how to make them better if both people are plugged in at the same time and both are trying. I know that’s not the case for many of my readers – and in most marriages, it is the wife who brings the couple to counseling and the wife who files for divorce if things don’t work out.  Last week’s post is about what it can look like when both people are trying in the relationship. Today we look at what happens when only one person, in this case the wife, is the one trying – although it could be the husband in other marriages.  Feel free to chime in at the end about how you respond to the questions! 🙂 Looking forward to interacting over this one!

Kim heard her husband Paul come in the house and join her in the kitchen. He tossed his keys on the counter. “Traffic was awful today! I can’t believe how long it took me to get home from work! I see you got groceries.”

“Yes, I did, although the chocolate ice cream almost became chocolate soup. I sat in traffic for nearly 40 minutes just trying to get back from running forms to the school before the office closed. There must have been an accident on the freeway,” she replied.

“You went to the bank, right?” He asked.

Kim frowned. I feel bad – he looks concerned. And disappointed. 

“Well. I was going to, but I had already spent a bunch of time in traffic, and the ice cream was melting, and I didn’t think I’d be able to get back on the road easily from the bank turnout – you know that’s a tough place to get out of even when traffic isn’t bad. I’ll run down there in the morning, though,” she said.

Seriously? She’s home all day and I ask her to do one thing and it’s like the last thing on her mind. What’s a guy got to do to have a simple request paid attention to around here?

Tomorrow is too late. Why couldn’t you do just the one thing I asked you to do?” he asked, frustrated.

He seems frustrated and upset. There must be something more to this, something I don’t know. “I’m sorry I didn’t do what I said I would – it seems like this is frustrating and upsetting for you and I understand. It looks like it’s a bigger deal than I thought it was. I’m sorry I didn’t take the deposit.  I was going to run it to the bank in the morning – is that okay? Or is there something else I need to know?” she asks.

There she goes again. I can’t talk to her. She has no idea what’s going on with us financially and I can’t even get her to listen. I’m stupid to think she’d do anything for me anyway. I don’t even know what to say at this point. Whatever. It always goes like this. What was I even thinking, asking her to do something?

Paul stared at his wife. She looked back at him. He turned and left the room.

Kim opted to give him some time to cool off. He’ll eventually either tell me what was up, or he’ll deal with it himself.

An hour later, she went into the family room to let him know dinner was ready. He sat on the couch, reading the newspaper in his phone. She sat down next to him, putting her hand on his shoulder and waited.

He looked at her and frowned.

Oh boy. What’s really up with him? What’s his problem? Okay, wait, I’m not going to let this get to me. His stuff is his stuff and it takes both of us to make this work…

Kim took a deep breath and smiled at her husband. “I don’t want to add to your frustration,” she began, “But I do want to understand what the deal is with the bank trip. It seems like it’s a problem that it didn’t happen. Not sure why that is – I’m really sorry I didn’t get there in time to make the deposit.”

She waited, kept smiling, and made eye contact with him.

Seriously? Good grief she’s slow. “No kidding it’s a problem. I already told you that,” Paul snipped back at her.

“Well, tell me more,” she said, choosing to keep the smile on her face and her hand on his arm. This isn’t moving along very well.

And she continued waiting.

“The house payment? You know, this place that I kill myself to pay for so all of you can play around all day and have your cushy lives?” He snapped back.

Oh man. So I could take this personally – he has no idea what I do during the day. My life is anything but “cushy” – but I can deal with that later – now’s not the time. The house payment. It’s our biggest bill. It’s coming out of the bank account tomorrow. I completely forgot – of course how would I remember that when he’s the one that pays the bills? But no wonder he’s mad. I wonder if he thinks I did it on purpose. Throwing gasoline on his fire isn’t helpful here. He’s feeling ineffective, scared, frustrated, alone. So am I, but I can deal with that a little later.

“Paul. You are right. That’s a huge miss on my part. You work really hard all day, and you ask me to do something small like this and I didn’t make it happen. I’m guessing you feel ignored and disrespected. Is that true?” she asked, non-defensively.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Yes. It just wasn’t as big a deal to you as it should have been,” he said. “And now we’re going to have a late fee.” He looked even angrier.

