Crucial Skills®

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Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

How Can I Get My Husband to Treat Me as Well as I Treat Him?

Dear Crucial Skills,

Whenever my husband tells me things he doesn’t like that I do, I own it, say I’m sorry, and tell him I am determined to change it. If even ten minutes later I tell him I don’t like something he does, he’ll reply, “We really need to stop criticizing each other!”

I would appreciate it if he would own his behavior and validate my perspective, like I did for him. I feel like I’m trying to do what’s required to have a good relationship, but he doesn’t. What can I do?


Dear Unfair,

Your question hits close to home. I spent many years expecting relationship “fairness.” Over time I concluded it wasn’t realistic, useful, or healthy. Give me a moment to explain, then I’ll try to offer practical advice.

Your desire is to have your concerns heard and validated. Nothing wrong there. But your central argument is that he should do it because you do it. You believe that he should be more motivated to hear and validate you because you’ve earned it. Human beings have a hardwired expectation of reciprocity. It’s part of what makes us cooperative creatures. If you say good morning to someone, it’s natural to expect a return greeting. And they often feel a reciprocal obligation to do so. If I hold the door for you, you’re more likely to hold the next one for me. Likewise, I unconsciously expect you to get the next one. After all, fair is fair.

“Fair” works okay with public and even workplace transactions where simple arithmetic reasonably justifies expectations. In transactional relationships, turn-taking, bill-splitting, and door-holding can be governed by fairness. There are limited variables to track and we intuitively agree on how to value our mutual contributions. But arithmetic doesn’t work in intimate relationships. The only governing principle that works there is not math but love. Asking someone to listen better out of fairness is like calculating how much to pay mom for Thanksgiving dinner.

In intimate relationships, an appeal to fairness is like calling the police when your beloved forgets your anniversary. Coercion won’t increase devotion. Only vulnerability can do that. And when we appeal for fairness in loving relationships it’s often because we’re trying to avoid vulnerability.

Vulnerability is hard. But it’s the calisthenics of intimacy. Practicing healthy vulnerability grows us into the kind of people who are capable of surpassing interpersonal joy. Relationships provide the developmental friction that helps us grow to our potential as human beings. I’ve concluded that the measure of my life is my capacity to love imperfect people. People like me. Here, then, is my advice for growing your vulnerability muscle in a way that can lead to deeper love with your imperfect husband.

Practice honesty without expectation. Give yourself permission to say what you would like and to share how you are affected by his actions. Stop worrying about how he’ll react. Let him react however he chooses. Be considerate of timing when you share. I find it best to ask, “Is now a good time?” If he says it isn’t, ask him when he’d be okay hearing something that is important to you. Once you’ve shared, don’t start a stopwatch. He is not obligated to change. The reason you share is so you can honor your own needs, not so that you can get someone else to change. Vulnerability means honoring your voice while also honoring his agency. It means embracing the possibility of disappointment without self-protective resentment.

Practice appreciation without distortion. When others fall short of our expectations we tend to fall into a distorted economic view of our relationship. We begin to appraise the relationship based on supply and demand. Suddenly all the things we have in abundance seem unimportant and the thing we aren’t getting becomes priceless. Don’t fall into that trap. Before sharing a concern, be sure your emotional state reflects its true importance—big or small. If he expels open-mouthed burps in public, for example, but is tender and attentive to your every need, consider both as you frame your feedback.

Offer kindness for its own sake. The next time you choose to listen to his feedback, don’t keep score. Decide whether you want to accommodate his request based on who you are and how you feel about him, not as a way of tallying credits. If he is ever going to decrease his defensiveness or increase his openness to your feedback, it will happen because he loves you, not because you’ve earned it.

Balance patience with responsibility for yourself. Working sincerely on appreciation does not mean abandoning responsibility for your own needs. If his defensiveness results in abuse or neglect of things that are truly important to you, you have a decision to make. Love doesn’t mean abandonment of self, it means inclusion of another. Love offers more joy because it presents us with greater complexity. But if it so happens that you aren’t capable of finding joy with the other, you are still responsible for yourself.

I hope some of what I offered here helps you find a loving path forward. I’ve been working at it for 36 years, and the effort has been worth it.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Mastering Dialogue

16 thoughts on “How Can I Get My Husband to Treat Me as Well as I Treat Him?”

  1. Amy Besack

    Joseph, your response is so full and rich. I could read this many times and catch something different and valuable each time. Thank you and your colleagues for your amazing work. As a Leadership & Life coach I point many toward your work and often. Thank you!

  2. Scott R Hanlon

    Perfect suggestion Joe, you have challenged me and helped me on this one.

  3. Dawn

    Isn’t reading something like this, something that truly opens your eyes to a fresh perspective, so freeing? I found meaning in your words; thank you for that.

