My wife, Erin, and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. During our anniversary cruise, we were sitting on the top deck of the ship, watching the sunset. The water shimmered in mellow gold. We laughed together as we reminisced about our marriage, feeling the ship hum under us. The evening was wonderful. A perfect 10.
As we talked, a question suddenly popped into my brain. Impulsively, I turned to Erin and blurted out: “On a scale from one to 10, how would you rate our marriage?”
I smiled as I asked. I smiled with love, with affection … and with the knowledge it was going to be a very high score. How could it not be? The sunset. The water. We’re celebrating 25 years of marriage. I knew Erin would look deep into my eyes and say, “A 12, Greg. And every day is better than the last.”
Erin turned to me and said, “Well, I’d give it a solid six or seven.”
I was dumbstruck. Really? A six or seven? That didn’t sound too solid to me. Get a six out of 10 on a high-school math quiz and you fail.
“Well,” I said sarcastically, “I guess I’ll try over the next 25 years to raise that to a 6.5!”
The challenge of accepting influence
Accepting your spouse’s honest feedback can be difficult. I know it’s hard for me. I spent far more time that evening disputing her “six or seven” score than I should have, debating why our marriage is really at least an eight. Probably higher. But could I listen? Was I in a place where I could accept my wife’s influence? Apparently not.
I asked for an honest answer, but when it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, I pushed back. Like Jack Nicholson said in that movie A Few Good Men, I couldn’t handle the truth.
Psychologist John Gottman is about the best marriage researcher on the planet. When he does a study, it’s worth taking note. Gottman and his colleagues followed 130 newlywed couples for six years to find what marriages succeeded and why. Turns out, happy, stable marriages had one thing in common: The husband was willing to accept his wife’s influence. In contrast, when husbands responded to their wives’ complaints by stonewalling or belittling them, the marriage was almost sure to fail: More than four-fifths of those relationships — 81 percent — fell apart.
That’s an astounding statistic — one worth paying attention to. But what does that mean, “accepting your wife’s influence”? I wasn’t sure that I knew. So I explored that dynamic, asking Erin and other wives just what it meant to them.
I learned something revelatory: When your wife says there’s something wrong with your marriage, guess what, there’s probably something wrong with your marriage. And for the sake of that marriage, a husband would do well to listen.
Recognize your wife’s ability to gauge the health of your marriage
Women tend to understand the nuances of relationships better than men. Neurophysiologists from Stanford found that women catch subliminal messages faster and more accurately. They’re more in touch with (and willing to discuss) their feelings. They’re better at reading nonverbal cues, everything from facial expressions, tone of voice and body language. “Women’s intuition” may feel like a cliché, but there’s a lot of truth to it.
My father, Gary Smalley, used to say that a woman has a “built-in marriage manual.” Intuitively, she knows what she needs, what the relationship needs, and often has some good ideas on how to fix it. But you know what else she needs? A husband who has the courage to ask her to share that manual with him.
My question to Erin wasn’t a bad one. It’s good to ask your wife how she’d rate your marriage. Just be prepared for an all-too-honest answer.
Seek her input
Husbands are supposed to lead the family. But husbands can forget how important it is to get input and advice from their wives.
The Bible’s pretty clear that that’s exactly what we need to do. Consider Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Or Proverbs 15:22: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”
And when husbands listen to their wives, they should not belittle them or respond defensively. Husbands need to recognize and appreciate their wives’ perspective and be open to their ideas, desires and even criticism. Just listening and honoring her perspective paves the way for more productive, loving conversation. It conveys that you respect her thoughts, that her opinions are valued and that what your wife wants is really important to you. And she, in turn, will feel like you value her, and that her ideas are worth consideration.
Make decisions together
Yes, husbands should listen to their wives, but husbands should also share the decision-making process. Ephesians 5:21 tells us about the importance of “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In 1 Corinthians 1:10 (NIV), Paul writes, “I appeal to you … in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.”
Sweep aside the pride
So, why would a man reject his wife’s influence? Part of it is insecurity. He may fear a loss of power. He doesn’t want to be controlled. Maybe he feels that, by listening, he’s failing at leading.
But the opposite is true. When a husband listens to his wife and accepts her influence, he’s more likely to win the right to influence his wife in turn — that is, to lead her. You’re not losing control by asking for and allowing input. Remember, a smart leader recognizes the strengths and talents of his team.
Dr. Gottman doesn’t let wives completely off the hook. Women who couched their complaints in a gentle and soothing way — even using a little humor to diffuse any potential defensiveness — were more likely to have happy marriages than those who were more belligerent. It’s important that a wife learn how to communicate a sensitive issue that gives her the best chance of being heard and accepted. Timing’s critical, too. Ask your husband if “now’s a good time” to talk about it. And if it’s not, ask him when would be better.
And make sure that, when you talk about the issue, whatever it is, you make him feel that he’s still loved and appreciated. Communicate to him that you’re happy, but this one little thing could still make a huge difference — take the marriage from good to great. Or, in Erin’s and my case, from a six to an eight.
Dr. Greg Smalley is vice president of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family and the author or co-author of several books, including Crazy Little Thing Called Marriage.