If there’s a gene for being blunt, I promise you that my Jersey Italian family got it two-fold.

We’re not crass or mean-spirited per se, but as my mother would put it, we’re “efficient in our honesty.” (Well, that’s one way to put it!)  Anyway, growing up in this family—this loving, open, boisterous and brutally honest family– gasps of horror at the honest answers to questions like, “Does this dress make me look fat?” or “What do you think of my new hair cut?” often resulted in the aforementioned statement:  Don’t ask the question if you’re not ready to hear the answer.

So you’re probably wondering how this piece of familial “wisdom” relates to fixing troubled relationships.

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Allow me to explain:  When one partner in a marriage expresses that a need of his or hers feels unmet, such as, “I don’t feel respected at home,” a question we hope the other partner will ask is:

“What can I do to help you feel respected?”

Why is this question so critical?

This question is critical for two reasons:

#1) Notice that the question makes an offer of assistance—not ownership. 

The partner does not respond by asking what he or she can do to make the other person feel respected.  Assuming you have the power to force a change on someone’s psyche is not only the exact opposite of respect, but also robs the individual of ownership of his or her emotional experiences.


Are you with me so far?


#2) Asking for guidance as to how one may assist is — in itself–  an act that conveys respect.  You show respect when you assume your spouse is the expert on his or her needs.

So there you go– easy enough, right?  WRONG!

You must NEVER ever ask your spouse, “What can I do to help you feel respected?”  (or something similar) unless you have already considered this:

How willing are you to give your partner what he or she requests? 

How much do you trust that your spouse’s request will be reasonable?


Trust and believe,  these are questions worth asking yourself.  If my own past experience and the many couples I’ve met over the years are any indicator, I’m guessing there are probably some needs or compromises to which you’re more willing to acquiesce than others.

And hey,  that’s okay.  You’re allowed to have boundaries too!

The point is to know what those boundaries are, and go into that conversation with honesty.

One of the worst things you could do in this situation is promise to do something and then not do it.

Let me say that again:  One of the worst things you can do in this situation is promise to do something, and then not do it.

Do you hear me?  Worst!


But E.J., what if my spouse requests something of me that I truly am unwilling to give?

Well that’s certainly possible.  Assuming your spouse hasn’t asked you to be an accomplice in some illegal activity, or put your family in physical, mental, emotional or spiritual danger (because I’m assuming you married a reasonable, generally decent person):  Ask yourself what about the request feels unreasonable to you.


This inner exploration is wise for two reasons:

1)    You’re much more likely to have a rational, respectful discussion (as opposed to an emotion-filled rant) if you’ve done your inner homework around the request.

2)    Since compromise is an important component of any marriage or relationship, understanding your stance on the issue will also help you reach a compromise that leaves both parties feeling heard and satisfied.

If all else fails, seek mediation from a neutral, safe, and mutually agreed upon third party together.  This might be a chaplain, pastor, or even a counselor.  In this scenario, the ideal would be for you to both be present.  However, if your partner is unavailable or unwilling to meet, I think its at least important that you go.  Get that perspective.  Feel heard and be willing to listen.

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts and questions.  Can you relate?

Image source:; photographer: stockimages



About the author 

E.J. Smith

E.J. Smith is a Nationally Certified Counselor, motivational speaker, writer and advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. She is also the face (and mouth) behind Born in New Jersey, and transplanted to Texas, this self-professed holistic health nut enjoys a wide variety of athletics, reading, and cooking. Raised Catholic and the wife of an active duty Marine, E.J. uses introspection and pragmatism to help readers create loving, fulfilling relationships from the inside out. Follow EJ on Twitter @SimplyEJS

Dustin Riechmann created Engaged Marriage to help other married couples live a life they love (especially) when they feel too busy to make it happen. He has many passions, including sharing ways to enjoy an awesome marriage in 15 minutes a day, but his heart belongs with his wife Bethany and their three young kids.

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  1. Yes I am guilty of “one of the worst things you could do in this situation is promise to do something and then not do it.” I hate to say it but it has happened more often than I would like to the point my wife calls me on it. To be far sometimes it was not a promise but more of a goal or aim, but suffice to say I missed the target and was nailed for it. I wish communication would be so much easier, but with two broken people and their ideal of how to be communicated with it just does not work out that way. You really need mercy and a lot of grace.

