How to resolve every single frustration in your marriage

It’s true! You can resolve every single frustration you have in your marriage…if you understand this one important reality:

Behind every frustration is a wish. Behind every criticism is an unexpressed desire.

Learning to identify and communicate this desire in a safe and loving way will help you not only resolve your frustration, but transform your marriage!

When you resolve frustrations in your marriage by unlocking and fulfilling hidden desires, you become more whole as a person, more fully present, not only in your marriage, but in every arena of your life – family, work, community, world.

That’s my heart’s desire for you!

So how do I turn a marriage frustration into a spoken request so that it can be resolved?

I’m glad you asked. Try these three steps.

1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.

Stephen Covey coined this phase. It’s a powerful principle.


About 90% of our frustration in a relationship comes from history.

When a husband says, ‘You never want to have sex‘, his frustration may be connected with an experience in childhood where he received messages that he was inadequate or messages of rejection.

So when he hears, ‘Not tonight. I’ve got a headache’, he goes ballistic.  

How could he be angry when his wife has a headache? That doesn’t make sense.

No it doesn’t’¦

But what does make perfect sense is that this perceived rejection is triggering those old feelings of inadequacy.

Can you relate?

When a wife says, ‘You don’t listen to me!’, it can be connected with experiences in her childhood where she had feelings that ‘what you have to say doesn’t matter’.

Though she’s not conscious of it, she has a lot of pain around the question ‘Do I matter?’

So when her husband does something as simple as looking at his phone when she’s talking to him, it triggers something much more powerful than he realizes.  

That 10% stimulus produces a 90% reaction, and the next round of the power struggle begins. And the husband is left wondering what he did that was so bad.

Can you relate to that?

Do you see why it’s so important to first seek to understand before being understood?

The second step is…

2. Listen for your partner’s hidden desire for connection.

The hidden desire behind your partner’s frustration is always to connect with you.

That frustration, that criticism, that off-handed remark, that demand, that glare, is all because your partner doesn’t feel connected with you.

It may be hard to believe, but it’s true.

Your partner’s frustration is because they feel disconnected and don’t like it.

And so, like an infant screaming to be fed and have it’s diaper changed, your partner is unconsciously making life as miserable as possible for you until you figure out what they need.

And what your partner needs is to be emotionally connected with you and cared for by you.

Janet said to her husband, Rick, ‘You never listen to me. You’re always checking your phone. I feel like I’m talking to a wall!’

Rick didn’t understand why she was so frustrated. He was under the gun at work, and during this season he had to stay close to his phone. He thought he had made that clear to her.

But Janet was frustrated. And she felt justified in her frustration. This was her story and she was sticking to it!

But Rick changed the game they always played. That game of blaming and defending every time they encountered a frustration.

Instead of this becoming a slug-fest, he used his safe conversation skills to dialogue with Janet about this frustration. He had learned that behind every frustration is an deeper, unexpressed desire for connection.

He said, ‘I can tell you’re upset. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?’

And as they talked, Janet was eventually able to uncover what was behind her frustration.

‘When I’m talking to you and you look at your phone, I feel like what I have to say is not important to you. That makes me feel like I’m not important to you.’

And as she went on, Rick could see Janet’s reality, the inner logic that made sense to her, and it was all now beginning to make sense to him.

He realized that behind her frustration was simply a desire to be connected with him in a way that made her feel loved and valued.

As Rick continued to make the conversation safe for Janet, the hidden desire behind her frustration bubbled to the surface in the form of a wish expressed.

‘Every day I just want some time with you where I feel loved and completely accepted.’

As they both stood there, feeling deeply vulnerable, Rick did one last thing that sealed the deal for Janet and made her feel really connected with him.

3. Ask your partner what you can do to fulfill this hidden desire.

As Rick mirrored Janet’s words he was able to empathize with her feelings and desire.

Then he asked, ‘What is one thing I can do that will help you feel that love and acceptance?’

Janet thought for a moment and then said, ‘The next time we go for a walk would you leave your phone at home so we can talk?’

That request was based on Janet’s hidden desire that was at the root of her frustration.

Rick committed to this, and even better yet, on their walk the next day, Janet noticed he didn’t have his phone with him.

This made her feel so loved and safe with him. Not only was their frustration resolved but they felt more deeply connected.

Make sense?

So this is how you can resolve every frustration in your marriage.

Just take time to…

– Seek first to understand, then to be understood.
– Listen for that hidden desire for connection.
– Ask what you can do to fulfill this desire.

By following Rick’s example I’m convinced we can resolve every single frustration we encounter in our marriage!

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    How can I stop being so reactive in my marriage relationship?

    Is your marriage relationship being sabotaged by outbursts of anger and overreaction?  Does your own reaction drive you to pull away from your partner, causing her or him to feel abandoned?

    No marriage relationship can stay connected if one person is highly reactive.

    Whenever emotions are out of control, the conversation will never be safe. And feeling connected will not be possible.

    Here are three powerful insights that can help us regulate our emotions and help us stay present and connected with our partner.

