How To Change Your Spouse (or not).

Dysfunctional Marriage Techniques–and What Spouses in Good Marriages Do

I wish I could write an article that would magically change your marriage, but I can’t, because that is not the way people learn and change. Character improvement, though transformational, is slow and while invigorating – often very uncomfortable. What I can offer the reader is an article that, if studied alone or with your spouse, will leave your marriage far better off. You will have created more love in your marriage. As is said about balanced mainstream diets – they work if you follow them.

Since my parents divorced, and as a therapist, I’ve studied what couples in good marriages do and think differently. Whenever I would meet a long-married couple who appeared to have a good relationship, I would interview them about their marriage and listen to their stories. I began to recognize recurring principles that emerged in these conversations. I also noticed that those relationships lacked feelings of resignation, frustration, bitterness, arguments, feelings of rejection and loneliness.

Dysfunctional Marital Techniques

But first, a brief and incomplete study of some dysfunctional techniques, things we say, that we utilize to improve our marriages – all leading nowhere. I list them so the reader will be able to realize if they are engaging these techniques.

  • Arguing / Fighting:

a)    You are wrong.

b)    My way is better.

c)    My way makes more sense.

d)    I am logical.

e)    My way is economical.

f)     My way is faster.

g)    I want it.

  • Manipulation / Intimidation:

a)    Reward.

b)    Punishment.

c)    Passive aggression.

d)    Moodiness.

e)    Withholding emotional and physical intimacy.

f)     If you really loved me you’d do it my way… because it is so important to me.

g)    Making a person feel guilty or bad.

  • Toleration:

a)    You are wrong and you should do it my way. I am bigger than this whole argument – and your pettiness.

b)    I will suffer for our marriage.

c)    It’s not worth the fight. Have it your way (but you’re wrong).

d)    I’ll give in this time, but I get to redeem my giving in for something that I really want another time.

e)    Do it your way, but leave me out of it.

f)     I’ll join you once in a while, but don’t expect me to really enjoy it.

g)    I’ll do it and look like I enjoy it (maybe even enjoy it a little), but I’ll let you know very subtly that I’d rather be doing something else.

  • Stonewalling:

a)    Crossing your arms.

b)    Rolling your eyes.

c)    Adopting a fixed “stone-face.”

d)    Walking away.

e)    Speaking very little, or if at all, grunt and puff.

  • · Criticism:

a) Attacking your partner’s personality.

b) Attacking your spouse’s character.

c) Not focusing on a specific behavior that bothers you, but generalizing “I’m upset that you missed car pool” vs. “I can’t believe you missed the car pool. You’re so irresponsible.”

d) Bringing up past mistakes and issues to prove your point.

  • · Defensiveness:

a)    The problem isn’t really with me, it’s you!

b) Denying responsibility.

c) Making excuses.

d) Meeting one complaint with another.

e) Fogging or making an issue unclear.

I am not going to address how to stop or transform all of the above dysfunctional martial techniques, let me suggest the following principles that have proven successful in healthy marriages and that help address many of them.

  1. They stopped trying to change each other.
  2. They learned to love and nurture each other’s uniqueness.

They arrived at this realization through genuine appreciation of their spouse’s uniqueness.

Please note, a person should not allow themselves to become an emotional, intellectual or spiritual doormat in the presence of their spouse. I am not speaking of situations where there is physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse, rage, depression, anxiety, OCD, workoholism, etc  In these situations, change is required because there is a danger to the individual, marriage and family. There are times when the spouse may have to reassess their commitment to the relationship not out of revenge, but because love has boundaries that do not include the destruction of self. (Add the italization)

In good marriages, spouses learn to love their partner without expecting that their spouse change or be worthy of their love. Of course, no one would mind if their overspending spouse would become more frugal, but the relationship does not depend upon it. In good marriages, spouses allow and support the other’s emotional, intellectual and spiritual experience. There is no room for thoughts or words like, “How could you think that?” or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” When ideas, emotions or differences of opionions are discussed, it is done with interest and respect. (Add the italization)

a)    In good marriages, spouses listen to their spouses, even if it is uncomfortable for them to hear.

b)    In good marriages, spouses understand that helping their spouses comes from a healthy attitude, not manipulation, threats or complaints.