  4. Robin

    Dear Unfair,

    That sounds like gaslighting to me.

    Joseph offers helpful advice for someone living with a spouse who has healthy boundaries and also wants a healthy, loving, supportive marriage. However, if you are married to someone who may not be capable of that today (for whatever reason) greater tools may be needed to help cope, adapt, and possibly get your needs met too (which enhances the relationship for both partners).

    Living with the Passive-Aggressive Man: Coping with Hidden Aggression–from the Bedroom by Scott Wetzler

    The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to recognize it and how to respond Kindle Edition by Patricia Evans (Author)

    These are life-changing teachings when taking into account that these are learned behaviors (that do not necessarily define a person’s being). I don’t believe that a person = a Passive Aggressive. I believe these are learned behaviors that can be unlearned and replaced with healthier, relationship edifying thoughts and behaviors if someone is willing to do so.

    I have also learned that what we tolerate, will continue. Gently, respectfully, and consistently communicating our needs, wants, and desires as well as listening and offering the same respect for others (realizing that both parties will fall short – we are human) is a necessary skill that requires learning, patience, and practice. It does not mean we will always get what we want from others or be able to successfully meet their needs all of the time. But it does help clarify what we can/cannot live with or without, what we are willing and/or able to do for others too.

    It may not be someone’s husband. It could be someone’s wife, or mother, or brother, or employer with whom these behaviors are encountered which is why I found both books incredibly enlightening. Not only have I learned about others, I learned a great deal about myself and what I wanted to change to be a better parent, spouse, child, sibling, employee, friend, etc.

    I hope that you find these resources helpful too.

    Kind regards and well wishes.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Thank you, Robin. This is good additional insight.

  5. Kirk

    Great stuff in theory but for me the real challenge comes in these two short sentences within Joseph’s reply: “Stop worrying about how he’ll react. Let him react however he chooses.”
    I have never figured out how to gain control of my feelings when there is a negative reaction. I have been told many times that this is a choice I can make for myself but have never experienced it that way. Pretty much anybody I care about (and many I don’t) can inflict emotional pain if they chose to…. and I don’t know how to stop them.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Good question, Kirk. I’ve worked hard on this myself. I’ll craft a longer answer and submit it for a future column.

  6. Clare

    Interesting perspective and response.

    While I agree to a degree with the response to “Unfair”, just because we speak up to our partner about our needs it’s up to the other to respond how they see fit.

    However, I feel there is a level of mutual respect and agreed ground rules missing that needs to be addressed in this dynamic. When there is no effort from one partner to seek to understand, acknowledge their partner’s perspective and if after respectful discussion and consideration, take steps to make adjustments to behaviour this interaction will continue to play out. Resentment will eventually seep in and the relationship will break down further. Without this change to the dynamic “Unfair” will continue to feel unheard, dismissed and like their needs are unimportant in the relationship.

    I highly recommend “Unfair” starting a new discussion with their husband – when not in conflict – about agreeing on how both will respond when issues or concerns like this are brought up.

    1. Joseph Grenny

      Thanks, Clare. This is what I was trying to get at in the fourth bullet (Balance patience with responsibility for yourself). You have offered a useful perspective in my view.

    2. Ali-O

      Thank you, Claire, for offering a rational, intelligent response completely the opposite of Joseph’s. Joseph’s reply was the classic patriarchal expectation of women, to keep giving and being more emotionally vulnerable in hopes her clod of a male partner will either catch a hint or decide to be respectful of her and reciprocate equally, and in kind.

      The relationship will just keep getting more imbalanced, and she will feel emotionally strung out from ever more giving and being vulnerable, while he is doing neither, or not to her extent. And then he will decide she’s overly emotional while he’s the “rational” one. Classic. While he is in fact the irrational one, for expecting to not give equally and in kind in a relationship.

      What Joseph proposed as a solution is a classic expectation put on women that is actually emotional abuse, uncommunicativeness, and silent suffering, while hoping the jerk catches on and starts reciprocating.

      I would explain further, but accidentally lost my previous reply before hitting send, so I’ll leave it at this.

      Claire, you’re right to propose clear communication and to discuss how the two will handle these situations.

      1. Connie

        Ani, I’m so glad someone else mentioned the classic patriarchal response element. That was exactly what I thought reading Joseph’s response. Claire’s is a much more healthy path of action to take that benefits all parties.

  7. Jeanne DeVico

    I’m not sure I understand your use of the word “vulnerability.” Will you please elaborate?

  8. mike s

    You can’t. You’re welcome. If you’re not happy, be done with it.

  9. Ryan Trimble

    Thank you, Joseph. I feel challenged and inspired to be a better husband. You continue to enrich my understanding of the meaning of responsibility.

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