Developing Sensitivity in Marriage


I had to go to an early morning faculty meeting some thirty minutes away from home. Since it was Relief Society day, too, and we had only one car, I promised my wife, Marva, the Relief Society nursery leader, that I would be home in time to help her get our preschoolers and all the nursery materials to the meeting on time.

But things just didn’t go as planned. First, my meeting ran late. And then I remembered I had a counseling appointment with a student. So I called Marva to inform her that I wouldn’t be home to help and that she would have to call someone else for a ride.

“Honey,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I know you would want me to keep my commitment with my student. You do understand, don’t you?”

She could have reluctantly agreed with me, burying her feelings of resentment and pretending that it would be all right. Instead, being honest with her feelings and with me, she said, “David, I really want you to keep your commitment with me! I need the car, and I need your support. So won’t you please call your student and re-schedule the appointment?”

I did as she requested, grateful for a wife who tells me her feelings while still being sensitive to mine.

Thinking of that experience later, I realized what I had done. Having made a commitment to her, I seemed ready at the drop of a hat to break it. Without knowing it, I was telling her that my work was more important than hers, and that if there was to be a sacrifice, she would be the one to make it. Of course, I didn’t say it in those words, and I would have been shocked if she had accused me of implying that. But when I considered it afterward, I concluded that that was really the message I was giving her and that I was being insensitive to some very real needs.

I’ve noticed this problem—self-centeredness and insensitivity—over and over in my work as a professional marriage counselor and as director of an LDS institute. The problem is a real one, and it isn’t unique to one sex. Both men and women struggle with it. But it can be overcome—with a little awareness, empathy, and consideration.

I think men are especially susceptible to insensitivity because in our society they generally have more power than women: more education, more income, more control of public and business finances, more leadership positions in business and government. And in the Church, they are given the priesthood and are told to be the patriarch and to preside in the home.

If men are not careful they can misuse this power and become insensitive and selfish. Some LDS men have a tendency to rule over their wives in a dominating way (see D&C 121:39). Others, operating on the false premise that women are seriously lacking in wisdom, judgment, or common sense, become sarcastic and critical of their wives.

They won’t admit to having such a negative view of women—they may even be found intellectualizing about the greatness of womankind. But their behavior speaks even louder.

At an elders quorum party that Marva and I attended early in our marriage, I told some cute jokes on her and also a few mother-in-law jokes—all, of course, at their expense. It seemed innocent enough to do because the others were doing it too. But when we got home, Marva told me how embarrassed and hurt she was, and she requested that all jokes and personal experiences shared publicly be positive and complimentary.

When I considered my behavior, I agreed that I had no cause to belittle her or her mother—that derogatory jokes about women are unnecessary and avoidable. Hers was a reasonable request; again, I was glad she pointed out my insensitivity sensitively—and early in our marriage.

The role of homemaker is also a frequent target of men’s criticism and jokes. I’ve heard men say, “Women have it easy; they don’t have to worry about all the problems of making a living.” This may be said in jest, but it still sounds critical, discounting the role of the woman in the home. We husbands should never make our wives feel that their work is small, unimportant, or of less worth than ours. Their job at home is every bit as important as ours of making a living. And just as husbands need to feel that their wives appreciate their role as provider, wives need the same appreciation from their husbands for their work as homemaker.

We have a desk in our bedroom which my wife uses for her church work and for other activities. I frequently find myself reminding her to keep it cleared off and orderly. On one occasion when I was tired, hungry, and angry about something else, I used the cluttered desk as an excuse to vent my angry feelings. Demanding in a rather offensive manner that she immediately clean it off, I let her know that since she’s home all day she could have taken a few minutes to work at it.

She responded by gently leading me over to the closet to show me all the shirts she had washed and ironed that day, then to my dresser drawers to show me all the clean clothes she had washed and folded neatly away. She calmly reminded me of the sick children she had cared for and taken to the doctor, and of the good dinner she had ready for me when I came home. Then she said, “Honey, what I need from you is not criticism for what I haven’t done, but expressions of appreciation for what I have done. Then I’ll feel more like working at my desk.” I apologized, she accepted, I expressed appreciation, she cleaned her desk, and we concluded happily.

Besides verbally expressing our appreciation, we husbands can and should demonstrate our feelings of the worth of our wives’ work at home by helping them out with it. By rolling up our sleeves and changing diapers, mopping and vacuuming floors, and washing dishes alongside our wives, we can show them that we consider their work important and valuable—not demeaning or condescending—and that we’re grateful for what they do for us.