My wife, Danka, can testify that our marriage had some rough spots (ouch) in our early years, but thankfully we improved. Danka is a wonderful and intense woman. When she gets involved with something she finds meaningful, she won’t let go until she has mastered it. A few years ago, she began taking a class in Nia (a type of dance) at the woman’s gym and became smitten with it!  Most people might have taken an extra class or two.  My wife became an advanced Nia instructor and still dances and teaches today. My wife’s intensity is a wonderful quality; nevertheless, it can be overwhelming – and expensive. She loves talking about Nia, but I don’t always feel like talking about it – or a new healing art she is becoming a practitioner of … so I have three options:

a. Tell her I am not interested.

b. Tell her I am interested but only pretend to listen. Know how that works out? Spouses catch on pretty quickly.

c. Make myself interested because she is my wife, and if she is interested in Nia, I would like to know what she finds so fascinating. If I enter her world, than I actually appreciate it. And if I am feeling overwhelmed, I say, “Honey, I really appreciate Nia but I really don’t feel like talking about it now. Let’s go for a walk and talk about something else…” If my wife feels and knows that I love and respect her, she’ll understand that I’m not rejecting her.

You Can’t Change Your Spouse

Learning To Love, Enjoy and Nurture Your Spouse

A common theme [see first principle here– link to the first article above] in successful marriages is the realization that you cannot change your spouse. This includes trying to change your spouse sweetly, sourly, beggingly, manipulatively, angrily, or any other –ly you can devise.

Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottsman found that 69% of issues that couples disagree on early in marriage are not resolved later in the marriage. Sixty-nine percent! So, don’t marry someone and don’t pin your happiness in marriage if you have plans to change your spouse, because it usually doesn’t work and it’ll leave everyone involved feeling unloved, judged and misunderstood. The changeable 31% will be addressed further on.

Often, spouses tell me, “Yes, I understand what you’re saying, but what about his socks on the floor?! Why can’t he put his socks in the laundry hamper? Is that not a sign of disrespect and inconsideration? …Does he think I’m his maid?”  Or, “Does she really need so much clothing? Doesn’t she understand we have bills to pay… how many pairs of shoes does she need?!”

Let me address this issue with another story. After many years living in the Israel countryside, my wife and I were still unable to deal with moths. My wife, Danka, hates those creatures. She hates them so much she lets out a scream if they take her by surprise. This scream is not a one note yelp, but a full-throttled, high octave, Night of the Living Dead shriek. I can handle the moths, but Danka’s unexpected screams throw me into the fight-or-flight reaction. Adrenalin pumping, I’d yell at Danka, “Why do you have to petrify me by yelling? It’s just a stupid moth!” And she’d reply, “I can’t help it. I just react.”

It took me a long time to understand her simple words, “I can’t.”  She can’t because that is the way she is… the same way he “can’t find” the hamper. While it is true that both spouses should change words and actions that cause their spouse discomfort, there are things that people cannot change or can change only with years of slow progress.

Referring back to Dr. Gottsman’s research, you cannot decide which category a particular issue falls in, the unchangeable 69% or the changeable 31% for your spouse or anyone else. It took me a long time to stop rolling my eyes when my wife said something I thought didn’t make sense – and I wanted to stop rolling my eyes – but it is hard to change even with the best intentions.

Will he ever stop sock dropping? Will she ever have enough shoes? Will he ever learn to put away food after eating? Will she ever make a simple request in less than three minutes? Don’t pin the meaning and happiness of your marriage on it. Sometimes people just are the way they are – and it is not for you to judge whether they must change. Go to therapy if need be. You might be right, but your love should not depend upon it.

Couples get into the worst fights over perceived insults and hurt feelings based on seemingly little issues: missed or defrosted meals, an empty gas tank, no more toilet paper, crumbs on the table. But these issues do not have be a source of conflict. Just because someone can’t stop a certain behavior does not mean it is directed at you. People in difficult marriages have often made an art form of taking many things personally.

