Can You Get Your Partner to Take Your Advice?

New research shows how to get your partner to listen to your advice.

Posted Dec 31, 2019

People in a close relationship may be in the best position to give each other advice, but also the least likely to take it.

Perhaps you find that your partner continues to make the same mistake when logging into your online bank account. After each login lockout, you have to reset the credentials, taking time from your busy day on what should be an automatic process. Despite your trying to be as polite as possible in suggesting that your partner keep all passwords in a secure but easily traceable location, the login failures continue to occur.

Possibly your partner really needs to cut back on high-cholesterol snacks based on a physician’s advice. No matter how tactfully you make this suggestion, you’re almost instantly rebuffed, and the nacho fries just keep on coming. The first situation involves a certain degree of inconvenience, but the second a fairly high degree of risk.  

Logically speaking, your in-depth knowledge of your partner’s communication style should buy you an advantage. You may be an expert at asking your partner to do you a favor, to give you an opinion on a possible online purchase, or offer suggestions for how to get along better with a family member. If it’s a favor you need, your timing may now have become impeccable. If your partner seems distracted or stressed, you’ll wait until the right moment comes along to put in your request.

When the situation involves the opposite and it’s that potentially unwanted advice you wish to provide, your timing may be equally impeccable, but the message is one that cannot easily be delivered. The higher the stakes in the advice, the more difficult the delivery becomes if it’s advice your partner didn’t request. Making things worse, the more you raise the subject, the more annoyed your partner becomes and decides not just to not take the advice, but to do the exact opposite. 

Research on couple communication tends to focus on the styles that partners use to resolve conflict, but not as much on the actual content of the conflict. Advice-giving seems to stay under the radar in the conflict literature because it is more about that content than about the process. In a new study, Elon University’s Emma Muscari and CJ Eubanks Fleming tackled the issue of how one partner can give advice to the partner in the particularly sensitive area of mental health help-seeking.

Health advice, in general, can provide its own set of issues, but when it comes to mental health, additional layers of complexity become added due to the potential stigma associated with this area of a person’s functioning. Furthermore, partners may use mental-health tinged epithets when they want to insult their partners (calling them “crazy” or a “drunk”). This problem adds stigma to stigma, making a serious conversation even more of an uphill climb.

The sample in the Muscari and Fleming study included 282 adults, recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, who fit the participation criteria of being in a committed relationship as well as having been diagnosed with a mental health disorder. The majority of diagnoses reported by sample members included mood disorders (depression and bipolar) and anxiety disorders.

The Elon University authors based their investigation on the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), which proposes that people decide to make behavioral changes in accordance with the three areas of personal attitudes toward the behavior, their perceptions of social norms regarding the behavior, and the amount of control they believe they have over the behavior.

Although all three areas are important for behavioral change, when it comes to help-seeking, it’s actually that social norm dimension that Muscari and Eubanks believe to be the most important. As they note, “Individuals often turn to their social circles for support, and the level of support they receive directly relates to their intention to seek help” (p. 182). The individual’s closest partner would seem to be the best person in that circle to provide support.

Although previous research has established the role of partner support in promoting physical health changes (that advice about high cholesterol snacks), the authors note that there is much less prior work on mental health help-seeking. Thus, “research suggests that the use of positive tactics such as modeling the behavior or showing patience, or negative tactics such as trying to make the person feel guilty or withdrawing affection, are used based on the type of behavior that is targeted for change… the effect of partner support on mental health is quite limited (p. 182).”

Using the physical health change literature as a road map for understanding mental health changes, the Elon University researchers adopt the framework of confirmation theory, an approach that stresses showing validation and positive regard toward your partner (the “acceptance” dimension) and pushing or testing someone’s abilities or skills (the “challenge” dimension). Acceptance can help you give your partner a sense of self-worth and inner motivation, and challenge can help you stimulate your partner to recognize the need for change. 

The two confirmation theory dimensions combined provide three viable communication strategies you can use to guide your partner to make changes. In high acceptance-high challenge, you recognize your partner’s autonomy but also provide support, allowing your partner to come to his or her own realization that change is needed. In high acceptance-low challenge, your partner may make the changes you request (“accommodation”) but not really be on board with going through with the advice. In fact, your partner could become even more anxious, provoking the opposite reaction than what you intended.

In the low acceptance-high challenge combination, your partner will feel criticized and devalued, and even if he or she decides to change, will do so with a strong sense of resentment toward you. The authors did not believe the fourth combination (low acceptance and low challenge) was one that theoretically would ever work to promote change, so they didn’t include it in the study.

To test these three basic advice-giving strategies, the authors provided their participants with a series of vignettes in which a hypothetical partner initiates a mental health-seeking conversation with the participant falling into the three acceptance-challenge categories. Participants read these vignettes and then indicated whether, after hearing this approach from their partner, they would be likely (on a 0 to 10 scale) to seek help. They also indicated whether they felt that seeking treatment would benefit them, based on hearing this particular type of advice.

In addition to these vignettes, which were the main focus of the study, the authors also presented participants with a series of measures designed to assess their mental health symptoms (illness perception, depression, and anxiety) as well as scales to tap the barriers they perceived themselves as having to receiving mental health care.

The findings revealed that, contrary to the hypothesis regarding overall interest in seeking help, the type of advice-giving strategy didn’t seem to influence that 0 to 10 rating. However, there was a positive effect of the high acceptance-high challenge communication strategy on the extent to which participants felt confident that treatment would work. 

Additionally, other elements of the TPB predicted the individual’s belief in treatment efficacy, including perceiving less disapproval from one’s social network, having more financial resources (i.e. better access) and less ability to control personally one’s own mental health condition.

To sum up, if you’re trying to help your partner accept your well-intentioned advice, the Muscari and Fleming study suggests that you tread lightly—but not too lightly. Helping your partner see the advantages of the help you think he or she needs is all about the conversational style you adopt. Your partner will be more likely to see the wisdom of your perspective if your advice is both supportive and respectful of your partner’s sense of personal autonomy.

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Muscari, E. C., & Fleming, C. E. (2019). Help-seeking for mental health concerns: The role of partner influence. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 8(4), 181–196. doi:10.1037/cfp0000125