Not everything in life is easy. Many would say dealing with conflict falls into that category. And many would feel the same way about dealing with change.
I share some thoughts on change and marriage in this week’s post.
Chapter A2: Change for the Better?
“The pessimist complains about the wind;
the optimist expects it to change;
the realist adjusts the sails.”
—William Arthur Ward
There’s an old expression that a rut is just a grave with openings on each end. True or not, your marriage can easily fall into the form of ruts if you’re not careful to keep that from happening. Most people will admit that change is difficult, but so is trying to resist change. I’ve heard it said that people do not actually resist change nearly as much as they resist being changed. I think there’s a lot of truth in that statement. I’ve also heard it said that a woman marries a man hoping he will change and a man marries a woman hoping she never will. I’m not so sure I agree with that one, but it’s likely true in some cases.
The point I hope to make in this chapter is that trying to change your mate is wasted energy at best and highly toxic to the relationship at worst. While dangerous to the overall health of the relationship, attempts to change one’s partner are very common in marriage. Such attempts are often well motivated from a deep sense of love, care, and genuine concern. But when you’re on the receiving end of such attempts, they do not come across as well intended, no matter how much they may actually be.
If you are the requestor of the change, you are likely thinking about all the potential benefits to your spouse and/or to your marriage that will result from your suggested changes. If you are on the receiving end, however, you are likely hearing that your mate is not pleased with you or how you are doing life at the moment and that he/she wants you to change not just what you do but who you are.
As is the case in so much of life, right intentions and motivations do not always gain the desired results. So let me give you a piece of advice which might make change in your spouse more likely to occur. That advice is to change yourself first in ways that he or she is likely to notice and appreciate.
Have you ever noticed that often when you are upset with your mate, it is because you are already upset about something else? How often do children pay the price for how poorly their moms or dads were treated at work that day?
The next time you find yourself perturbed with your mate, you might want to stop and examine whether he or she is the true cause of your agitation. You may realize you are upset because you didn’t sleep well the night before, or because you’re hungry, or because a pressing problem is weighing heavily on you or . . . You’ve likely heard the expression that negative emotions often arise from feeling H.A.L.T. (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired). I like what Mark Twain said: “The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself.”
Another truth I have picked up along life’s journey is that often the changes you desire for your mate are actually changes you desire in yourself, but somehow seem unable to accomplish. You want to start an exercise program, so you get down on him or her because he or she doesn’t. You want to eat a more healthful diet, so you get upset when your mate brings home junk food. You want to reduce the amount of garbage you put into your mind, so you get upset when he or she watches questionable television programs or movies.
Numerous other illustrations abound, but I think you get my point. You resent it when people try to force changes on you, so please give up the notion that your mate is going to appreciate when you do the same to him or her.
So am I suggesting that when you see your mate engaging in self-destructive behaviors, you simply stand by and do nothing? I hope not. What I am suggesting is that you do what Mahatma Gandhi is alleged to have said: “Be the change you desire to see in the world” or, in this case, your marriage. There is some dispute about whether this is in fact what he actually said, but the sentiment of the thought is still valid nonetheless, especially perhaps as it applies to marriage.
So often, each spouse waits for the other to change before he or she is willing to make improvements in the marriage. Rather than waiting for your spouse, may I suggest you consider taking the initiative to be the change you want to see in your marriage.
I remember watching the TODAY Show several years ago. I was about to turn it off and go back to work when I heard that the next segment would feature an animal trainer who used animal training techniques to train her husband. Needless to say, this piqued my interest enough to stay tuned. While I can’t remember the guest’s name, I will never forget her words.
She told of techniques used in animal training whereby you look for the behavior you want from the animal, and you lavish praise and rewards each time you see that behavior. Rather than look for what you don’t want and criticize, she admonished, it is far better to look for the good and to recognize it appropriately. So she decided to stop criticizing her husband and to make a determined effort to thank and appreciate him for what he did to contribute to the household and the marriage.
As she concluded her segment, she told the interviewer that her husband responded very positively to her new approach. She stated, “He really changed.” Her final words were in the form of a rhetorical question: “Or was it I who really changed?” While I’ve never considered myself to be much of a dancer, I can assure you I did a joyful jig in my office when I heard those words that morning. And how true it is that one person can dramatically turn a marriage around.
Will this be quick? I didn’t say that. Will it be easy? I didn’t say that, either. But will it be worth it for you to make changes in how you treat your spouse in hopes the relationship will improve? Only you can answer that, but in most cases, the answer should be a resounding YES!
Along with being less critical and more encouraging, let me share with you a few other ideas to help make your marriage happier and healthier. My first suggestion comes from the movie, Fireproof, starring Kirk Cameron and a whole bunch of folks you’ve never heard of. Mr. Cameron plays the part of a firefighter whose marriage is falling apart. At first, he doesn’t care but then realizes what he is doing to contribute to its impending demise. His father gives him a book titled The Love Dare, which is a 40-daychallenge.
Each day lists a specific exercise to reach out to your mate in a loving fashion. The exercises are designed to help your mate know how you feel and how much you value him or her and your relationship. Trust me when I tell you it’s not all that easy to keep to the schedule, especially as some days’ exercises are more involved than others. I teamed up with a friend to take the Love Dare for our wives and hold each other accountable. I believe it took us some 60 days or so, but we eventually did, as they say, “Get ’er done.”
I would share with you the results of this experience on my marriage, but frankly that’s just none of your business. You can get your own copy of The Love Dare by Alex Kendrick and Stephen Kendrick online or at a local bookstore and find out for yourself what might happen. While not easy, I can assure you that taking the time and spending the energy to help your mate feel appreciated by you will be well worth the investment.
A second suggestion comes from Dr. Scott Stanley, esteemed marriage and family researcher, and co-founder of PREP Inc. Dr. Stanley suggests you consider two things your mate would appreciate receiving from you. These can be actual gifts or simple tokens of affection that he or she would enjoy receiving. Your task, obviously, is to make the time to deliver, each week, whatever you’ve chosen as your intentional demonstrations of love.
What do you suppose would be the impact on marriages if both spouses were to form the habit of giving their partner two purposeful love gestures each week? My hunch is that it would be fun to find out.
You may have heard of the immortal words of John F. Kennedy, our 35th president, who said at his inauguration, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Again, with only a slight revision, this is wise wisdom to apply to your marriage: “Ask not what your spouse can do for you; ask what you can do for your spouse.”
Will any of these suggestions bring guaranteed results? I can’t make such a declaration. But, if you’ll permit me one last quote, I’ll turn once again to my Jewish grandmother who often said, “it couldn’t hurt.”
Chapter Challenge: Determine to take personal responsibility for the state of your marriage. As you begin to make changes in yourself and pay more attention to your marriage, you are likely to find a reciprocal response from your mate -in time. Please note, I said, “in time.” You must demonstrate your change before your mate is likely to follow suit. And even if he or she doesn’t change, you will be better for your efforts.