The tears slid silently down her cheeks, dampening the pillow. Anger covering deep hurt dispersed sleep. The twenty-one years of her life dedicated to marriage and family seemed empty and wasted. After all, what did she have to show for any of it? Sure, her children loved her, but they were nearly on their own, and the dream of modeling a marriage that worked, was almost over. Criticism met many of her comments and opinions. Gone were the days of open discussion, as arguments found their voice instigated by his harsh disagreement. She kept her thoughts more and more to herself. She had read all the books, gone to all the workshops, seen a therapist, done couples counseling, and her husband still remained distant.
Meanwhile, her husband sat at the computer in his home office. He noticed tonight when she went up to bed without saying a word to him again. He noticed when she ignored his return from work. He wondered about their upcoming anniversary date. What was there to celebrate? Sure, the marriage had survived, but their friendship was gone. It had been months since they’d had sex. He had tried, but she put him off. She seemed disinterested in the events he still loved and she used to enjoy. His companions to art galleries and plays had become his children – who would go with him when they left the nest? Weary of asking her to accompany him and face an eye roll and rejection again, he wondered about the anniversary date. Feeling helpless, he sent her an email, suggesting she pick a restaurant.
Many relationships trudging down the path to divorce court and the others that somehow cling together still suffer a myriad of problems. The marriages that do not terminate seem destined to trudge along with both people existing as roommates with separate lives, the hope of a deeply intimate relationship with their life partner all but gone. Unfortunately, the downward spiral is inevitable to most couples. Most relationships suffer conflict and stress, but with both spouses lacking in conflict-resolution skills, unresolved hurts are often left to fester, eventually erupting into damaging arguments, leaving scars upon both people. Our culture handles conflict poorly, either by avoiding it, or engaging in it in unhealthy ways. In our mission of helping wives facilitate relationship changes, we help couples reconnect and create healthier habits of interacting and working through conflict. We also see women as uniquely gifted at relationships due to their biological composition. Brain research has long indicated that women are more wired for relationship creation and maintenance than men are (at least in general, due to the bonding hormone, oxytocin), so we help wives learn how to positively impact their marriages by tapping into these strengths.
We see marriages start to turn around when wives learn to speak love to their husband via the language of respect. We see focusing on his very specific wants and needs through the vehicle of healthy communication begins positive change within marriage because one woman’s husband may be different from another’s. After a wife worked to lay the ground work, we have found that most husbands are then in a place where they can more easily hear their own particular wife’s wants and needs for love and respect the way that she best experiences them and at the frequency she needs to hear them. One of the major differences between the genders seems to be the frequency of reinforcement of the relationship – most women respond more positively to daily or near daily small demonstration of love from their husband, but many men seem to need reinforcement very infrequently. It appears that the old joke where the husband tells the wife, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day and if anything changes, I’ll let you know!” is based on truth – at least for a majority of men. Unfortunately, that level of frequency often does not bode well from the wife’s perspective. But when a wife communicates love and respect in a way her husband can more readily experience it, he is also typically more motivated to be a better husband. Many times, both spouses actually feel love and respect toward the other, but lack in their ability to communicate it the way their particular spouse hears it. In a 2012 study, the University of Texas at Austin researched whether men and women show love differently in marriage. What was interesting about their findings, is that in an effort to change the marriage, women reacted in a way consistent with how they typically like to receive affection. The wives expressed love by communicating with fewer negative or antagonistic behaviors, and the husbands showed love by initiating sex, sharing leisure activities, and doing household work together with their wives.
The simplest and most effective advice with regard to changing one’s own marriage is to once again, start doing the things you did early in your marriage with your husband. The activities you did together at the beginning of the relationship do much in bringing couples back together. Maybe you took a dance or dog-training class, or built a closet or a room addition, or put in a garden. The same principle applies to men, who need to refrain from negative and antagonistic behaviors, but if he does not naturally, which he probably won’t, a wife should ask for what she wants by specifically telling her husband what makes her feel loved. Give him some time to figure things out while you keep speaking to him in the language he hears. There’s also research by analyst Shaunti Feldhahn that points out that most men would rather feel unloved than disrespected. Know too, that when he is feeling disrespected, he is not going to naturally want to move towards you relationally. In other words, get the respect piece right, then ask for what you want. It is a simple method that surprisingly enough, works for many marriages in turning things around to a more loving and respectful relationship.
We encourage a few simple behaviors for wives who want to take their marriage up a notch or two, or want to turn their marriage around. These small behavior changes, when done in order, can dramatically impact the relationship:
- Remind yourself why you married him in the first place, creating a positive place in your own heart from which to start.
- Ask him what his favorite things are (that you did together) from the early days of your marriage – then set up a time to do those (or similar) things again, if he is interested in doing them. If his interests have changed, do something new at his suggestion.
- Initiate sex every couple of days – and if he responds to you by saying or doing something loving, put your hand on his shoulder and tell him how much you appreciate what he said/did and then initiate sex or flirt for later if the kids are around.
- Ditch the negative behaviors that communicate disrespect like the eye roll, exasperated sigh, etc. An entire list is available here on The Respect Dare blog.
- Ask him specifically what makes him feel loved – then do that.
- Ask him for what you want (affection, dates, physical touch outside of sex, cleaning up after dinner, etc.), if he hasn’t started these things already. When he does what speaks to you, initiate sex again. Most men will respond positively to the above six steps. Just keep repeating through them.
- If your husband is extremely analytical, he may struggle more than most men in showing affection. You may perceive this as his refusal to do things that you want, but understand that he might not know how and gently let him know it hurts you. If your tears have an effect on him, cry. If he cannot hear that, send him a brief text message. Do not initiate sex, and when he pursues you, say something like, “I’m really struggling with sharing this part of me with you when you hurt me like you did. I just can’t get my head or heart into this until you treat me better.” Know that if you start here, however, without learning to lovingly communicate when you are confronting, and when he doesn’t feel respected by you in the first place, you’ll just add difficulty and potentially more damage to your relationship.
- If he still refuses to change, stop scheduling time with him to do leisure activities for a while, and make an appointment with an older couple he deeply respects who has a good marriage. Share your frustrations with this man and his wife, and ask them to be part of a confrontation with your husband about his behavior. If you attend church or his parents or your parents do, they or a counselor may be good choices for this discussion. This should also be done with your heart in a place of love towards him, otherwise, he will view it as a personal attack and become defensive. Often, if #7 has done in a truly loving way, this step will be unnecessary. Prior to doing this, you should also let him know that this is what you are considering. There is a difference between manipulation and a loving confrontation about someone else’s damaging behavior. You can’t treat him like a child, either, or this will not have positive results.
- Be on the lookout for loving behavior by him – and initiate sex or physical contact when you see it. Men often experience connection through physical intimacy, so positively reinforcing what you want more of in this way is not manipulative, but rather encouraging, unless your heart is in a place of trying to control him, instead of trying to improve both of your experiences of your marriage.
This is a long and difficult process and many books have been written on the subject. Know that your husband is not your enemy, and that both of you can benefit from learning how to work through these difficulties. Concerted effort is not enough to turn a marriage around, however, effort on the most impactful activities makes all the difference in the world.
Nina Roesner is the author of The Respect Dare, recently released by Thomas Nelson. It is a book that is best described as an experience that connects women deeply to God and their husband through the application of respect. She is the executive director of Greater Impact, a training organization which equips men and women of faith in relationship skills and public speaking abilities.
 Elizabeth Schoenfeld’s work, “Do Men and Women Show Love Differently in Marriage?” appeared in the November 2012 Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.