“I can appreciate how the stress of that might infuriate you,” she began. Her brow furrowed, revealing the concern she felt. “You work a lot of hours at a highly stressful job, then you have a lot of responsibility here taking care of the house repairs and the bills. And it’s not like you can just leave work in the middle of the day to go to the bank. You rely on me to take care of things sometimes, need to be able to count on me, and my guess is you feel like you can’t, is that right?” she said, validating his frustration and perspective.

Yeah. That’s right. She gets it. “Yes. That’s it,” he said. His face relaxed and he sat back in the couch.

She rubbed his arm. Waited.

“So what can we do now?” she inquired.

He sighed.

“Can you run it down there?” he asked. “Putting it in the ATM tonight might get it processed in time.”

“That sounds like a good idea. How about dinner? I made stroganoff. It’s ready,” she replied. I’m beat. The last thing I want to do is leave the house again today.  I can ask him to do it after dinner is over.

During dinner, Paul and Kim talked with the boys and made plans for the weekend. There was a free concert and festival at the park on Saturday and they had activities for kids. The meal over, Kim stared at the table and the kitchen mess. The last thing she felt like doing was dishes.

“Hey Paul, I’m really exhausted – I spent half the morning cleaning up dog puke to save the carpet in the bedroom, and the twins had me running, that’s why I was so late getting out to do errands today. Seemed like I’d get one thing taken care of here, and they’d destroyed another. I’m so tired, and I still haven’t gone to the bank yet. I want you to know I totally would have made that happen if I remembered about the house payment. Can you remind me of things like that next time so I can have the whole picture? I don’t get enough sleep right now for my memory to work right,” she said.

I could have told her that instead of expecting her to just know. She’s been really sweet about it all, too. “Sure – no problem. Sorry I was grumpy about the whole thing,” he responded.

Nice. And I didn’t have to come unhitched to share what my day was like. This is great! “Honey, I’m so glad you understand. I know it takes both of us to make this family function – and I want to do my part to help you when I can. I appreciate you making it easier for me. Do you mind helping clean up in here, so I can run to the bank and still get to bed at a decent hour?” she asked. “We still need to get the twins down for the night, too. I hate how tired I am,” she added.

She does look tired. Hmmm… Paul said, “Sure. How about I help you in here for a while, and then you can do bedtime with the guys while I run to the bank? Would that work?”

She smiled. “That would be wonderful! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you. Thanks so much!”

They worked together in the kitchen, Paul staying until the job was done. Kim kissed his cheek, smiled at him, and thanked him again for cleaning up with her. She got the boys dressed for bed, and began reading them a story when she heard her husband leave to run to the bank.

How did you feel reading through how Kim treated her husband? I believe our reactions (and lack of reactions) can tell us a lot about ourselves. The Respect Dare (Thomas Nelson 2012) and With All Due Respect (Nelson, 2016) is filled with examples like this, and that’s why they are changing so many families. Today’s info ties in with Dare #5 specifically in The Respect Dare, if you are doing the book experience.


We get into trouble when we fail to look at ALL the sides of the equation, ALL the perspectives involved. Sometimes we swing from one extreme to another – doormat to steam roller – missing the point entirely. Healthy is often in the middle, where BOTH people matter.

Let’s process the interaction and think about the different pieces of it.

The first sign of trouble is when Paul gets frustrated with Kim’s lack of follow through on the bank deposit. He snaps, “Why couldn’t you do just the one thing I asked you to do?” Kim handles it well, however, by not responding defensively and challenges herself to also not ascribe motive.  In other words, the first thing she does is assume there is something she doesn’t know.

Then she tries to help him deal with his emotions by first being aware that they exist. She notices that he seems to feel frustrated and upset. She lets him know that she sees this. Then she acknowledges that there is an issue –and owns her part in it. But notice how she says it – and what she doesn’t do.

First she owns what is hers to own. She didn’t take the deposit, and she apologizes for not doing it.  She gives voice to her husband’s feelings in a detached way – not personalizing his feelings. “It seems…” “it looks like,” etc., are good ways to do that.

She avoids ascribing blame by using the phrase, “it seems like this is a bigger deal than I thought it was,” instead of saying, “you’re making too big deal out of this.”

Then she gives him the first indication that there may be a reasonable explanation for her behavior – by posing a possible solution, and asking if there is something else she doesn’t know.

