Are you a stubborn spouse?

4 questions to determine if your stubbornness is getting in the way of a healthy marriage

marriage advice

When working with couples in her practice, Dr. Anne Brennan Malec frequently asks about the existence of specific communication problems, like passive-aggression, unfinished conversations and resentment. She also asks clients if either one of them is stubborn. Time and again she is bemused when a client looks directly at her and responds, “Yes, I am,” or “Yes, we both are,” often while smirking at his or her partner.

People frequently claim stubbornness with a sense of pride. Some people may see stubbornness positively, such as, “She stubbornly went after her goal,” or “He has a stubborn earnestness.” People do not readily admit to being obstinate or intransigent, but stubborn is another story. Some see stubbornness as being indicative of sticking to one’s principles, knowing what you believe and not being swayed.

In relationships, stubbornness is rarely a virtue. If you automatically hold your ground during conflict, you likely push your partner away. Ask yourself these questions to assess if stubbornness is getting in the way of your relationship, and take responsibility to be more flexible with your partner.

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1. Do you find yourself unwilling to listen to your partner’s point of view? Are your conversations cut-off or left unfinished because of differences of opinion? Do you find that your discussions quickly move from a conversational tone to one of anger and escalation?

If this sounds like your relationship, and you feel that there is a lack of respectful speaking or listening when you communicate, your relationship may benefit from creating a conversational safety zone that includes:

- An agenda to establish boundaries for communication

- An agreement as to time and place for the conversation that holds you both accountable

- Self-imposed breaks if either of you is getting physiologically and emotionally over-heated

- And an agreement for no name calling, swearing, eye-rolls, or reflexive dismissiveness of your partner’s perspective  

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2. Do you have a need to be right at your partner’s expense? If your partner seeks space from you can you allow it without chasing them, or do you need to “finish” the argument?

Sometimes spouses have a difficult time letting go of a disagreement, feeling a need to beat a conflict into the ground just to make a point. Perhaps you or your partner is the type that needs to have the last word, or you keep a running tally of past hurts and upsets, refusing to move on or let things go. When this occurs, there is a significant lack in empathy, and both partners often come to view communication about disagreements as futile. By bringing empathy to the discussion, you can stay focused and tailor your conversation to lessen the likelihood of escalation and increase the opportunity for you to feel understood by your partner.

What does empathy look like? Try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes: imagine what it must feel like to always be told you are wrong. Think of how dis-incentivizing it would feel to know that your partner is more interested in making a point than in solving a problem. Most would agree that it feels lousy to always be on the losing end of a discussion, to always listen to how your partner thinks he or she is right and you are wrong. Be active in your efforts to own your feelings, assumptions, and opinions by using “I” statements and giving your partner the opportunity to clarify his or her understanding of your perspective.

3. Do you resist taking responsibility for hurting your partner because doing so indicates that you are wrong?

Taking responsibility for wrongs and hurts in a marriage requires honesty, vulnerability, and empathy to our partner’s pain. I have witnessed how the stubbornness of a partner can keep an apology from being expressed. Instead of an apology there are rationalizations, explanations, or blame. The resistance to apologize is often rooted in the fear of being seen as imperfect, flawed, and possibly undesirable. Ironically, this course of action is counter-productive, because it is the refusal to apologize and to accept responsibility for our hurtful actions that puts us at risk for being undesirable.

4. Do you resist a reasonable request for change?

Any of us who have been in a relationship long enough will have heard a partner request that we stop doing something, start doing something, change a bad habit, pay more attention to a behavior, etc. Upon hearing such a request, it is not unusual for a partner to respond with defensiveness, blaming, a counter-request, or stubbornness.

All of us want to be accepted for who we are, bad habits and weird quirks included. When a partner asks us to change a behavior, it can feel like a rejection. However, the reason your partner is bringing this behavior to your attention is because it is having an negative effect on your relationship. Your partner asks this of you to address a problem before it grows larger or becomes an obstacle between you.

Challenge yourself: the next time your partner asks you to change a behavior, instead of reflexively resisting or dismissing the request, say something like, “Okay, I will try”, or “I didn’t know it bothered you so much, I will work on it,” or simply “Okay.” And then follow through with your promise.

Dr. Anne Brennan Malec  is the founder and managing partner of Symmetry Counseling, a group counseling, coaching and psychotherapy practice in Chicago. She also is author of the book “Marriage in the Modern Life: Why It Works, When It Works.” Dr. Malec earned her Bachelor’s degree from Villanova University in Accountancy and holds two Master’s degrees: one in Liberal Studies from DePaul University, and one in Marital and Family Therapy from Northwestern University. Dr. Malec earned her Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology.