Today I’d like to address a question I recently received from a subscriber to my newsletter. Since Jason’s thoughtful question is relevant to so many of us in long-term relationships, I asked him if I could share it (and he agreed). I hope you are able to find something in it that you can apply to your own relationship.
Q: Hi, Dr. Nicastro. I’ve been married for eight years. My marriage goes through the typical ups and downs that I imagine most relationships go through. So there isn’t a specific relationship problem I need help with. I just want to keep improving myself in the different areas of my life, including my marriage. I know I can use improving as a husband. It’s definitely a work in progress. I’ve been reflecting on how to be a better husband. I just want to make sure I’m not missing anything. Thanks! ~Jason
A: Thank you for your question, Jason. The question of “how to be a better husband” is a big topic that can take us in several different directions. The fact that you are trying to continuously grow and improve as a husband (and in other areas of your life) is a great starting point!
Let’s look at several ways in which men can work on being a better husband to their wives (or if you’re not married, work on becoming a better partner).
How to Be a Better Husband? 5 Areas to Work On
1) Reach Beyond Yourself
There’s no way around it: Our own needs, preferences and desires act as filters that color our experiences. Because of this, it’s easy to assume that what we need and prefer is what’s best for others, including our wife or partner. When men assume they know what their partner needs based upon what works for them, trouble is just around the corner. Breakdowns in communication and failures of empathy often result from this egocentric form of relating.
Potential Solution: Ask your partner what she needs, and most importantly, be open to the answer. Don’t assume you know based upon your experience. Men and women are different, and this is reflected in what each needs emotionally.
2) Make Your Love Known
Most of the couples who come to see me feel marginalized—as a wife recently shared, “I need to feel like I matter to him, and that’s the last thing he makes me feel.” We all need to feel special, like we truly matter to our spouse or partner. It’s emotionally painful when you start to believe that you’re not elevated in your spouse’s mind in terms of importance. The husband (of the wife quoted above) ended up responding to his wife’s statement this way: “Of course you matter, I love you!” But the problem is his wife didn’t feel this way. He needed to show her that she mattered to him.
Potential Solution: Feeling love for your wife isn’t enough. You must demonstrate your love in small ways each day for your wife/partner to feel like she truly matters to you.
3) Be Responsive
Research by Janice Driver and John Gottman show that couples that are responsive to each other’s attempts to connect in small ways fare better than couples who act indifferently or ignore each other. Of course, you cannot be responsive 100% of the time, but it’s important to work on becoming aware and more attentive to the ways in which your spouse or partner reaches out to you. And it’s important to note that being responsive doesn’t always have to require a great deal of exertion from you. A small dose of attentiveness really adds up across time.
Potential Solution: Work on being attentive and responsive as your wife turns to you for support, love, conversation, etc.
4) Don’t Shy Away from Talking about Feelings
“We don’t talk about anything meaningful…” is a complaint I often hear from wives about their husbands. Another version of this complaint is, “When I ask him to talk, he’ll just cursorily tell me what happened at work, like he’s going through a checklist.” These wives want to know how their husbands feel about the experiences they are sharing. It would be a mistake, of course, to try to become emotionally expressive in ways that violate who you are.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t tack on a: “and I felt __________ when_______happened…” once in a while in order to bring yourself more fully into the communication moment.
Potential Solution: As you share your experiences with your wife, try to list one emotional experience you’re having about what you’re sharing. And don’t forget to ask how she is feeling when she shares something important to her!
5) Strengthen Your Listening Muscles
It’s somewhat of a cliché to say that as husbands we need to learn how to be better listeners. But like many clichés, there is truth to this statement. And I believe that effective listening is central to answering the question of how to be a better husband. Related to #1 above, it’s important to remember not to let your own needs and/or emotional reactions (including emotional discomfort about what your wife may be sharing) shut down the listening process.
Empathic listening means placing yourself (including your preferences, biases, attitudes, etc.) in the background as you listen to your wife. Effective listening allows the other person’s experience to take center stage.
Potential Solution: Try to listen and be open to the longing for connection as your wife shares herself with you. She needs you to listen, not swoop in to solve her problems or make her feel ashamed for feeling passionately about something.
Can you add anything to the above list as you reflect upon the question of how to improve yourself as a husband or partner? I’d encourage all husbands to periodically think about this important question. In doing so, we’re acknowledging that there is always room for growth and improvement. This mindset creates a forward movement that can undo the relationship complacency that damages so many marriages and relationships.
Here’s to becoming a better husband!
Dr. Rich Nicastro
(Featured [top] image “Husband Serving Food” by Ambro/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)