After reading the article, “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child” circling social media, I couldn’t resist writing this post. Insightful and practical, I quietly snickered as I read through the characteristics of a “difficult” and willful child. As my parents can attest to, this article accurately described a picture of my childhood. My parents would joke that all they had to do was look at my sister when she was in trouble and she would cry. Me on the other hand? My parents would look at me and I would boldly stare right back at them.
As the article explains, strong-willed children are difficult to parent because they have their own ideas and ways of doing things and don’t like being told what to do. However, if parents can guide their strong spirit and “resist the impulse to ‘break their will’, strong-willed kids often become leaders.”
This was great advice for parents. But what happens when that strong-willed child grows up? Parenting is one thing. Being married to a strong-willed spouse is quite another.
A strong-willed spouse gets a bad rap. They can be seen as stubborn, dominant, unreasonable, or headstrong. Strong-willed wives are told to be more submissive while strong-willed husbands are told to be soft and less domineering. Trying to conform the behavior of your strong-willed spouse can easily lead to power struggles, conflict, criticism, hurt, and misunderstanding of character.
Understanding your strong-willed spouse can go a long way toward a healthier marriage. When we understand how our spouse is designed, we more accurately interpret their behavior and develop healthier styles of relating, seeing their strong-will as a God-given strength rather than a weakness.
The article described strong-willed as “people of integrity who aren’t easily swayed from their own viewpoints. They are spirited and courageous. They want to learn things for themselves rather than accepting what others say, so they test the limits over and over. They want desperately to be “in charge” of themselves, and will sometimes put their desire to “be right” above everything else. When their heart is set on something, their brains seem to have a hard time switching gears. They have big, passionate feelings and live at full throttle.”
Sound familiar? This definitely resonated with me. These characteristics can easily continue throughout adulthood and well into marriage.
While opposites attract, our marriage is more unique in that we are both strong-willed individuals (how’d that happen?!). A relationship with not one, but two strong-wills leaves us with a choice. We could find ourselves opposed, opinions flowing, wills colliding, playing a marital game of tug of war. Or we could choose to understand and appreciate the other’s strengths and align our wills, becoming a marital powerhouse capable of accomplishing anything. We chose the latter. And our marriage has been stronger for it. We continue to learn how to work together to form a more powerful, resilient, unified team.
So how can you better understand your strong-willed spouse? Here are some of Aha! Parenting’s tips, that I slightly tweaked for marriage:
1. Avoid power struggles by using routines and rules.
“You don’t have to prove you’re right. Side-step power struggles and avoid being the bad guy bossing them around.”
Best advice ever, especially for marriage. You can easily find yourself in a “he said, she said” argument with two strong, opposing opinions and ways of doing things. Strong-willed people like to be right, which can create a subtle competition they are sure to win. In a parenting relationship, the parent is the one who makes the rules. But in a marriage, who decides how things will be? You can avoid creating a “may the best man (or logical opinion) win” environment by agreeing on a set of household rules and learning how to compromise. Creating family rules provides a unified standard for everyone to adhere to. And if a rule is violated, you can point your finger to something other than your spouse.
2. Don’t push your spouse into opposing you.
“Force always creates “push-back” — with humans of all ages. If you take a hard and fast position, you can easily push your [spouse] into defying you, just to prove a point. Just stop, take a breath, and remind yourself that winning a battle with your [spouse] always sets you up to lose what’s most important: the relationship.”
This can easily happen in marriage. We have an opinion, one we believe is right, and sometimes we don’t back down purely out of principal. Stand your ground and your strong-willed spouse will quickly rise to the challenge. Raise the level of intensity in a conversation and your strong-willed spouse will likely match you rather than back down. Good rule of thumb: pick your battles wisely. Not everything needs to be a throw down match. Nor does every disagreement need to be won. Timing is everything. Approaching a strong-willed spouse in a gentle, non-threatening way will yield more successful results than with an accusatory or combative tone. Remember to ask yourself, “Is winning this argument or proving my point really worth it? Can we agree to disagree? Can we just let it go?” If you do choose to drop it, make sure you can do so without becoming resentful. Or select a better time and approach your spouse later to discuss the issue.
