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How to Talk to a Resistant Husband

Learn to recognize his interpersonal tactics.

Despite the entrance of women into the workforce, men and women today still live in a world in which the demands of balancing parenting and work, autonomy and commitment, and time and money are left largely unresolved. Here are a few recent stats:

  • Overall, women now do a little less housework and childcare, and men do a little more.
  • Working women spend about an hour more a day on both housework and childcare than men.
  • Working women spend about as much time in activities with their children as stay-at-home mothers in the 1970s.
  • The “housework gap” between men and women stopped narrowing in the 1980s.
  • The additional time women spend on domestic labor, particularly childcare, is a leading cause of the gender gap in pay and promotions at work.

When wives raise domestic issues seeking change, husbands, often without conscious awareness, can become resistant to that change. This resistance is not overt, i.e., a clear statement that they do not want change. They do not want to compromise their career, they feel less "masculine" when doing housework, or they prefer a traditional arrangement. Instead, they revert to tactics that make it difficult to talk about and deal with issues.

Interpersonal Process Tactics

In marriage, it is easier to focus on issues and events than how your spouse responds interpersonally when you raise an issue. [1] Issues such as having less sex, not sharing childcare and household duties, or spending too much time at work are easy to describe. What is going on between you when you try to talk about these issues is the interpersonal part. And it is much harder to identify and talk about than a specific issue. Here are a few examples of this interpersonal process when it is used as a tactic:

  • Your husband withdraws from the interaction by turning away, not making eye contact, crossing his arms, or leaving the room.
  • Your husband raises a counter concern he has about the relationship that is not related to the issue you have raised. “You always want to talk about ________; what about the things that I think are important?
  • Your husband may up the ante by saying you are “nagging” him—this is tantamount to calling you a name.
  • Your husband may use sarcasm—“Oh, I guess I never do enough for you.”

Reactions like these are designed to distract you from raising issues that concern you. These tactics shift the focus from the issue to the marital relationship. And these tactics affect how you feel about him, how you feel about the relationship, and how you feel about yourself.

Husbands historically have used the above tactics to resist being influenced by their wives, to avoid looking at themselves, and to protect their sense of masculinity when they perceive it as being challenged.

What Can You Do?

It will take some thought and effort to talk to your husband about how he is relating to you interpersonally because this is subjective, not an objective experience. Of course, your efforts to talk about "issues" has not worked because of his "subjective" tactics.

Men historically have not been encouraged to be self-reflective, and they've had a bias toward action rather than contemplation—not seeing how this process leads to a better relationship. They sometimes prefer “facts,” valuing intellect over feelings. This makes your task of talking about your "subjective" experience of how your husband interacts with you even more difficult.

The Plan

While it is difficult to talk about these tactics, here is a plan that you can use to address the way your husband interacts with you. You will want to read through the phases of the plan, probably talking with a trusted confidante, before trying it on your resistant and emotionally distant spouse.

Phase 1: Your Personal Reaction. You will want to think about your own resentments, your fears, the way you may feel threatened by his actions toward you. You may think you have done something wrong, that you do not understand him, that you need to give him space, etc. It is likely you will need to confide in someone you trust to help you work through these resentments and insecurities.

Phase 2: Inform, Do Not Confront. You can approach your spouse with the attitude of informing him rather than confronting, criticizing, blaming, cajoling, etc. You will be able to do this only if you have worked through Phase 1 of your plan. Here are the steps to take in Phase 2:

  • Do not try to address your concerns during an argument or when he is acting badly toward you. At a calm time, begin by expressing the concerns you have about the specific issues (sharing childcare and household activities, etc.) and the negative impact on you and your marriage. Give the clearest examples you can about the problems you are experiencing, e.g., "We are not sharing childcare equally, even though we both work full-time."
  • Tell him that you are aware of the "tactics" he uses when you try to talk about these issues such as withdrawing, deflecting your concern, or characterizing you personally, e.g. saying you are "nagging." For example, you can say, “I am not sure that you are aware of how you speak to me when I try to talk to you about a concern or wish of mine. Sometimes you just ‘shut down.' Other times, you talk about how I ‘nag’ you. This prevents us from dealing with issues I think are important."
  • If your spouse can acknowledge how he interacts with you and the issues you have raised, you can begin to negotiate the next steps. You can talk over your concerns or you can agree to get outside help.
  • If your spouse continues to act in a disengaged or hostile manner, you may need to set clear boundaries on your relationship. For example, you may tell him that you do not accept and will not respond to the negative way he acts toward you. Inform him that you are going to seek help and invite him to go with you for help.
  • Inform him (in the most straightforward, non-emotional way you can muster) that how he acts is a huge factor in the quality of the marital relationship. It's up to him how he contributes.

Phase 3: If It Does Not Work. If your spouse continues to disengage with you, you will be forced to decide if you wish to stay in the marriage with a significantly diminished relationship.

You will want to assess how committed you are to the marriage—the marriage and the relationship are not the same thing. The felt quality of the relationship is a significant factor in maintaining a happy, long-term marriage. However, people stay married for reasons that are important to them that are not causally related to the quality of the relationship (e.g. for children, money, religion). You may not achieve the quality of your relationship that you wish to have and still choose to stay married.

If you decide to stay in the marriage, be sure to enhance your own life:

  • Get more invested in your work.

  • Do things you enjoy (going to the movies, out to dinner, playing cards, etc.) with friends.

  • Do more things with your extended family.

  • Prepare yourself for the possibility that your spouse will leave the marriage.

  • Seek personal counseling.

If you decide to leave the marriage, seek both psychological and legal assistance.

To Husbands: Becoming Self-Aware

Self-awareness has become the latest business management buzzword for men who want to be good leaders. Learning to be self-reflective allows you to look at yourself clearly, becoming more confident and more creative—making sounder decisions, communicating better, and building stronger business relationships. Self-awareness is as important in the marital relationship as it is in business relationships.

Making Peace With Yourself

Most married people do not want to get divorced. If you are reading this post, you are likely in that group. And, of course, you cannot assume sole responsibility for the quality of the relationship nor the viability of the marriage. You can do your part, which is what this post is designed to help you do. Kudos to you for doing your part!


1. Aponte, Catherine E. A Marriage of Equals. Berkeley: She Writes Press, 2