How to Fail at Changing Your Spouse’s Mind
Chances are if you’ve been married for some time, you’ve thought something like, “how can I change his (or her) mind?”. You’ve tried being subtle. You’ve tried to position them to hear it from someone else. At some point, you’ve probably tried arguing or the direct, ‘in your face’ approach but that didn’t make a difference. You’re not quite sure what to try next. You feel like you’re hitting a wall on something that actually matters to you.
During the troubled years my husband Carey and I went through in our marriage, we each had our change agendas. It didn’t take me long to tabulate many. For example, I was on a mission to prove to Carey that we needed more of a focus on our long-term savings; that he needed to be around more at home; and that we should buy a used car instead of new. Carey was out to show me we needed to be less lenient with kids’ bedtimes; that there was value in making high quality purchases; and that I should limit job or career switches. Did we change each other’s minds? The truth is, not using the tactics we relied on then.
We were playing out a pitfall I saw my divorce law clients fall into: being so emotionally attached to the personal objectives or ends that the means are no longer justified.
We’re all nodding when I say that trying to change your spouse’s mind is a challenge. That being said, what can you do recognize the need?
Changing Your Spouse’s Mind
You might have even walked down the aisle with a secret change agenda. The person you just married is perfect. Well, except for their…
- Beliefs about faith or religion;
- Views on politics;
- Idea of an ideal family;
- Image of a great vacation.
And maybe you thought, “That’s okay, because we’re in love and I’ll be able to sway them over to my view. They’re already showing some hints of change. I’m willing to give it time.”
After the honeymoon’s over and you’ve settled into married life for a few years, perhaps your hidden change agenda no longer focuses on beliefs or ideals as much as it does your spouse’s lifestyle and habits. And now it’s not-so-secret:
- “You’re not making time for “us” a priority”
- “Our sex life isn’t working for me, but that doesn’t seem to bother you”
- “We need help, but you won’t see a counsellor.”
These are not theoretical problems with textbook solutions. They’re real problems with complex solutions. I’ve had a friend ask me, “What can I do about my spouse’s weight problem? It’s been getting worse, but it’s a touchy subject, so I’m afraid to open the conversation. It’s affecting our sex life…the problem seems to be getting worse, not better.”
Here’s what I want us to unpack: there are tensions in your desire to change your spouse’s mind. So, in the spirit of creating more harmony in your marriage, let’s look at this tension and break it down. First we’ll back up enough to ask ‘why?’ as in ‘why do I have this desire to change my partner’s mind?’ Then, having cleared that hurdle, we’ll move on to examine from a scientific perspective which approaches are less and more likely to be effective.
“Why Do I Desire to Change My Spouse’s Mind?”
This ‘why’ question is complicated. There are times you have a desire for change in your spouse that is altruistic. You want them to take a chance on applying to that Master’s program, not because there will be lifestyle benefits for you (actually, you’ll make sacrifices), but because you see how for them, moving past their fears would be life-giving.
On the other hand, sometimes you want your spouse to change their mind because their behaviour reflects on you. Not so altruistic. You want your spouse to decide to start giving away some of their several-years-old clothing. You want them to ditch the ‘lazy pants’ and become more enamoured with the latest fashion.
Sometimes, your desire is attached to an outcome that will improve your spouse’s well-being, objectively speaking. An example? You want your spouse to become more committed to eating nutritious food instead of crappy carbs. But at other times, the connection between your desire and your spouse’s actual well-being is more tenuous. For instance? You want your spouse to purchase a status-symbol car. Or, your partner actually lost enough weight to satisfy the doctor, but you’re looking for more.
These few checkpoints will help you explore this question of ‘why?’:
- What are your motives?
- Is this something you desire for them, or something you want from them?
- Will this change improve their well-being or yours or both? Is your assessment a matter of personal preference or opinion?
- Are you at risk of interfering with their ability to make up their own mind about what they value or desire? In trying to change their mind, are you being controlling?
Take some reflective time on your own to explore the ‘why’ question.
At times, the best thing you can do is to drop your agenda to change your spouse’s mind. Or perhaps for your particular issue, engaging a process where you both examine and adjust your expectations may be helpful.