    1. David,

      Thank you so much for your honesty and for sharing this piece of your story with me. I promise that you are not alone in “forgetting to remember” some of the goals couples set in their marriages for things to work on. Not knowing what it is you’re working on specifically– I wonder if it would be possible for you to set little reminders for yourself? Often when I’m working with clients, we’ll lay out goals. I ask and encourage them to take a copy of these goals and put them someplace where they will see them. I ask them to look over those goals 2-3 times/week and ask themselves, “What have I done to work on ______ this week?” Sometimes, the answer will be “Nothing.” But the simple act of reflecting and acknowledging progress (or not) creates an opportunity to move forward mindfully. The other thing to consider is utilizing your partner as just that– a partner. If your relationship is conducive to it, you might consider admitting to your spouse that you’re having trouble working on a particular goal and ask her to help you with either gentle reminders or specific requests. I know my husband appreciates it more when I ask him to do specifics (Can you turn over the laundry when you get home?) rather than generalizations (I wish you’d help me more around the house.)

      I would love to hear your thoughts — and I’m sure the community would appreciate learning from/with you. Thanks again, David!

      1. Thanks EJ for your response. It is nice to get the feedback. I like what you are suggesting. My wife has gotten more frustrated and bitter over the years and is not very encouraging to the point she has pulled away from the marriage from too many “drops” on my end either intentional or not.

        Be on guard friends and guard your heart for it is so easy to see the flaws in your relationship to justify unhealthy behaviors. Yes, I have admitted my drops and done my best to take ownership of them, but the fact remains I am human and will continue to fail, hopefully less and less however. I have used Outlook task lists to help me and other notes. Since I have some ADHD issues it is even more important to help me focus. Suffice to say to it has worn on my wife to the point she is not really engaged in the marriage. I continue to use sites like EM and others to help me in hopes it will spur her on. I will fight the good fight because I know how that honors God through our marriage vows. I love her as she is.

        1. David,

          I am going to lovingly remind you that you cannot carry the weight of this marriage by yourself– you couldn’t when it was healthy and you can’t now that it’s suffering. If your wife is disenchanted or disengaged, something within her will need to shift. Have you ever tried couples counseling, or individual? If she is carrying old hurts and resentments (no matter how justified they are) around, that is going to dramatically undermine any attempts to change and more forward. Maybe having her own therapist to vent to would be a really great thing– she can air out the old hurts (like cleaning out an infected wound) –and then get healthy to reengage with you as a partner. It wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to do the same. Thoughts?

          1. Thanks EJ. Totally agree. We tried couples counseling (~ 9 months) and she refuses to continue. I offered a different counselor to no avail, but I still continue to go on my own. She has no other real friendships in her life to turn to, just her parents. She has closed off any that would criticize challenge her decisions, making her feel guilty.

            At this point it is offered up in fervent prayer and I hope for the best and prepare for the worst. It is sad because she is unhappy and has been in her mind for years. She has for all intensive purposes checked out on me (we have two small children she is still connected with). I continue to work hard to identify my own issues including many times I have dropped my wife, but as you noted I can’t carry the marriage on my own and if she wants to leave then I can’t stop her. I continue to seek out solid counsel and general comfort primarily with strong Christian men in my life, my pastor, counselor and immediate family, asking those strong in the Lord to pray for us. It is a tough road to be sure and there are no easy answers. I feel as a man I was not entirely prepared to be a husband and truly honor God-designed marriage and would have loved to put in practice many of the resources I am reviewing now like EM and other sites, books and resources (e.g Family Life Today is a great one).

            So here I am looking at the precipice of separation and divorce. No one is safe from selfishness and self-righteousness unless we die to ourselves and submit all of who we are to Christ. That is where my hope is, in Christ, not one person, my kids, friends, job. In the end I see that is where I want to stand, on the side of Christ no matter what pain I need to endure to be purified. EJ and the EM community, I thank you for your commitment to uplift marriage. You ARE making a difference and for that I am thankful and rejoice in the Lord.

