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How to Ask For What You Need Without Arguing

Understanding why your spouse doesn’t pick up on your needs can keep you from unnecessary arguing or, worse, ongoing resentment.

Sometimes you just have to ask your husband for what you need!

I’ve been talking all month about how to change the dynamic in your marriage and start feeling close again. I wanted to end the month with super practical tips, and so I talked about how happy couples sweat the small stuff. Based on John Gottman’s marriage research, I showed how happy couples look for “bids for connection” and meet them so that they can build up that emotional bank account and feel cherished and loved.

And now there’s the second aspect of it–how to ask for something that you need, even if it means depleting the emotional bank account a little bit. You’ve built it up, you’ve got the goodwill there so that you can tackle some of the bigger issues.

Let me take you back to the first post of this series. I was telling you about Rick and Tiffany Bulman’s marriage from the book Mended, where they talk about how they recovered from an affair. But one of the things that had caused great emotional distance was that Rick didn’t understand how Tiffany felt loved and what Tiffany needed, and Tiffany didn’t know how to ask.

Here’s just one example: every night, before going to bed, she would check to make sure the windows and doors were locked. She had asked him to do it early in their marriage, but he thought that was silly (he grew up in the country where no one locked anything). She felt like he didn’t care about her safety, and that he was making her responsible for the family’s well-being. And she felt very unloved.

So let’s look at how this could be handled differently. How can you show your spouse how important something is to you without arguing?

A few quick things:

Usually when your spouse doesn’t pick up on something that you want or need, it’s not because your spouse doesn’t love you. It’s because you see the world in a different way.

Tiffany felt unloved, but Rick did love her. He simply didn’t share her need to feel safe. Growing up where everything was always unlocked, checking the locks wasn’t something he valued.

Because they see the world in a different way, they often don’t understand how important something is to you.

Tiffany did ask Rick to check the locks, but he didn’t follow through and didn’t pick up on its importance. He didn’t have the same worldview as she did, and so she asked him something, he thought about it, and figured, “No, I don’t really want to do that.” He felt it was just something that Tiffany was thinking about in passing, not something that was truly important to her, because in his mind, it wouldn’t be important. Do you see how this leads to a LOT of arguing?

We make lots of requests of our spouses, and not all are seriously important. Your spouse doesn’t necessarily have a way to know which ones really matter to you. It could be that your spouse is doing tons of things that don’t really register to you, but neglecting the few that really would. That’s why it’s important to communicate.

So let’s look at what that conversation may look like.

When you ask for something important don’t focus on arguing. Instead, explain the significance.

Consider the conversation a chance for you to fill your spouse in on something about you that they didn’t know. So it’s not just about asking for help; it’s about sharing more about yourself.

Let’s see Joe and Jane Doe dealing with this:

Jane: Honey, before we go up for bed, can you just check and make sure the doors and windows are locked for me?

Joe: I’m sure everything’s fine. Don’t worry about it.

Jane: Hon, this is something really important to me. It was drilled into my head as a little girl that you have to make sure everything is locked, and every night my dad would check the windows and doors. If  you don’t do it, I’m just going to have to do it because I won’t go to sleep otherwise. Would you mind taking care of it?

If they resist, don’t argue about the actual thing you need done. Talk about how you feel loved and close to your spouse.

The conversation could still go south here because they could end up arguing about the thing–the locks on the windows and doors–rather than the relationship dynamic, which is really the issue. That’s why it’s important to pull the conversation back to feelings, not arguing about the importance of locks.

Joe: You’ve got to lighten up and stop worrying about stuff so much. You can’t live with that kind of fear all the time! It’s really not a big deal.

Jane: I know to you it isn’t a big deal, but to me it is. Even if you think it’s silly, it would make me feel really cherished and loved if you’d check the locks rather than making me do it–because either way, it’s going to have to get done. I just want to feel like you’re taking care of me.

If your spouse starts arguing about the validity of your feelings, then bring it back to how you can feel close.

Joe: Are you seriously saying that you don’t think I take care of you? Are you seriously accusing me of not loving you? That’s ridiculous. Look at all the stuff I do for you!