Keep in mind that marriage experts say it’s normal for happily married couples to live with some unresolved differences.
How to Influence Your Spouse to Change Their Mind
After your answers to ‘why’ satisfy you, which approaches are proven to be effective when it comes to influencing beliefs or behaviours? Alternatively, what approaches are counterproductive?
What does the science have to say?
To answer these questions, I point us toward organizational psychologist Adam Grant’s recent book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. He outlines the approaches that tend to cause people to dig in their heels versus the ones that invite people to move toward changing their minds.
It’s not the emotional force, sheer logic or sincerity of our arguments that make a difference. It’s the right kind of listening that motivates change.
To separate the common truths from the myths about what works according to Grant, consider the following:
- The approaches of a preacher, a prosecutor or a politician are common, but doomed, strategies, especially in a marriage. You already know this. The proselytizing you might have tried or the cross-examining you’ve engaged in only seemed to move you and your spouse further apart on the issue. Political- style lobbying may have irritated your husband or wife and completely shut down the conversation;
- No surprise that the bottom line of the approach he advocates is grounded in caring and respect. This sounds like, “I’ll respect you regardless of the choice you make, and you’re free to make whatever choice you think is best.”
- To influence your spouse to change their mind, learn more about motivational interviewing and influential listening. The key character qualities that ground these particular styles of listening are curiosity and humility. You focus on listening with respect, without a controlling mindset or a pre-determined agenda.
- The process of motivational interviewing involves three key techniques:
- Asking open -ended questions;
- Engaging in reflective listening;
- Affirming the person’s desire and ability to change.
- In the end, how you handle your desire to change your spouse’s mind is up to you. What means to an end are justified? What kind of person do you want to be? Grant reminds us, “When we succeed in changing someone’s mind, we shouldn’t only ask whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.
Your relationship could be a more potent instigator for personal growth for you, and for your spouse. It all hinges on what you bring to your conversations, and to your relationship. Share a comment on your experience of exerting influence on your spouse. We especially want to hear from you about your approach if both the means and the end are something you’re proud of.
 Nieuwhof T. Before You Split: Find What You Really Want for the Future of Your Marriage. (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook, 2021) Chpt 3. See also the accompanying Accountability Plan under “Resources on my website: https://toninieuwhof.com/resources/accountability-plan/
 Gottman J, Silver N. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (New York: Harmony, 2015) at 250-259
 Grant, A. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. (New York: Viking, 2021) 143-160
 Since in marriage your spouse’s choice may have to do with serious matters such as a tendency to become violent while drinking, I need to underline that while your spouse is free to make up their own mind, you may need to implement your own plan to ensure your safety and well-being.
2 thoughts on “How to Fail at Changing Your Spouse’s Mind”
Great perspective and so powerful in a relationship (and so hard!) I do have one question, Grant suggests saying, “I’ll respect you regardless of what you choose” , but not all choices deserve respect. Some choices are hurtful to others or to the chooser themselves. When someone you love makes choices that cause harm or prevent health, this is not respectful behaviour. One can and should say, “I’ll love you, whatever your choose…” (that in itself can even be tough!) but respect is earned, not given. Treating your partner with dignity and love is essential, but I don’t think we should reduce all choices to options equally worthy of respect.
I deeply appreciate your perspective on this. Grant’s quote is a general one in the sense that it’s not directed to married people. We’re on common ground with what you said, “Treating your partner with dignity and love is essential…” There are a couple of different meanings of the word “respect”. On one hand, it refers to admiration for the abilities, qualities or accomplishments of another. In another sense, “respect” denotes the “due regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others.” I would still abide with Grant’s statement in the context of marriage in that second interpretation of the word “respect”. However, in it’s first definition above, I think you’re right and I’m glad you brought this up: a spouse should not falsely or weirdly “respect” suboptimal behaviour. It’s okay to not admire a choice that isn’t healthy. And when the choice is harmful to the other spouse, then protective measures are needed.
In summary, what I’m trying to say is that there’s a difference between “respecting” choices that have to do with how one behaves or acts, and “respecting” the inherent value and autonomy of each person. In that second sense of the word, “respect” and “love” are quite aligned. Thanks again for raising this!