  2. While this site is good for things to do to better a good marriage, it is severely lacking in help for troubled and separating marriages.
    When my wife left and filed for divorce, I looked hard for help. I sought out counselors, websites, books, anything that could help me.
    God has been my greatest help. He has shown me where I’ve been lacking and where I’ve been ignorant. I believe He led me to this site to show me how much is lacking in the Christian counselors today. Concentrating on sex, how to respect my wife, or how to spend more time on the things that really matter would’ve been great four years ago. When she left, she’d already made up her mind and was through. To this day (11/28/2013), she hasn’t spoken to me since she left. The last words I heard from my best friend, my reason to be a better man, were: “I hate you.”
    Two websites, three people (four including Him), have helped me to see that there is a light in this darkness. There is a path through this valley. God does have a plan and these sites do help.
    The first is run by a woman who divorced her husband and then saw her errors. They finally remarried and God restored their family.
    The next site helped me personally through a horrible time. The man behind it counseled me personally, via skype. He helped me to see that a divorce is just papers. God created marriage and can restore any marriage, ANY MARRIAGE (yours included). Ken Nair wrote a book that changed my whole view about my wife. Discovering the Mind Of a Woman is one of the greatest helps I could offer any man who is, or may be married. His heart and entire message came through that book. He personally Skyped with me and helped me see that God has a plan for all of this.

    Life is not over. Your marriage was before God and man. You promised God that you would love your spouse and none other (besides Him) as long as you both lived.
    Your marriage has failed or is currently failing because you’ve forgotten your promise. We men are called to follow Christ’s example: Laying down our lives for our bride, even unto death.
    Unconditional love is what He gave. We are charged by Him to do the same.
    A wife sees Jesus in ways a man cannot. She sees His purity, kindness, compassion… She sees it all and then looks at her husband. Her commentary and actions are only about how we could be like Him.
    Wives desire a husband like Christ.
    We are called to be like Christ.
    We succeed or fail based on how we see their words. Do we see it as criticism of us, or encouragement to be like Him?
    I know this is long. I do not apologize. More needs to be written. More needs to be done. We are failing our wives and letting down our Savior.

    We are called to be like Christ.

    Love like He does. Expect nothing in return and continue to love. No matter what, you must love without limits. Love without reason and without thought of what may come. Love as Christ did. When they washed His feet with oil, He loved them. When they mocked Him, He lived them. When they killed Him, He forgave them and died in a way that would allow all of us to be forgiven.
    He continues to love us no matter what we do. This is the example of who a husband truly is.
    Our job, my job (my loving duty) is to be like Him in everything I do.
    My wife tried to point out where I could improve. I didn’t listen. Today I give thanks for a wife who had the courage to leave me and divorce me because I would not be like Christ. I’m thankful for God’s grace and my hope of glory in Him.
    Don’t ever give up on Him. His plan is perfect. His love is unconditional.
    Remember and be like Him.

  3. Joseph, I’m glad to hear that you’ve found websites to help you and that you’ve felt God present within your life in a healing manner. I think the goal of many websites is to help people strengthen their marriages so that they don’t get to the point where people are more ready to call it quits than work through.

    I value what you had to say about perhaps addressing the concerns of people whose marriages are truly over– even post divorce. I think that would definitely be something I’d be open to discussing in a future post. I will look forward to reviewing the resources you posted, and I hope that some our readers will benefit from them too.

    I cannot speak for the owner of the site, but I fully believe that Dustin recognized the need for “more” interventions and articles about help for troubled marriages. I have gotten some feedback so far, and I promise that I’m listening. There will be articles that address some of your concerns in upcoming months- I can promise you that because they’re already in the works.

    Now here’s my little disclaimer: Do I believe that God and couples can mend marriages? Yes– I think that often marriages can be saved. That being said, I cannot ethically advocate for spouses staying in marriages/relationships that are abusive. I’m not saying yours was, but what I am saying is that while I can advocate greatly for the strength and health of many marriages, I will always stop short of saying partners should *always* stay together. I appreciate your feedback and will take your recommendations to heart.

    1. Joseph – Thank you very much for openly sharing your thoughts and experiences, and I appreciate EJ’s thoughtful response as well.

      You’re right in the sentiment that Engaged Marriage is not a site designed to repair seriously damaged relationships or to specifically aid those dealing with divorce. Our “sweet spot” is in enriching marriages and empowering couples before they reach that point – and there is plenty of work to do in that area, as I’m sure you can appreciate.

      That said, we are trying to offer more help to those who are hurting, and I hope that EJ’s contributions are a great step in the right direction on that front. I am certainly open to referring people in need to other outside resources, and I do so often.

      Thanks again for being a reader and for sharing where you are.


  4. Hey Ethan,

    I can’t find your comment, on the page– but just in case you ever come back– I want to thank you for your positive feedback!

  5. Thanks all. Joseph your comments have been helpful to me as well. I have found that is also a great resource. It starts with men being more Christlike in our marriages for sure.

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