He responds negatively internally by accusing her and himself. “She has no idea what’s going on with us financially and I can’t even get her to listen. I’m stupid to think she’d do anything for me anyway.” This negative thought process effects his interaction with her, and his perception of his marriage, her, and himself. Not helpful.

She refuses to take the bait, however, and chooses to not let him control her emotions. She lets him leave the room without chasing after him. She also didn’t own his emotions or degrade herself because of them. She let his emotions stay exactly where they belonged – with him.

We see her waver a bit with this when she goes in to talk to him before dinner. She smartly gets his attention off of the newspaper by touching him and maintaining eye contact. This helps too, as both increase the release of oxytocin, which is the bonding hormone.

Then she lands the ultimate deflator of defensiveness – she says the words, “you are right” to him. Then she owns her part again, and then validates how he feels by walking around in his shoes for a while. Doesn’t make his perspective the ultimate truth, but for him, it is his truth, which makes it valid.

Validation (5)

We often confuse “validation” with “agreement.” The thing we need to remember is that unless someone feels heard, they are not going to be open to our perspective. We do NOT forget our own perspective by being curious about theirs – but we can help them see our side by choosing to validate their side – first. This must be done deeply and sincerely, compassionately and genuinely for it to be effective. We feel as though we haven’t “earned the right” to share our side until the other person feels validated.

Did you notice how she did this until he responded? He verbally let her know he thought she “got it” and confirmed it with physically relaxing: “Yeah. That’s right. She gets it. “Yes. That’s it,” he said. His face relaxed and he sat back in the couch.”

Then she stayed with him in the moment, rubbing his arm.  She was also agreeable to his suggestion to fix the problem, then wisely shifted gears by having dinner. She also knew what she was feeling – exhausted – and what she wanted – to ask him to take care of it. She smartly waited for the right timing to ask this of him. She also uses that time to build empathy – she’s set the groundwork well, then she shares with him what her day was like and how she is feeling – and allows him the privilege of solving a problem for her, which most men like to do.

Please note – if you have been critical and negative to your spouse, don’t be surprised if this doesn’t flow the way it did for Kim. You can, however, go “on record” as wanting to change, and then things will be easier, faster. We’ll talk more about how to facilitate this next time! And don’t get discouraged. It can seem overwhelming to be looking at the many small things Kim did in this situation. What seems to be true, however, is that the more we try, the more we start doing things naturally. The point is not to give up.

In a nutshell, here are the steps Kim went through that we want to remember:

  • Assume there is something you don’t know
  • Listen to the other person’s emotions – first
  • Acknowledge that they feel they way they feel – first
  • Own what’s yours to own – don’t excuse away your behavior or judge them as their perception is their reality
  • Avoid ascribing blame and accusation by avoiding the word, “you” and use “it” instead
  • Use touch and eye contact to get someone’s attention – these also release the bonding hormone
  • Use the phrase, “you are right” as often as you can to deflate defensiveness
  • Validate the other person’s experience – this lets them know you have really heard them and understand
  • Continue validating until they feel understood
  • Pay attention to the nonverbal so you can see defensiveness leave
  • Know what you want
  • Finally, wait for the right time to share your perspective & ask for what you want – best if both can be done together

Bottom Line: Don’t let other people’s emotions control your responses. If you are quick to listen, slow to speak, and even slower to become angry, you can resolve difficulties more effectively.quick to listen

Here’s a few more articles you might find interesting:

Radio show with Debbie Chavez – how to have LESS CONFLICT with your tweens & teens

How to lose the weight and keep it off (and yes, it really works!)

3 Ways You Might be Messing Up Your Marriage

Ways to Keep Your Teen in Church

How to Help People (and yourself) STOP Freaking Out During Conflict

And if you are struggling with a man who is angry, defensive, and you’ve lost yourself and are super discouraged… you can get on our waiting list for the Strength & Dignity class that starts in two weeks. 🙂 And it is free. 🙂

If you aren’t signed up in the sidebar for the Marriage Tips be sure to do so and you won’t miss a thing!

Can’t wait to dialogue with you in the comments! Share your thoughts below!

Love to you,


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Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

11 thoughts on “When you are the only one trying in your marriage…

    • Jessica,
      You are right. And I would add another word.


