Learning from Your Spouse
October 1974

“Learning from Your Spouse,” Ensign, Oct. 1974, 35

Learning from Your Spouse

Marriage is probably the most unique, most profitable, and most inescapable of all teaching situations.

What is learning? What kinds of processes go on in a learning situation?

Many believe we learn mostly from our experiences. Events, people, and situations are often pointed to as “having had a great influence” on us. This idea is partly true, but it is probably more correct that we learn what we experience.

Feelings, ideas, sensations, and actions are learned as they are felt, thought, perceived, or acted. A child, for example, may associate with a talented teacher, but he will learn little unless he is caused to feel, to think, or to act himself. Experiences that involve us the most, personally and profoundly, provide the greatest learning experience. It is what we experience in our own highly unique way that determines what we believe, how we act, and the things we think are important.

Some situations in life, because of the personal involvement required, more abundantly allow humans to experience and learn. Family life, as a situation of great involvement, is the source of greatest learning for children. Within families, too, the marriage relationship is probably the single most profound influence on adults. When people marry they are, in a sense, agreeing to learn from each other. In fact, a married person must learn from his partner, for countless experiences confront them that produce increased knowledge. Much of what life has to offer mortal men and women can be received through this partnership. Marriage is a talented teacher of great lessons that profoundly influences life for each of the people in it.

Like any lesson or learning experience, marriage must be organized in certain ways to produce the best results. For example, many think teaching and telling are the same thing. In marriage this idea is incorrect, because telling a partner what to do or how to do it may mean something quite different from telling a student or another person the same thing. Marriage is a special relationship, and understanding it can help two people teach each other and create a desire to learn.

Why Learning within Marriage Is Different

Marriage is unique for many reasons, but it is preeminent among all other relationships, because it is the basic covenant unit of an eternal family. No other mortal human association is freely entered into with the same lasting, eternal possibilities. Because couples believe their relationship will last forever, it is more difficult for them to ignore things that happen in the present. For example, a woman married to a negligent priesthood holder is probably very insecure about him, and she cannot ignore what seems to be indifference toward priesthood duties, because their future is in jeopardy. For the same reason, a man cannot easily overlook undesirable actions of his wife.

Marriage is unique for a second reason. People enter into it believing they will be with someone who knows them better than anyone else. We typically expect to be closer, better understood, and more intimate in marriage. When this does not occur, there is greater tendency to be dismayed. Husband and wife then watch each other closely to make sure that each is involved and understanding.

As a consequence of this, one person cannot be the teacher and the other the learner for any length of time. Both must be teacher and both must be learner, and in order to teach in marriage, one must wear the cloak of teacher and student at the same time. This means any comments and suggestions given need to reflect tentativeness and need to consider the ideas of both.

A third reason marriage is unique is that accomplishments by a couple require the joint effort of both. Marriage is a place where a great deal of emphasis is given to vital tasks performed by the couple. Husband and wife as two different individuals, however, are thrown together to perform tasks, and each, quite naturally, may have different points of view. This situation is one most couples will repeatedly face.

The reasons why marriage is unique, then, suggest that if a couple wish to teach each other, they may need to do some things differently than they would in a regular teaching situation.

Understanding What Your Partner Wants before Teaching Begins

It is important to understand what a partner wants. Even though all of us have wants, desires, dreams, and preferences, sometimes we keep them to ourselves, seldom voice them, and disguise them in some way. These are the fantasies and dreams we wish for in our lives, and which give us direction. These consist of ways in which we want to act, things we want to be, and traits we wish to acquire. To effectively learn in marriage, a person needs to know his or her partner’s desires in these areas.

Mary Johnson had noticed her husband Bill’s awkward behavior with their friends. It seemed he was too opinionated, and he belittled the ideas of other people. She knew exactly how she wanted him to be: quieter, a better listener, and responsive to the ideas of others. She told him this a number of times in the most tender way she knew how, but it seemed Bill wouldn’t listen. The only result she saw was his increased workload that required him to spend more time at work and less time with their friends. Realizing her method was not working, she began to ask Bill how he wanted to handle the situation. At first he ignored her by saying, “It isn’t important anymore.” Eventually, at the right moment, he said, “Acting the way I do bothers me, and I would like to be able to say things so that people would listen to me and I can listen to them.” At first Mary was afraid to make suggestions, but finally she reaffirmed his unhappiness about it and asked, “How can I be of help to you?” Together they developed a plan that worked.

In the special relationship of marriage, the student’s desires need to be known before he can be taught. Each student should also be invited to suggest how he would like to learn something new. Failing to consider another’s desires and trying to teach without approval can produce more hurt than learning.

Helping Your Partner Form Conclusions

I told my son often that cars are dangerous and he should not play in the street. He was playing outdoors one day when a neighborhood dog was struck and killed by a car. I arrived just in time to hear my son emphatically say, “Boy, cars really are dangerous, aren’t they?” Coming to his own conclusion was far more effective than being told, as was evidenced when he began playing away from the street.

Similarly, there are countless opportunities in marriage for each person to form his or her own conclusions about numerous things. Effective teaching often consists of allowing the student to form a conclusion or opinion on his own.

