I recently heard from a wife who was at the end of her rope with her husband. His behavior was driving her crazy and she was unhappy. But as strongly as she felt about her husband’s shortcomings, she felt equally as strongly that she wanted to save her marriage. The two of them had been together for a very long time and although he made her miserable sometimes, she knew that she did not want to live without him.
The husband could be distant, cold, and irresponsible. He sort of lived in his own little world and expected the wife to just deal with it. The wife felt that she was carrying most of the load herself. However, when she reminded him of his behavior, he accused her of nagging and she got the exact opposite response that she wanted. In the past, when the wife had threatened to leave, the husband had vowed and promised to change. Sometimes, he even made some changes that lasted for a few weeks or so, but he always reverted back to his old patterns.
The wife mistook this to mean that her husband didn’t love her enough to really and truly change once and for all. The husband would argue that his behaviors were just part of who he was and it hurt him that his wife was constantly trying to tweak him. The wife wanted to know if there was any hope for her marriage when she and her husband just kept running into the same conflicts over and over.
At the heart of this matter was the fact that the wife felt helpless and reactive. She was in a situation where she was dependent on someone else to change their behaviors. This can and often does go very wrong and creates a lot of frustration. However, I felt that there were some ways that both people could get more of what they wanted. I will discuss this more in the following article.
You Can’t Control Someone Else’s Behaviors Or Commitment To Change, But You Often Have More Control Than You Think: Admittedly, it was clear that the wife was not going to be able to “make” or “get” her husband to act like she wanted him to. Ironically, the wife used to love her husband’s happy go lucky nature. But now she just saw him as sort of a slacker who never grew up and who didn’t respect her enough to make an attempt to be a responsible adult who could at least partially meet her emotional needs. Over time, this had really begun to bother her until she was now at the point to where this could be a potential deal breaker for her. The fact that her husband couldn’t seem to commit to trying harder really angered her more than anything else.
But, what the wife didn’t fully embrace was the fact that her husband had always been the way that he was now. However, as life’s responsibilities and commitments began to demand more of her attention, these personality traits became more troublesome. It wasn’t that the husband was changing who he was. It was that the wife had finally come to the realization that changing the core of someone else is very difficult if not impossible. And as a result, she felt alone and hopeless.
But, this did not mean that the two of them had to divorce or give up on their marriage. It just meant that they had to find a way for the two of them to happily coexist. This might mean that the wife might find alternative ways to get some of her emotional needs met. It might also mean that the two of them could negotiate actions that the two of them could both live with and maintain.
In truth, the only person that we have complete control over is ourselves. We can control our own thoughts, behaviors, and actions, but it’s unrealistic to think that we can fully control someone else’s and attempt to do so will often result in them resenting you and may just mean that you get even more of the behaviors that you don’t want. Accepting that you’ll likely get more of what you want when you focus on yourself is usually the first step toward changing this cycle.
Positive Reinforcement Will Get You So Much Further Than Focusing And Dwelling On The Negative: I didn’t dialog with the husband in this situation, but I suspect that I could predict what he might have said. I’ve spoken to many men in this situation and most will tell me that when their wife harps on this “change business” it actually makes them feel rejected. It’s almost as if their wife is flat out telling him that she doesn’t like who they are. This can very much contribute to them withdrawing, avoiding the topic, or even retaliating. This isn’t the cycle that you likely want to find yourself in.
You’ll often get better results if you make two commitments. The first one might be to control and focus on your own actions and behaviors. This will often mean that you’re taking more responsibility and backing off of them just a bit. This will allow you to feel more in control of the situation and it will often get their attention more than any words you could ever say. The second commitment might be to focus on what they are doing right rather than what they are doing wrong. (And eventually, the positive reinforcement often helps you with the undesirable behaviors also.) Yes, it was extremely annoying that this husband wasn’t as serious as the wife might like, but they were other people in her life who could meet this need.
There were other areas where the husband excelled and the wife should focus on these things BEFORE she continued to stress what she did not like. Doing so would likely bring about some positive changes in the husband because he would see that she was trying to make her own changes and he would see that she did notice the good things as well as the bad.
I often tell people to start saving their marriages by taking those big issues that always crop off and cause trouble off the table. I know this sounds like I have the process backward, but I very much disagree. The reason for this is that often, we dwell on the same issues so much that no one is really listening anymore. And, the resentment and disconnect can often become an even bigger issue than the original one.
So, often if you can restore the connection and empathy, you can refocus on the bigger issues with much better results as you will have two people who are invested in the outcome rather than only one.
It took me way too long to realize that I was contributing to my husband’s resistance to change. When I stopped focusing on changing him and started focusing on changing myself, things started to get better and to change for good. Luckily, over time (and taking calculated baby steps), I was able to reestablish intimacy and bring back some sense of harmony. You can read a very personal story on my blog at http://isavedmymarriage.com.