Becky had endured all that she could in her marriage. She decided it was over between her and Bill, so she packed a bag and took their 14-month-old to her parents’ home. Becky’s mother had one request before offering her full support. She wanted Becky to make a list of everything Bill did that made him impossible to live with. She also drew a vertical dividing line on the page. Becky thought her mother would also want her to list Bill’s good qualities, but she was determined to make the list of negative qualities far outweigh any good qualities.
Her pen flew down the left column listing everything she could think of to justify her dreadful situation. He never picked up his clothes. He fell asleep in church. He never bought her nice gifts. He refused to match his clothes. He was miserly with money. He didn’t help with the housework. He never talked to her. The list went on and on.
She smugly turned to her mother to indicate she was finished. Her mother told her that in the other column she wanted Becky to list what her response was to each of these behaviors. Becky was caught completely off guard. She had been thinking only of Bill, not herself. She reluctantly began writing the following: I’d pout or nag. I’d be embarrassed. I’d act like a martyr. I’d wish I’d married someone else. I’d feel that I was too good for him. I’d give him the silent treatment. I’d complain. (See “The List That Saved My Marriage” by Becky Zerbe, Marriage Partnership, Fall 2005. Also available at https://www.christianitytoday.com/mp/2005/003/7.32.html.)
Like Becky, many of us focus on the weaknesses or imperfections of our spouse, thinking rarely of our own imperfections and the role we play in the dynamics of our marriage. We think if only our spouse would change this or that, then we’d be happy. We are so anxious to change our spouse that we can’t even imagine how we have anything to do with their horrendous behavior. Doing something to change our self is the furthest thing from our mind.
Nearly every husband and wife experiences some degree of the “How-do-I-get-my-spouse-to-change?” syndrome. Some examples are as follows:
- How do I get my spouse to be more spiritual and take the lead in our home?
- How do I get my spouse to like sex?
- How do I get my spouse to help more with household responsibilities?
- How do I get my spouse to stop nagging me?
- How do I get my spouse to talk to me more?
- How do I get my spouse to lose weight?
Let’s consider a few thoughts regarding the desire to change one’s spouse.
Our Spouse Provides a Mirror
One of the divine designs of marriage is for husband and wife to become more whole, more perfect, more pure, as they strive to come together to become one. We were naturally attracted to our spouse precisely because they could help us learn and grow and become whole. Our areas needing growth and refinement are reflected in their attitudes and behaviors. They provide a mirror for us to more clearly see our weaknesses and our negative and unproductive beliefs that need to be addressed and changed.
With an understanding of our spouse’s divine role in our development, it is easier to shift our focus from their shortcomings, and allow us to focus on our own. I imagine this was what the Savior had in mind when he taught us to consider the beam in our own eye instead of the mote in our spouse’s eye. How can we honestly insist that our spouse needs to change, when we can’t even see straight with the beam in our own eye? The Lord tells us to work first on ourselves. (See Matthew 7:4-8.)
We might be tempted to list some fairly serious reprehensible behavior as proof that our spouse needs to change, but even that can highlight for us the self-righteousness and pride that are the beams in our own eyes.
Opportunity Costs of Focusing on Our Spouse’s Behavior
When we allow ourselves to spend our time and energy blaming, judging, or criticizing our spouse, we lose that time and energy that could be better spent on our own issues. When you are consumed to any degree (even just mentally) with your spouse’s behavior or lack thereof, your time and energies are unavailable to put into the more effective efforts to change your behavior.
Another cost of trying to get your spouse to change is that it causes resentment in your spouse and weakens the marriage relationship. No one likes to be told what’s wrong with them. We are all painfully aware of our weaknesses (even if we won’t admit it). The negative feelings we send out about our spouse, and their intolerable flaws, create distance in the relationship when warmth and closeness is what we really desire.
All Our Thoughts and Feelings Get Communicated
We know that God communicates with us through his Spirit by putting thoughts and emotions into our hearts and minds. We know there are times when we intuitively sense another’s thoughts or feelings. We even pick up vibes from others when they’re interested in us, or we sense how our spouse is feeling at the end of a long day even before words are spoken.
What if our spirits never stop communicating with each other? What if communication is actually occurring between yourself and your spouse all the time? What if you knew that every thought you think about your spouse is being communicated to him or her — spirit-to-spirit — as if you had said it out loud? You don’t even need to be consciously aware of it for the communication to occur. Consider this possibility the next time you are tempted to think or say ill of your spouse.
What if our negative thoughts about our spouses and our specific complaints about them somehow act as a chain binding them down to the very behaviors we wish they would change? What if by changing our thoughts about them to more positive ones we remove the chains and free them to actually become what we want them to be?
