Asking for Change

Although we must accept our partners as they are, this doesn't mean that we can't ask them to make changes. In fact, marriage is all about growth, which means that it is all about making changes (for the better). Both husbands and wives can ask each other to change some aspect of their behavior in order to bring about some kind of improvement. This is not the same as trying to control one's partner. When we control our partner, we try to make them do things our way. On the other hand, when we ask our partners to make a change, we want them to do things differently because we feel that an improvement is necessary for the relationship or the situation at hand.

For instance, if a wife asks a husband to wash the dishes in a particular order – starting with the cutlery, then plates, bowls, pots and so on – she's probably being controlling. There are lots of ways to wash the dishes and the husband can find one that works best for him. On the other hand, if she asks him to please wash the dishes when she's finished cleaning up the kitchen, this may be a valid request because having only one person at a time in a small kitchen might make the clean-up routine easier for her.

Communication Strategies

Whether the request is big or small, presenting it requires skill. Presenting a request in an unskilled manner may lead to conflict instead of cooperation. For instance, suppose the woman in the above example gets all upset when she is trying to tidy up and her husband comes in to wash the dishes. In her upset, she uses an unpleasant tone of voice and an unkind choice of words: "Do you ALWAYS have to be in the kitchen just when I'm trying to put things away? Can't you wait until I'm finished?" Hearing this, her husband throws down the dish towel and marches out angrily, "Fine! Do the dishes yourself then!" The woman may be surprised that her husband was so nasty, as it is easier to spot unpleasantness in others than to recognize it in ourselves. Furthermore, she may not realize that his lack of cooperation has more to do with her communication style than his innate disposition.

Getting to "Yes"

Here are some communication strategies that encourage, rather than discourage, spousal cooperation.

  1. Timing: Rather than just asking for changes as they pop into your mind, wait for an appropriate moment. The best moments for making a request occur when both husband and wife are relatively relaxed and friendly toward each other. If such moments are hard to find right now, don't make any unnecessary requests for the time being. Instead, put all efforts into bringing the marriage into better balance. This may include going for professional counseling, a holiday together, raising the amount of positive communications on your end, and any number of other healing strategies.
  2. Focus on the Goal: Instead of talking about what you don't want your spouse to do, phrase the request in terms of what you want him or her to do. For instance, instead of saying, "I can't work with you in the kitchen at the same time as me," say, "Would it be possible for you to do the dishes after I leave the kitchen?" This strategy avoids the unpleasant sound of a complaint. Complaints reduce cooperation.
  3. Keep it Short: Stay away from paragraphs and lectures. Think before you speak so that you can plan your request. In fact, it is best to find a way to ask for what you want in one short question. This makes it easier for your spouse to understand and cooperate with your request.
  4. Keep it Pleasant: Making requests in an upbeat, positive tone of voice increases the chance that your spouse will be happy to comply. Sounding irritated, angry or disappointed provokes negativity in the listener and increases the likelihood that your request will be perceived as an attack. If so, you are more likely to receive a counterattack than compliance. For instance, if the wife says in a terse tone, "I really can't work in here with you here at the same time," chances are high that the husband will respond with a complaint of his own: "Well, if you'd cleaned up earlier we wouldn't be having this problem."

Using these simple strategies to increase cooperation has the added benefit of increasing love and affection, too. All the Torah's paths are peace; slowing down and communicating respectfully not only fulfills the mitzvah of loving our fellow as ourselves, but it also brings a reward of greater marital harmony and happiness.