      I don’t believe we can do any of these things. I believe it is Christ in us that does them. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes (too often) I take the reins back from the Lord, and try to run the show. This always makes the burden heavy, and His is always light.

      So know I get it. And that you aren’t alone. And that you can and should rest. He will meet you there and fill you again.

      Love to you

  1. When I first read this, I felt overwhelmed & convicted because I realized that a conflict like the example you used would have gone very badly at my house. Then I felt, I could not possibly learn how to do all those things this lady did to avoid an ugly conflict. But I prayed and asked God to help me, I can do all things through Him. Thanks for posting these techniques, examples and instructions on how to apply them. They will be a great addition to my marriage toolkit as well as other relationships. My summary is:
    1. Listen to the other person’s emotions
    2. Own what’s yours to own
    3. Give voice to another’s feelings
    4. Assume there is something you don’t know.
    5. Avoid ascribing blame and accusation by avoiding the word, “you” and use “it” instead
    6. Use touch and eye contact to get someone’s attention
    7. Use the phrase, “you are right” as often as you can to deflate defensiveness
    8. Validate the other person’s experience
    9. Continue validating until they feel understood.
    10. Pay attention to the nonverbal so you can see defensiveness leave
    11. Know what you want
    12. Wait for the right time to share your perspective & ask for what you want

    • This is great, Rita! 🙂 SO glad the tips help you! 🙂 I will add this, however – “technique” or “skill” can only truly take us so far – and I don’t think that’s very far at all…

      What really matters most is the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. 🙂 He is the One, because Christ and He are One, as are They One with the Father, They are the Ones that make this possible in our most challenging and intimate relationships.

      The ones where we have some skin in the game. 🙂

      Love to you,

  2. This type of situation would never happen in my house. The belittling and arguing for forgetting or “disobeying” my husband would go on for hours (in front of our children) and then he’d say something about how he can’t ever depend on me for anything. Or he would just demand that I drop everything and go to the bank immediately to put the money in because I failed to follow directions. Then at least 2 days of silent treatment and him sleeping on the couch. I try so hard, but any slip up on my part is seen as a complete failure that I need to be scolded for. I’m at a total loss for how to deal with this type of reaction.

      • He is but he doesn’t really want us going to church. Says he’s afraid I’m only going to find someone else. When everything is going well, things are great. But any perceived disrespect instantly pushes him over the edge. Tonight going through my son’s clothes for school tomorrow my husband pulled out a pair of shorts and said they looked too small. I commented aren’t those the baggy ones? And he instantly snapped “what are you arguing about now?!? Can’t you ever just shut up, or is your ego too large?” I walk on eggshells when I’m home because I never know when I’m going to say something wrong. We’ve been together 21 years, he didn’t used to be like this. I’ve been trying to figure out what changed so I can address it kindly, but then I wonder if it’s just too late.

        • Renay, I would encourage you to join our Strength & Dignity eCourse. It’s free. The “answers” are to big for a comment. 🙂
          Love to you,

  3. This is a great article with lots to chew on. I like the way you broke it down from the big picture to small steps. The only part I have difficulty really believing is that many husbands would truly listen to the wife as long as she talked. Some of the wives I speak to, well we are fortunate to get one or two sentences in before we are told we talk too much. We don’t get to validate let alone share how we are exhausted, hurting etc. Do many wives really get to talk that long to their husbands and be heard? I’m just curious. Thank you for the great article!

    • Yes, they do. 🙁 So sorry you don’t. If he can’t handle much communication, two things… First maybe cutting out other communication, just chatting it up with the girlfriends and speaking briefly to him. That way, when you do say something, it is an our of the ordinary thing. Maybe you are already down to that. Not sure… The second thing would be to stop when he interrupts to say you talk too much. Then ask, “Is it okay if I finish?” Dr. Kevin Leman’s advice is to wait until he gets frisky, then tell him you don’t feel like you want to be close to him because of how he treated you earlier – note you aren’t saying NO, you are starting a discussion. 🙂 He may not see it that way, so you might have to follow up with “If we could talk about xyz, I know I’d want to do that… :)”. Just a few thoughts. Ans encourage him like crazy to spend time with other godly men. 🙂 Don’t have a problem if he is gone with them, then be supportive when he gets back. 🙂 Most men don’t learn these things unless taught by other men. 🙂

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