Jane: Oh, I know you love me, Joe. And I appreciate all you do for me. But sometimes we just experience love in different ways. One of the big things I need in marriage is to feel safe and cherished. I can’t explain it; I think it’s just the way I’m wired. When you do things that make me feel safe, I feel so loved by you. But there must be some thing that you need from me, too. What makes you feel loved by me? Why don’t we talk about that, too.

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Identifying the emotional need is the key to resolving these sorts of things.

Too often when we ask our spouse for something and they refuse, we do end  up arguing about that thing. But there’s always, always an emotional need at work. And when we can identify that need, we can often make progress.

We all have needs, like safety and security; having fun together; feeling cherished; feeling like you’re the sole object of their affection; feeling like you’re in this together, and you’re a team (especially a parenting team); feeling like you’re respected and valued; feeling like you’re sexually desirable; feeling like you’re sexually desired; and so many more. When conversations can revolve around those needs, rather than just arguing about what the spouse is doing wrong, the conversation is often a lot more productive. Instead of arguing over: “You’re bad/lazy for not doing X!”, you’re saying, “I have a need for Y. One way you can help me feel Y is if you do X.” Then you’re owning the issue, instead of just blaming them, and it’s a better dynamic all around.

In fact, you can go through this exercise together on making lists of small things you each can do to show each other love. That’s a great way to communicate to your spouse what your emotional needs are. That exercise is part of my 5-part email course on building emotional connection, which can also help!

What if your spouse promises they’ll do it, but they don’t follow through?

Let’s say that your husband is playing video games while you’re trying to make dinner and care for the kids, and it’s too much. And you say something like,

Jane; Joe, can you take the kids so that I can get dinner ready?

Joe: Sure, in a minute.

And then he keeps playing the video games. What do you do?

You can ask him again, but often a better route is this:

Jane: Joe, you said that you would help me, but you’re not helping me. You’re still playing, and your children and I need you right now.

Show him what he’s already promised to do, and tell him what the current state of affairs is. Later that night, when he’s no longer playing video games, she could have a talk with him, like the one above, about how she wants to feel like a team and like they’re in this together. That’s a big emotional need for her.

If this goes on and he still doesn’t help, or, in the above case, if she’s explained everything and he still doesn’t want to check the locks, you can say something like this:

Jane: Joe, when we married I wanted us to feel close and loved, but right now we’re growing apart. That’s not good for either of us. I have let you know what I need to feel loved. When you refuse to do these things, it makes me feel like none of that matters to you–as if you don’t really care about how I’m feeling. Do my feelings matter to you?

Joe: Of course they do! But you’re always coming up with new things for me to do. It’s like I’m never good enough. Don’t you love me?

Jane: Yes, Joe, of course I do. And I really want to talk about how we can make you feel loved, too. I care about that, and I don’t want you to feel like you’re not good enough. But let’s deal with this first issue first. Why would you not take two minutes to check the locks every night if it matters this much to me? I’m giving you this amazing gift–I’m telling you something you can do really quickly that would make me feel loved. Why would you not want to do that? (Or: Why do you think it’s okay to play video games while I’m caring for the kids and trying to make dinner all at the same time? Do you think that’s fair or right?)

If, after all that, your spouse really refuses to engage and try to listen to what you need to feel loved, then I would seriously suggest seeing a licensed counsellor or a mentor couple or something so that you can walk through this.

Deal with these small things early in your marriage

Don’t let arguing patterns get established that are toxic to your marriage. In those early years, even if you don’t know how to start those conversations or you feel really vulnerable, have those conversations about what you need. Push through. Neither of you is used to having to accommodate a different person. Some of this will be rocky. But the more that you can push through now, and make these things known, the easier your marriage will be later.

If you develop bad patterns, though, they’re very hard to undo. Why does my wife suddenly want to start changing everything? Why is she so upset now when she’s been fine before? What’s wrong with her? Deal with things when they’re small, and you’ll likely have far fewer big problems later!

What do you think? Would these conversations work in your marriage? Let’s talk in the comments!