    1. Our feelings drive our behavior.

    Who me? No, never. Not me. I believe you should do what’s right regardless of feelings!


    I used to be so naive.

    But after a few decades of marriage, I discovered this was almost never the case.

    Why? Because’¦

    The feelings that drive our actions are almost always unconscious.

    Seems like negativity would always spew out of my mouth whenever my unconscious fear or anger was triggered. And the results were never good.

    And this all happened without my even knowing it.

    Before I could process anything in the thinking part of my brain (cortex), the critical retort was already out of my mouth and I was in trouble.

    Can you relate?

    Problem is the neurons triggered from our lower, reactive brain travel 10 times faster than those from the top down. That’s why it so difficult to not be reactive to your partner.

    The moment that reaction occurs, the conversation is no longer safe. And the kind of dialogue that leads to connection is not possible.

    Here’s how it usually goes down. I learned this from the book, Crucial Conversations.


    The example in the graph is a wife I previously shared about.

    She grew up in a home where her father and brothers were engineers, and her mom and sister were nurses. She was the ‘artistic’ one.

    Although she was very talented, she always felt ‘dumb’ growing up with all those math and science whizzes.

    So now in her marriage,  just a ‘5-watt’ eye-roll from her husband triggers a ‘1000 watt’ reaction.

    Ok. I get it. That makes sense. But how do I get control of my emotions and all this overreaction?

    The key to controlling our emotions is learning where they come from.

    There is something that happens lightening fast between the time we see or hear something and the feelings we create in response.


    We often say, ‘He made me mad.’  Or, ‘She upset me.’

    The truth is no one can make you mad.

    ‘What? What do you mean no one can make me mad? It happens all the time!’

    No, actually, you make yourself mad.

    Something happens between what you see and hear and the feeling you create.

    ‘OK. I give up. What is that?’

    2. Our ‘stories’ drive our feelings.

    The story we tell ourselves, or the meaning we attach to an event is what creates our feelings.

    I see or hear something.
    Then…I attach meaning to it. I tell a story about it. I interpret it. I judge what motives are behind it. I tell myself whether it’s good or bad, safe or dangerous.

    And this all happens in a flash.

    That’s what creates my feelings.

    So I do create my own feelings after all…hmm.


    The path to action we take begins with what we see and hear.
    Then we tell a story about what we saw or heard.
    That story then creates feelings.
    And finally those feelings drive our behavior.

    When we are in a reactive mode, that behavior takes one of two directions: clamming up or blowing up.

    Both of these options destroy any chance of a healthy dialogue, and leave us feeling disconnected from each other.

    Sandy says, ‘Do you have to take your phone whenever we go for a walk?’

    What story do I tell? ‘She’s trying to control me.’

    That story creates feelings of anger or fear.

    Then like a hailstorm I react. Or like a turtle, I withdraw into the safety of my shell. Yes, I can be a hailstorm or a turtle.

    Clamming up or blowing up never gets me what I really want. Only safe dialogue can keep us close and connected.

    That’s because my reaction is only the beginning.  

    My reaction triggers Sandy’s pain and defenses. If she responds in kind, the conflict is on.

    How do I know so much? I’ve lived this scene over and over again. ‘Second verse, same as the first, a little bit louder and a little bit worse’.

    But I’m learning that if I can catch my story, and hold it tentatively, I can change the feelings I create before there is a reaction and things go south.

    Even if my story is true, even if Sandy IS trying to control me, I can confront the issue in a safe dialogue which brings us closer rather than blowing us apart.

    Make sense?

    In scientific terms, I have to give time for the neurons that move top down from my thinking brain to my reactive brain.

    When I stay in my thinking brain, I can master my story and then tell it in a way that doesn’t trigger hurt and reaction.

    So what’s the conclusion of all this?

    3. If I change my story, I change my emotions, and thus my behavior.

    So what does this look like?

    Crucial Conversations gives some great sentence stems that help you turn your brain back on, and keep you curious and present rather than critical and reactive.

    Here’s the one I used.

    I looked at Sandy and asked myself, ‘Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person like Sandy say that?’

    And, as I used this stem to keep my brain turned on, and to become curious about what Sandy was feeling, the answer came.

    ‘Oh yeah, she just wants to spend some uninterrupted time with me. That makes sense. That’s why always being on my phone is a frustration to her. I get it.’

    Change my story – change my feelings – bingo! Changed my behavior!

    Even with the negative vibes I felt from Sandy’s frustration, this tool kept me from reacting and helped us stay in dialogue.

    This is how we can turn a negative feeling into a positive interaction that leads us to deeper connection.

    This is how to avoid  spiraling downward into a negative interaction.

    And this is how we had a great walk, a great conversation, and ended up feeling closer to each other rather than hurt and angry.

    If you change your story, you change your feelings.

    Then you can respond in a way that gets you what you want. For yourself, for your partner, and for your relationship.

    Try it and let me know how it goes in the reply section below!

    My goal is to provide free relationship resources delivered to your email inbox every Saturday morning! To receive my weekly blogpost just subscribe below.