We get hundreds of emails asking for marriage and sex help, and in almost every case the second step of our advice is to talk with your spouse. (The first step is to talk with God through prayer.) Most emails include a disclaimer like:

I’ve already tried to talk to my wife about this, but she just won’t listen.

So… you want advice that doesn’t include talking to your spouse? Well, you can’t just skip past that.

There are a gazillion books you can read about how to have productive conversations, but today I want to share one of the most important tips I’ve learned: stop asking “why?” so much. If you have kids, you know how annoying it can be to constantly hear “why? why? why?”. This question seems to crop up around age three, and never stops. Hopefully as adults we don’t smother our spouses with “why” so often, but the question can often do more harm than good.

Oftentimes a husband (especially) will want to hammer away at “the problem” and “fix it”, so he asks “why?” over and over, hoping to discover the knob he can twist just the right way to make his wife do/feel what she “should”.

Sound familiar? Wives do it, too. It’s no surprise that conversations like this aren’t effective for building intimacy. “Why?” can be a powerful tool for gaining understanding, but it isn’t the right tool for every job! Here are a few ways it can backfire.

  • Passive aggressive. You know this one. Even if you aren’t trying to be passive aggressive, these kinds of questions can be received that way. But be honest: oftentimes, you’re being passive aggressive.
    • “Why didn’t you take the trash out?”
    • “Why are you late?”
    • “Why don’t you want to have sex?”
  • Interrogation. Trying to nail down your spouse with words. You make it appear that you’re just trying to understand the truth of the situation, but what you’re actually doing is forcing your spouse into the corner until he admits some mistake or failure. These are often “why… but…?” accusations.
    • “Why did you say you were getting Christmas cards for my family, but then not mail them in time?”
    • “Why did you say you want more intimacy, but then every time I want to have sex you’re too tired?”
    • “Why do you not feel the way we both agreed you should feel?”
  • Digging. Sometimes your spouse doesn’t know the answer, or there isn’t an answer, but you keep asking “why?” anyway. You rephrase the same question over and over, sure that if you keep digging you’ll eventually find gold.
    • “Why don’t we have more sex? Why don’t you want to have sex? Why has our sex life stalled?”
    • “Why do you feel that way? Why don’t you feel this way?”
  • Rephrasing. “Why?” is often a fine question to ask once, but using different words doesn’t make the question more helpful.
    • “What makes you feel that way?”
    • “How did this come to pass?”

When you’re starting a difficult conversation, stay away from “why” and instead focus on “what” and “how”.

  • “How do you feel about our sex life?”
  • “How do you want our sex life to make you feel?”
  • “What is your favorite thing that we do together?”
  • “What do you think is missing?”

Accept the answers without comment or judgement. Asking “why?” will make your spouse defensive, literally — you’re asking her to defend her answers with a reason that’s good enough for you to accept. It can be difficult to hold back your opinion, but usually that’s your pride prompting you. Your pride says things like:

  • “She shouldn’t feel that way.”
  • “I deserve a husband who does XYZ.”
  • “I can convince her…”
  • “That’s not fair.”
  • “His answer shows that he doesn’t love/respect/understand me!”
  • “How can she possibly think that?”

These comments are unlikely to be helpful, but your pride insists that you say them anyway. Your pride tells you that your feelings are right, justified, and logical, and his feelings are wrong, mistaken, or cruel. It’s so obvious, right? He’s sure to realize the error of his ways if you just ask the right “why” question.

Don’t feel bad; we all fall into the pride trap.

So, before you ask “why?”, consider: will my question enhance intimacy, or irritation? If you mostly care about being right, then by all means, hammer away with “why?” until you smash everything in sight. On the other hand, if you mostly care about intimacy with your spouse, use “why?” very judiciously and give her the space and respect to think and feel without having to justify herself to you. Your spouse will feel secure and respected, which are key building blocks of intimacy.