How many of us believe “If only my spouse would change, our marriage would improve”?
As a marriage therapist, I can tell you that this belief is quite common. Many couples come through my door hoping that I will hear both of their “sides” and come to the conclusion that they are in the right and it is their spouse who needs to change. My experience has shown me that perhaps the most important way I can help couples is by helping them understand that for change to occur in their marriages both of the partners must come to believe that each of them has to change. Because in marriage, unless there is abuse, it is never one person’s actions that are causing their distress. Both partners have their steps in the dance of their relationship that are contributing to their difficulties.
When couples experience a significant degree of anger and blame toward one another, they see each other through very rigid, limited lenses: “He is always so selfish! He never thinks about anyone but himself!” “She is always mean-spirited! “She never has a nice thing to say!” They attribute negative intentions to each other’s actions and can’t even contemplate the possibility that perhaps there is a different reason for their partner’s actions.
Once each of the partners begins to believe that “I am also responsible” for the state of their marriage, they stop pointing their finger and blaming their spouse. As a result, anger begins to diminish and they can start to experience compassion and empathy for each other instead of only anger and defensiveness. They begin to understand that their partners are also hurting because they are not receiving the love and attention that they are hungering for from their spouse.
Once each of the partners starts to take responsibility for their actions, they begin to focus on what they need to do differently instead of what their partner needs to change. How are their words, their body language, their tone negatively affecting their spouse and their interactions with them?
As each of the partners begins to take responsibility for their own actions, their spouse becomes more and more willing to take responsibility for their own actions. Each feeds off the other’s good will and positive behaviors. Once they see that their partner is no longer blaming them for their marriage’s ills, they begin to feel compassion and tenderness for their spouse. As a result, they become more and more willing to make changes themselves.
Yet another reason why it is crucial to stop looking toward our partners for change is that the reality is that no matter how hard we might try to change others, it is not truly possible to do so. No amount of cajoling, begging, or arm-twisting will be effective in changing someone. True change can only come from inside the person himself.
The issue of changing our partner is relevant for couples who are dating and contemplating marriage as well as for couples who are already married. Too often, when people are dating and see a character trait or behavior pattern in their partner that they don’t like, they minimize its significance, thinking that they will be able to change this in their partner once they are married. In cases like this, it is essential for the individual to determine whether this is an issue that he or she could live with or not. Because if it is a trait or behavior that he or she knows would be very problematic for them to live with, that person must understand that the issue at hand will probably not change once they are married. In fact, the issue will, most likely, become more exaggerated and pronounced after marriage.
And what about issues that surface once a couple marries? How do partners deal with the conflict that may arise as a result of differences between them? When the conflict has been going on for a considerable amount of time, partners sometimes become disheartened and come to believe that “Nothing can get better in our relationship because my spouse is incapable of change. This is just his character.” While it is true that our core personalities will not change when we are already adults, behaviors can change. And, as stated earlier, the only way to change my partner’s behavior is by looking at myself, not him, and determining what I can change in my behavior. As a result of my changed stance and behavior, my partner will, in turn, be willing to look at his behaviors and make changes in his interactions with me.
Instead of saying, “If only he would change” or “if only she would change,” we should be asking ourselves, “What can I change in my stance or behavior with my spouse?” By placing the onus of change on ourselves, we will create an atmosphere of compassion, empathy, and good will in our interactions with one another.
Laura Turk, MS, LMFT, LPC, NCC, is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She practices marital and pre-marital therapy in Teaneck, New Jersey. Contact her at [email protected] or by calling her at 201 823-7933. You can also visit her website at www.marriagecounselingbergencounty.com.
By Laura Turk, MS