3. Offer respect and empathy. See it from their point of view.
“Most strong-willed [spouses] are fighting for respect. She has a viewpoint that is making her hold fast to her position, and she is trying to protect something that seems important to her. Only by listening calmly to her and reflecting her words will you come to understand what’s making her oppose you. And, like the rest of us, it helps a lot if she feels understood.”
When your strong-willed spouse is being defensive, in reality they are trying to protect their position, feelings, and heart. You don’t need to agree with them, but if you can show respect and value what is being said they will feel less of a need to hold a fighting stance. A non-judgmental, “Can you tell me more about…?” or “Can you help me understand why…?” will go a long way toward resolving the conflict.
4. Remember that strong-willed spouses are experiential learners.
“That means they have to see things for themselves. It’s more effective for them learn through experience, instead of trying to control them. Once you know that, it’s easier to stay calm, which avoids wear and tear on your relationship–and your nerves.”
Understanding that your strong-willed spouse learns best through experience is important. Many times we try to control outcomes or avoid consequences by telling others what to do or how to do it. But this will backfire with a strong-willed spouse and they will begin to feel controlled and frustrated. Remember that “when adrenaline is pumping, learning shuts off”. Getting into an argument about how they should or shouldn’t be doing something will only cause them to focus on defending their position instead of focusing on the present learning opportunity. Help your spouse create “safe” learning opportunities where they can test the outcome without detrimental consequences to you or your family.
5. Your strong-willed spouse wants mastery more than anything.
“Let him take charge of as many of his own [responsibilities] as possible. Don’t nag at him. [People] who feel more independent and in charge of themselves will have less need to be oppositional. Not to mention, they take responsibility early.”
Nagging has never been a great motivator. It just leaves you feeling frustrated and your spouse feeling small and criticized. Your strong-willed spouse longs to be independent and take charge of their own destiny. He or she has the capacity to be self-disciplined and self-motivated, but needs a little breathing room. They won’t respond well if they feel micromanaged or like you’re looking over their shoulder. But they also don’t need to manage everyone else’s schedule either. Make a to-do list together, each of you choosing tasks that compliment your abilities and strengths. Set deadlines for each task, and then give each other room to accomplish them. Give your strong-willed spouse the freedom she needs to learn from her own mistakes. Remember she’s an experimental learner!
6. Give your strong-willed spouse choices.
“If you give orders, he will almost certainly bristle. If you offer a choice, he feels like the master of his own destiny. Of course, only offer choices you can live with and don’t let yourself get resentful.”
This idea might sound weird in a marital environment but hear me out. The key here is to remember that your spouse likes to be in charge of his own destiny, schedule, routine, to-do list, etc. You and your spouse could have different ideas of how to spend the weekend and altered expectations could ignite sparks. Telling your spouse how their time will be spent can make them feel controlled and parented. Instead, communicate your schedule and expectations of your spouse and include options on timing, tasks, involvement, etc. For example, if you agree that house projects need to get done, give the strong-willed spouse options by asking, “would you rather clean out the garage on Saturday or Sunday?” or “would you prefer to help me before or after dinner?” These questions show your spouse you respect their time and preferences, while giving them management over their own schedule and participation. Remember, choices provide freedom and independence.
7. Your spouse’s strong-will is a gift.
See and appreciate your spouse’s strong-will as a strength. It provides them courage, tenacity, and perseverance when the going gets rough. In the face of tragedy and struggle they will pick themselves back up and press on. They live passionately and love fiercely. They raise children to think for themselves, resist peer pressure, and stand for what they believe. Strong-willed spouses are leaders. We are survivors. Understanding how your strong-willed spouse operates will go a long way toward healthier communication, conflict resolution, and intimacy in marriage!
Living with a strong-willed spouse can ignite conflict. Learn how to deal with it in a healthy way! Check out these posts for more tips:
*quotes in this post were taken from Aha Parenting’s article, “Parenting Your Strong-Willed Child”.