How can one person act to help another form conclusions? Sharing experiences by doing different things, being with other people, and allowing for other people to influence us are some ways. For example, many parents enable their children to form opinions about which clothes are appropriate to wear by allowing them to find out from their friends rather than by telling them repeatedly. Participatory action is a better way to teach than verbal action alone. Karen couldn’t convince David to get involved in their family until she was required to leave home for a few days and he had to do all the household tasks.

A second way to help someone form conclusions is to inquire about what an event, experience, or situation means to them. It is more important to help someone else form his own meaning than it is to tell him what things ought to mean. I watched a Sunday School teacher attempt to teach about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon by staging a trial, with 14-year-old youths as the attorneys, witnesses, and judges. Students demonstrated they didn’t know very much. The teacher asked, “What does all of this mean to you?”

Most students concluded, because of lack of knowledge displayed during the trial, “The Book of Mormon could be true or untrue and we wouldn’t even know about it.” They concluded the key objective of the lesson on their own.

The third way conclusions can form is while people are actually teaching. Ask your partner to show you how to do something you would like to do, and then watch him learn something new while teaching you. A wife may learn about priesthood and Church government by asking her husband to discuss with her the Melchizedek Priesthood lessons. In the course of the discussion she asks him what a point means to him, and she can watch conclusions form in his mind.

A special characteristic the Savior possesses is the ability to recognize the worth of others. One potential source of teaching and learning in marriage comes from what each person sees in the other. A husband, for example, watches his wife’s reactions to him and then makes judgment about himself. A man with a critical wife can conclude that he is in some way or another deserving of whatever criticism she gives him. Sometimes a man will actually search and find negative and unhappy things in himself in order to support his wife’s viewpoint.

In contrast, suppose the wife committed herself to act and reflect love, regardless of how her husband acted. In most cases, both would eventually learn they were of worth. Among all the possible kinds of knowledge a human can acquire, knowing of his or her worth and having it continually reaffirmed by a marriage partner is of major importance.

Principles of Teaching in Marriage

There are some principles that help create a positive and fruitful climate for learning. When husband and wife produce these in their relationship, learning can occur.

The first principle is one almost everyone knows about and thinks important, yet only a few practice: for learning to occur, one must be willing to act as he wants the other person to act. Setting an example is always a correct principle, but nowhere is it more pertinent than in marriage. Because of their continual and close contact, a wife or husband will learn from what each other does. Doing what you would like your spouse to do can be a very effective teaching device. If, however, example is ignored and a more direct approach (like discussing) is needed, the teacher has more influence after having set the example in the first place. (For diplomatic reasons, the teacher should not, however, point out the fact that he has set the example.)

When a couple recognizes that one purpose of marriage is to learn, and that it is desirable to acquire knowledge from each other, a lifetime of learning and teaching can happen. Individuals too often shut their mental doors to each other and fail to teach or to learn.

A husband who asks his wife and children to share ideas from their Sunday School class; for instance, is teaching them that he desires to learn from them. This increases the value of their ideas and allows him, in return, to actively teach them from scriptural study, from priesthood discussions, and from work experience.

It is a wise couple who makes learning one of the reasons for their marriage—both of them know they contribute to the success of their relationship by bringing to it a continual flow of new and interesting things. (However, bringing a different idea to a marriage must usually be preceded by the other person’s permission to do so.)

Another ingredient for marital learning stems from the human need for stability and commitment. To effectively learn and teach in marriage, each person needs to act consistent with his beliefs and values rather than being swayed by the influence of others.

Those people from whom we learn the most are likely those who, once having formulated personal opinions, values, and beliefs, act consistent with them. Such a person identifies goals and commits himself to a steady course of action that will reasonably achieve the goals. This consistency promotes confidence in the marriage and gives the security of knowing where each person is going. A noncommittal attitude is not conducive to learning; each spouse needs to select what to achieve, declare it, and then purposefully strive toward the goal. Though some change and modification is to be expected, too much fluctuation is harmful, and learning will be limited as a result.

Emphasize the Importance of Your Marriage

Because marriage is a union of two people designed to continue indefinitely, to be successful, each person must reaffirm its value. To effectively teach and learn in marriage, each must acknowledge that a positive relationship between them is more important than any “lesson.” For happiness to exist, both partners in marriage require frequent affirmation that their association is of value. If a husband or wife in a teaching situation emphasizes the subject too much, the student is less likely to learn. For instance, in this dialogue, both husband and wife are focusing too hard on the subject:

Husband: “You need to keep the house cleaner.”

Wife: “I could if you’d put your things away.”

Husband: “Why do you always argue with me?”

Wife: “Because you don’t take time to understand.”

Neither of them refer back to the reason for the teaching—that their relationship is valuable and merits the effort required to make it better.

On the other hand, “Being with you is important to me,” or “I want to make our marriage happier” are the kinds of statements that acknowledge the value of marriage. This type of communication should accompany any teaching in order for effective learning to occur.

Since mortality is the state in which a man and woman choose each other for eternity, they could well make their selection of each other partly on the basis of whether learning can occur from their union. When a couple can bring spiritual and earthly knowledge to their marriage, they will tend to stay together because of the rich and abundant possibilities for growth and development. Teaching and learning in marriage promote increased knowledge, making the relationship a satisfying and fulfilling one.

  • A. Lynn Scoresby, associate professor of child development and family relationships at Brigham Young University, serves on the Aaronic Priesthood General Committee of the Church. He lives in Highland Ward, Alpine Utah Stake.