Lucile Johnson, LDS author, marriage counselor and well-known Know Your Religion speaker, shared a story of a mom and her daughter, Nancy, who struggled mightily in their relationship. They were at odds constantly, with bickering and outbursts of anger. The mother wanted to make their relationship better. Lucile Johnson suggested to the mother to constantly let her daughter know how much she loved her. The mother found this to be very difficult due to the disrespect, rejection, and anger her daughter showed her. So she would go into her daughter’s room each night after she was asleep and speak words of love to her.
Each night the mother gently whispered to her, “I love you as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, and as wide as the world.” The mother secretly did this for many years. Nancy’s behavior and their relationship slowly got better. Years later when Nancy was asked how her relationship with her mother had improved, she said that even though she had been so difficult and angry, and always felt that way, that through it all she knew her mother loved her, and began to believe it herself.
She said she awoke each morning with the thought that her mother loved her “as deep as the ocean, as high as the sky, and as wide as the world.” With a knowing glance, this good mother and Lucile Johnson simply smiled. (See Be of Good Cheer, Lucile Johnson, Covenant Communications, Inc., 1997.)
Unconditional Love is the Greatest Agent for Change
We can increase the likelihood that our spouses will want to change and be able to change by loving them without conditions. Sure they have imperfections, so do we, but the best place from which to start to change is a place of unconditional love and acceptance. We can best help someone (our self or our spouse) to behave better by helping him or her to feel better. When people feel loved, they behave more lovingly.
Think about what is most likely to get you to change. Would it be more effective for your spouse to constantly harp on your imperfections, or for them to lovingly accept you flaws and all? What happens when your spouse constantly nags you about something? It makes you want to not do it! Now imagine your spouse being kind and patient and loving towards you — even beyond what you deserve. How would that change things? How anxious might you be to love them back, and do whatever you could to make them happy? This was my experience.
During my own dark night with depression, my husband could have easily been angry, frustrated and intolerant of the injustices he perceived to be enduring. He could have harped on my weaknesses and demanded I get my act together. Instead he found the strength to patiently endure that difficult time with faith, hoping for a better day.
Rather than becoming consumed with blame, and critical of external conditions, I looked for the source of my struggles within. I knew I could only change myself. I worked to keep my energies focused on improving my own thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and feelings rather than seeing the source of my unhappiness outside of me.
I never felt judged or condemned by my husband. He could see how hard I was trying to overcome the depression. I suspect my efforts to change made it easier for him to love me even with my struggles. And I know his willingness to love and accept me unconditionally made it easier for me to want to change.
If we had focused on each other’s faults, a wall of resentment and distance would have grown between us. It would have weakened our relationship, maybe even to the point of extinction. Instead, my husband’s unconditional love created in me a desire to change. I wanted to become more whole, more purified, and better able to love him — even to the point of stretching beyond my natural capacity to love him into a whole new realm of loving.
My husband and I each have imperfections, but we have found it to be more useful to focus on our own behaviors, and what we can do to change something rather than focusing on the faults of each other. This approach has strengthened and sweetened our relationship. We have learned that as we strive to love each other in the specific ways we feel most loved, that it feeds our desire to continue to change and improve, not only for each other, but also for ourselves.
Loving Our Self Unconditionally Allows Us to Love Our Spouse Unconditionally
Being able to love our spouse without conditions is built upon our ability to love and accept our self. If we are unhappy with our self, we are more likely to be unhappy with others. Those who learn to love themselves are more generous in giving love and acceptance to others. How we act is a good indicator of how we feel about ourselves. How our spouse acts is a good indicator of how he or she feels about themselves.
One of the first useful steps in loving our spouse unconditionally is to develop the self-awareness necessary to know and love our self unconditionally. One of the benefits of the mirror our spouse (and others) hold, which allows us to more clearly see ourselves, is the attention drawn to areas where we are insecure, have self-doubt or have any negative or unproductive core beliefs.
I am usually unaffected by others’ opinions. But I became bothered one day by someone’s comments, and was interested in understanding why it had stirred me up. After some reflection I realized that the comments made touched upon an area of my life about which I did have some self-doubt and questions. It taught me to look for the negative thoughts or beliefs that I need to change within myself, whenever I am bothered by someone’s comments.
Where we personally have self-doubts or weaknesses, we are more apt to find those faults in others. Those things that we long for our spouse to change may have a seed of truth or resonance for us to acknowledge in ourselves as well.
Spending time in prayer, pondering and self-reflection, either mentally or in writing, can be a helpful step toward knowing and loving our self — warts and all. Once we can accept our good qualities, as well as our not-so-good qualities, it will be easier for us to extend the same tender mercy to our spouse and others.