How to Change Your Spouse – In Three (Self-Reflective) Steps

When we feel understood, honored and loved, we are more likely to listen to other’s concerns about changing an aspect of our personalities. How does this work?

Step One: Ask yourself: does my spouse feel that I love, nurture, appreciate, celebrate who they are?

Step Two: Ask yourself: do I want them to change because what they are doing is objectively wrong or because I just don’t like it? Many of the things people argue about are not objectively wrong, rather, something that reflects the idiosyncrasies of the spouse, i.e., the infamous socks, empty gas tank, or being late because it takes longer to get dressed. This covers about 90% of issues, no exaggeration. So, what about the other 10% that you objectively believe still requires change?

Step Three: Speak to your spouse with love and without expectation that change is necessary for your marriage to thrive. You can say, “I have a mini heart attack at the end of each month when the bills come. Perhaps we could figure out where and how we spend our money.” Then you might be able to bring up expenses to cut back on, and areas where your spouse might think about being more cost-conscious.

Begin to model health. If you are upset at your spouse because they yell at the children, spend money on frivolous things, leave a mess, etc., make sure that you aren’t guilty of the same. This doesn’t mean you cannot raise the subject, but introspect first, as we often find faults in others that we have, too.  We are much more forgiving and accepting of our own faults than others.

The simple rule is, if you have developed a loving relationship because you have learned to nurture each other, then the natural reaction is to try to please each other – which includes changing oneself. It is almost as reliable as a mathematical formula.

I knew an old couple in Israel whose wife would buy excessive amounts of food that would inevitably go bad and be thrown away. Both Holocaust survivors, it was probably her way of coping with her past. He tried to get her to change, but eventually realized that she could not change… and simply loved her because he loved her. Not because she did or didn’t change.

The 11th century sage, Ibn Ezra (1093–1167), explained that the verse, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. And you shall choose life, so that you and your children may live…” (Deuteronomy 30:19), simply states, “This verse teaches us that life is for love.”  The Ibn Ezra is telling us that choosing life means choosing love. To identify someone’s shortcomings is easy, but choosing to love your spouse means to love them because you choose to love them, and identify, celebrate, support and nurture their uniqueness.

The verse from Deuteronomy about choosing life and love ends with the words, “so that you and your children shall live.” What has this got to do with our children? I believe it is informing us that when we choose love in the present, we are also choosing love for our children in the future. If they see us living a life filled with choices and attitudes that create love, then our children will absorb this, too. As for those raised in homes where love was conditional or lacking, then the verse is still telling us that we can choose life and love for ourselves in the present and for our children.

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How Much Effort Have You Invested in Your Marriage?

I have seen the worst marriages, marriages characterized by many years of dysfunctional and abusive behaviors, change. I believe that there are several reasons for this.

  1. Each spouse stopped blaming the other for their problems.
  2. They took honest and meaningful responsibility for their own issues.
  3. They stopped playing the “If you go first then I’ll go…” game.
  4. They each took responsibility for their own role in the relationship’s problems, regardless of the size that role played in the problems or of the other spouse’s actions or in-action.
  5. They let go of their resentments and grudges, often learning to see their lives in a more spiritual context. (Keeping a grudge is like swallowing poison and expecting the other person to become ill.)
  6. They stopped trying to change their spouse.
  7. They learned to appreciate, express, nurture and support their spouse’s uniqueness.
  8. They stopped keeping score of who is responsible for what and who did what when; i.e., they learned to think in terms of giving rather than receiving, and trusted that they would receive what was needed.

When two people have the commitment and will to accomplish the intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth necessary to change on their own, regardless of the other’s actions, things can happen that are worth staying in the marriage for.

When we have done what we are supposed to do, when we have exerted the maximum effort that the situation we are facing calls for and deserves, then we can, in the deepest faith, calmly give over the problem over to our Creator. At that moment, when we have done our part, it is not our job to complete the task. Unless we exert that effort, however, we are responsible for the outcomes.

If you are having issues in your marriage how do you answer this question: Have you put in the consistent time and effort to be able to say, “I have done all I can do”?