Want to Know How Your Spouse Thinks?

different learning styles

Years ago, an author named Cynthia Ulrich Tobias wrote a book titled The Way They Learn. She described for parents and educators the unique ways kids perceive and order information in their minds. But the ideas are also helpful for spouses who are trying to understand how to better communicate with each other. What are the different learning styles that can help you?

In the last year, two of my most widely read and shared blogs were 5 Things Husbands Wish Wives Knew and 5 Things Wives Wish Husbands Knew. Clearly, spouses want help understanding each other better.

So here is a brief summary of some of the key concepts from Cynthia’s book, along with some takeaways for your marriage:

How We Perceive Things: Concrete vs. Abstract

Concrete perception is all about our senses. As Cynthia writes, “When we are using our concrete abilities, we are dealing with what is hear and now—the tangible, the obvious. We are not looking for hidden meanings… ‘It is what it is.’” The spouse with high concrete perception sees the dishes in the sink as just a dirty pile of dishes that haven’t been cleaned yet.

But abstract perception is all about ideas. She explains that when we use abstract perception “we are using our intuition, our intellect, our imagination…to more subtle implications. The key phrase…is ‘It’s not always what it seems.’” The spouse with high abstract perception sees the dirty pile of dishes and wonders, Why doesn’t my spouse care enough to clean the dishes?

Does one of these perceptions sound like your spouse? These two ways of observing the world are simply different…it’s not that one is good and one is bad.

How We Order Things: Sequential vs. Random

Sequential ordering is all about step-by-step processing of information. Tobias says that those who use sequential ordering “are following a logical train of thought…[and] may prefer to have a plan and follow it rather than relying on impulse.” This spouse follows instructions, assembly manuals, and recipes to the last letter.

Random ordering, however, is all about organizing information in chunks. She goes on to describe that those who follow random ordering “may be able to skip steps in a procedure and still produce the desired result…[and] may seem impulsive or more spontaneous.” This spouse will figure things out intuitively, using the instructions and recipes as guidelines to check occasionally. Recognizing these differences reduces frustration between spouses who are different.

Four Unique Learning Styles

The real strength of the above insights is when the four possible combinations of these two concepts are clearly  understood. Let’s look at each one and how they might help you understand your spouse better.


These spouses are organized and efficient. Systems and routines just make sense to them, and they take things literally. It’s hard for them to work in groups, with abstract ideas, or answer questions with no right or wrong answers. They often want to know the facts and expectations in situations.

This spouse gets out the map app, finds the most efficient route and sticks to it, thinking about what needs to happen and when, and in what order.


These spouses look for compelling reasons in life, inspiring others to action, thinking fast, and taking risks in life. Insights plus instincts help them solve problems, and they tend to want to try something out, instead of accepting others’ words. They get frustrated with routines, restrictions, and having no options to choose from.

This spouse checks the destination on the map app, thinks about which way to take that might be most interesting and most fun, and may change routes halfway during the drive.


Spouses with this style are looking for underlying principles behind everything, appreciating research as a means to achieve a goal. They respect experts and value great ideas and work through issues thoroughly. They struggle to express emotions, to be diplomatic with their views or to not monopolize a conversation on something that interests them. A key question they ask, “Have we considered all the options?”

This spouse looks at not one, but several map apps and goes online to see if any message boards or search engines have testimonials from drivers that have taken the different routes. They want to know the pros and cons of all the different ways to get to the destination.


Finally, spouses with this style focus on what is personally relevant to them and others. They listen well, recognizing emotions and feelings while focusing on themes. They tend to decide with the heart and participate in life with great enthusiasm. They also value relationships highly, which causes struggles with competition, unfriendly people, and criticism. They often ask, “How can I make a difference?” This spouse could care less about a map app. They want the trip, no matter what the route, to be meaningful and enjoyable.

You’ve probably seen yourself or your spouse in one of these four learning styles. None of these styles is more right than another…each style is simply different. Understanding these different styles helps you understand your spouse. To demonstrate this, allow me to slightly paraphrase one of Cynthia’s key conclusions as an application to marriage by exchanging “children” for “spouse”:

“Just because your [spouse isn’t] responding to you doesn’t always mean they aren’t listening. It could be that the difference in your perspectives is so great that you sometimes might as well be living in different countries and speaking different languages. Learning to listen to how something is said instead of just the words that are said can help everyone communicate more effectively. It can literally make a world of difference!”

What is your learning style? What is your spouse’s learning style?  How do you communicate with a spouse who sees the world so differently than you? Share your thoughts below.


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