Keeping our self, and our spouse, in a state of love and acceptance, even with our imperfections, allows us to attract more of the good into our lives. “It’s okay” is one of the sweetest things we can express to ourselves and to others. These words, given meaningfully, allow for mistakes, and free us and others to willingly do better next time.
To Change Our Spouse We Must First Change Our Self
We often hear that to change another we must first change our self. President Gordon B. Hinckley said it another way when he encouraged couples to “exercise discipline of self and refrain from trying to discipline our companion” (Hinckley, Ensign, Nov. 2004, 82). What does it mean to discipline or change our self instead of our spouse? How is it possible that a change in our self can bring about a change in another? And how do we go about changing our self in hopes of affecting a change in our spouse?
Like Becky in the story above, with her list of negative reactions to her husband’s behaviors, she shows us what it means to change one’s self instead of focusing on our spouse. Instead of spinning our wheels wishing our spouse would get a clue and get their act together, we instead choose to look at our own behavior and reactions. This is our point of power. Our power lies only within the realm of affecting change in our self. We have the power to change our thoughts, our conversations, our beliefs, our behaviors, but we do not possess the power to directly change these things in our spouse.
We can change our behavior by looking for the good in our spouse instead of the faults, and by being quick to express appreciation for the good things they do.
We can change ourselves first by lovingly praying for our spouse, and trusting in the Lord to provide for us in His perfect time and way. These changes in our self can bring about a welcome change in our spouse. If we focus on the good, we’ll get more of it. If we focus on the bad, we can get more of that too!
How do we know that by changing something in our self it will have any affect on our spouse? Any change we make, positive or negative, automatically changes the dynamics of the relationship. Science tells us that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believe this applies to human interaction. If we push, they will resist. If we allow, they will be more likely to draw nearer to us.
Whether our initial behavior is a positive or negative one, we can see that it usually brings about some kind of reaction in our spouse. What we fail to grasp is the concept that it takes a positive action on our part to bring about a positive reaction on our spouse’s part. Amazingly we often behave poorly or treat our spouse badly, thinking it will somehow entice our spouse to behave better. Instead of manipulating, arguing, or demanding that our spouse change, we might instead try inviting, suggesting, or, if necessary, accepting.
When even our positive desires or expectations of others have mental or emotional strings attached, it can have the unintended effect of blocking the desired behavior or result from appearing. Have you ever wanted and needed something so bad, it induced fear and anxiety that you’d never get it? When there is an emotional attachment to a desired outcome, the energy associated with it is negative. I have seen husbands and wives so desperate for their spouse to change in some specific way that the tension in the relationship was easily apparent to both.
For the best outcomes to occur, our desires must be associated with “allowing,” and have a focused positive detachment (or neutral attachment) rather than be charged with negative emotion or urgency. It’s no easy task to mentally maintain a positive belief about our spouse (especially when we may have no evidence of it being forthcoming), but not let our emotions and hopeful expectations be felt as a psychological chain or demand on our spouse. Any perception of pressure from you toward your spouse will inhibit their ability to freely respond as you desire.
We must achieve the fine line between focusing our positive desires on our spouse, while emotionally detaching from the outcome as well. This keeps the relationship in a state of acceptance and allowing, which is necessary for the manifestation of our desires.
Believe the best about your spouse. Believe they can and will learn to enjoy physical intimacies more fully. Believe they can and will become a spiritual leader in your home. You can even mentally create a vision of them rising to their highest possibilities, becoming all you hope them to be, but you must also let go, allowing them to be loved by you either way. It’s the “but if not” principle where you believe in them and desire a positive change, but you’ll also be okay if it doesn’t happen as you wish. (See Dennis E. Simmons, “But If Not …,” Ensign, May 2004, 73.)
Focusing on our spouse’s faults may seem easier, and maybe even seem effective in the short run, but will never bring about the divinely intended changes in our self that could make us more whole and increase our capacity for love and joy. Finding fault with our spouse is the path of least resistance, while taking the alternative road of our personal growth and development is more like a mountain climb. But the exhilaration of the climb and its resulting rewards are well worth it. So before you throw in the towel on your spouse, because you just can’t get them to change, look at your own behaviors and reactions and try changing yourself instead.
Laura M. Brotherson, CFLE, is a marriage and family life educator certified by the National Council on Family Relations, and is the author of a groundbreaking book on physical intimacy and marital ONEness entitled, And They Were Not Ashamed ? Strengthening Marriage through Sexual Fulfillment. Laura also publishes an electronic newsletter entitled, “Straight Talk about Strengthening Marriage.” For more information, visit www.StrengtheningMarriage.com. Laura welcomes your comments at Laura@StrengtheningMarriage.com.