Women can fall into the trap of insensitivity as easily as men can. My wife, Marva, tells me that too often women’s conversations about their husbands are concluded with the phrase, “Well, you know how men are,” implying that men are just big little boys or that they are demanding and tyrannical. Just as some men are guilty of uncomplimentary jokes and criticism about their wives, some women complain endlessly about their husbands. And when they hear good ideas in Relief Society or elsewhere that could increase the quality of their marriage or the spirituality in their home, they say, “If I did that, he’d just laugh,” or “He’ll never do it.” They seem to have little faith in their husbands and expect little from them.

“I know the way some women can talk about their husbands,” Marva says. “I wonder if the whiny, critical complaints I hear publicly are not just the iceberg tip of much insensitivity to each other in these marriages.”

I appreciate Marva’s directness in handling problems that may arise between us. She would never knowingly hurt me. When she is hurt, she assumes it is unintentional—and so she deals with the problem instead of attacking the person. Instead of lashing out with accusations, striking at my pride and engendering anger, she focuses on the problem: “When you came home late today, it really hurt me because I had planned to. …” Then I’m not personally offended and am more likely to respond sensitively.

Marva has a good philosophy: “Just as Johnny Lingo, by his expectations, was able to have an ‘eight-cow-wife,’” she says, “each woman can have her own ‘Six Million Dollar Man.’ It takes charity, the pure love of Christ. We have to love unconditionally, to forgive and be forgiven, to expect the best, and to never stop doing our best.”

Family finances can cause hurt feelings unless both parties are sensitive to each other. I recall heating about a husband who required his wife to list each item of clothing she wished to purchase, along with its price. Only after he approved her list would he give her a check to cover the items. Then she could go back and actually purchase the clothes. In some cases the problem is reversed, and wives become critical of their husband’s use of the family funds.

I trust my wife’s judgment—and I want her to know it. So we discuss our finances, go over our budget, and decide together what we can afford. Then we trust each other to stay within the limits we’ve agreed upon. And when problems arise, it’s easier to handle them sensitively.

Recently I wanted to buy a new, expensive car, and after a very persuasive salesman had convinced me I deserved it (I must admit I was very cooperative), I went home and announced to my wife what I was going to do. Expecting to have to defend my idea, I was ready with my arguments. She responded with some concern about the wisdom of buying such an expensive car, but then said, “Honey, I trust you and I know you wouldn’t do it unless you really thought it was the best thing to do.” Feeling very keenly my responsibility to act wisely, I couldn’t go through with it. I had to live up to the expectation my wife had of me. She could have criticized me and discounted my idea, but instead, she sensitively let me know how she felt and then expressed confidence that I would handle my stewardship well.

I’ve often thought that was a good example of dealing with differences in a positive way—without making each other feel defensive and resentful. And I’m grateful for the many other times Marva has shown me that sensitivity is better medicine for marriage than criticism born of self-centeredness.

I don’t like win-lose situations between husbands and wives because just as the name implies, one wins at the expense of the other. In reality, both lose: the “winner” has an unhappy and resentful spouse. But by avoiding negative criticism and by being sensitive to each other, every couple can negotiate win-win solutions.

Sensitivity is also an important element in the affectional aspect of marriage. As a marriage counselor, I’ve seen marital insensitivity appear in two forms: selfish demands and selfish denials of affection.

Regarding selfish demands of affection, I’m convinced that as husbands are thoughtful and sensitive to the tender feelings of their wives, as they conscientiously court their wives and strive to make them feel loved and cherished, they will find feelings of selfishness and self-centeredness fade.

And regarding selfish denials of affection, a female client once complained to me, “Maybe after a few years of daily assurance of my husband’s love, I wouldn’t need it much after that.” All she really needed was the assurance that every successful marriage is dependent upon—daily nourishment such as a hug, kiss, kind words, expressions of acceptance, acts of service, words of appreciation, and many “I love yous.”

Another client said to me, “Of course I love my wife. But do I have to tell her all the time?” I tried to help him see that although he might be satisfied with a minimum of emotional expression, his wife obviously wasn’t, and that for her sake, as well as his, he should reconsider his point of view and unselfishly make his wife feel the love that he really had for her.

The most important messages husbands and wives can give each other daily is that they are each other’s best friend, that they love and cherish one another, that each respects and appreciates the other’s work, and that no one is more important to them. These messages, conveyed in act as well as word, are products of selflessness and sensitivity.

Illustrated by Parry Merkley

David H. Coombs, a professional marriage and family counselor, serves as director of the LDS Institute of Religion, University of California at Irvine.