Change Starts with Yourself

by Nathan Cobb, Ph.D. in MFT, RMFT, R.Psych

If you want to strengthen your marriage, the best place to start is by working on improving your own responses to your spouse, rather than trying to reform your spouse. When things aren’t working out very well in your relationship, it’s easy to get so caught up in trying to get your partner to do something different, such as really hear you or pay more attention to you or appreciate you, that you do not see how your own thoughts, reactions, and attempted solutions to the problem become part of the problem.

Trying to change your partner rarely works because the more you focus on your partner’s faults, the more withdrawn and defensive your partner is likely to become. Feelings of anger, hurt, loneliness, and frustration increase as each of you retreat further and further into entrenched positions. As this pattern unfolds, couples end up distancing themselves so much from each other that they lose touch with the bonds that held them together in the first place. Indeed, most divorces are not directly caused by hot conflict but by cold distance, by the gradual loss of warmth, friendship and emotional closeness over time. 

In a marriage, two separate individuals join together to form a union of lives, hopes, dreams, visions, goals, passions, and resources. One of the challenges of marriage is learning to move from a ME to a WE, by learning to act as a partnership, sharing similar values, beliefs, interests, and priorities. Such similarities build rapport and help you feel closer to each other.

Inevitably, however, there will also be differences between you, whether large or small, petty or important. Our differences may even be attractive at first. How you learn to handle these differences will partly determine the success of your relationship.

Conflict in marriage arises when each spouse’s different and seemingly incompatible interests, goals, intentions, or perceptions collide. Given this definition, a certain amount of conflict in any marriage is inevitable. 

Some couples learn to accept and appreciate their differences, perhaps even value them. They recognize that they have much to learn from each other, and that their differences can complement each other. Where one is structured and organized, the other is spontaneous and flexible. Where one is extroverted, the other is more introverted. Where one is highly emotional, the other is more analytical. Couples with strong marriages see their differences as strengths. They see that together they form a much stronger unit than either of them alone. They focus on accepting each other and showing love and respect for each other. At a minimum, they try not to let their differences become more important than their relationship.

Other couples see their differences as upsetting or threatening. They question their compatibility or their decision to get married. Did I do the right thing? Was it a big mistake? Or they fear that no lasting emotional connection is possible because of their differences. They feel vulnerable and retreat into themselves or lash out at their partner. Their differences end up becoming a source of contention and strife.

Take George and Lisa for example. Neither of them feel happy in their marriage. They bicker a lot and put each other down. As they search for possible reasons for the tension in their marriage, each of them settles on what seems like the obvious source of their troubles – the other person.  

After all, if George feels hurt or frustrated by Lisa’s words or actions, it is natural for him to assume that Lisa is at fault for their marital problems, and vice versa.  Both of them may find themselves thinking thoughts such as:

     “If only she would stop nagging me, things would be fine.”

     “He pays more attention to the computer than he does to me.”

     “She’s so selfish. It’s no wonder we can’t make things work.”

     “He always has to have the last word. He thinks he knows everything.”

When George thinks such things, it may help him explain why he feels so unhappy with his relationship. But for Lisa, who is on the receiving end, such statements seem unjust, unfair, and critical. When Lisa follows the urge to give voice to her own negative explanations for George’s behavior, George likely responds, not by agreeing with Lisa, but by attacking back, being defensive, or avoiding her altogether. That’s because these explanations focus on what is wrong with the other person. They are attacks on each other, not honest expressions of desires and feelings and hopes.

Blaming and finding fault with your partner naturally invites your partner to resist your influence, to turn away from you, and be defensive. Then the gulf widens, and you find yourselves in a downward spiral of criticism and defensiveness and escalating conflict or mutual withdrawal that leaves the problems hanging unresolved.  Couples at this point often stop cooperating with each other and watch, with growing sadness and concern, the foundation of their marriage--the reservoir of goodwill, fondness and mutual friendship that normally vitalizes their relationship--slowly chipping away.

Imagine what would happen if you redirected the energy you spent trying to work on your spouse, toward what you really can work on--yourself. If any change is needed, let it start with you.  As marriage therapist Brent Barlow puts it, “Use a mirror rather than a magnifying glass.”

The law of the harvest is instructive here. The law of the harvest is a natural law. It acts whether we believe in it or not. No one is exempt from it. The law of the harvest states that we reap what we sow. If we sow a seed, and the seed is good, and we feed that seed with the right amount of water, sun, rich soil and nutrients, eventually the seed will grow into a plant that bears fruit. Then we can reap the rewards of our hard work.

The law of the harvest applies to our relationships as much as it applies to our gardens. If we sow understanding and compassion in our relationship, we will reap greater rapport and love. If we sow bitterness and insults, we will reap strife and division. Conversely, we will never reap from seeds that were never sown. A farmer never reaps barley from sowing wheat. In marriage, we will never reap feelings of close emotional connection and friendship from sowing critical attacks on our partner, no matter how justified we think we are in doing so.  We will never reap validation and love by sowing hostility and blame, no matter how justified we feel in pointing fingers.  

What this means is that if you are not getting the results you desire from your relationship today, it is not necessarily because your relationship is impossible, or that you and your partner are incompatible. It is more likely because you are getting back results that predictably flow from the choices, attitudes, and behaviors you consistently engage in with your partner, and vice versa. 

This is not to say that you are responsible for each other’s behavior. You are not responsible for your spouse’s actions. If you are in an abusive relationship, for example, you are not responsible for bringing on the abuse.   You are responsible, however, for how you choose to respond to your spouse’s actions. 

You don’t have control over your partners’ choices and behaviors, but you do have control over what you sow on a daily basis in your marriage. You can begin to change the results you get by consistently changing what you put out. This means starting with yourself, not your partner. Start today by making a strong commitment not to be critical or mean-spirited when you get into a disagreement. Decide to do your best to truly listen to your partner instead of being defensive. Set a goal to turn off the T.V. after dinner and spend at least a half-hour giving your spouse your full attention. Dedicate yourself to doing things for your spouse on a daily basis that will make him or her feel like they matter to you.

points of resistance

I have observed in counselling that this approach typically raises some concerns in the initial sessions. One significant point of resistance often stems from the fear of losing influence in the relationship, or the fear that nothing will change if you stop trying press for change in your partner. The concern is usually along these lines, “If I focus on myself, then you are telling me I have to be okay with my partner ignoring me, or mistreating me, or avoiding, or attacking me. That means I’ll have just accept how my partner treats me.”       

Starting with yourself doesn’t mean turning a blind eye to a bad situation. If your partner ignores you, then there is a problem. Ignoring the problem and suppressing your resentment about it will likely make matters worse. If your partner criticizes you or doesn’t pay attention to you then you will likely need to address the issue and find a way to resolve it so that you can enjoy a truly phenomenal relationship. But the starting place for addressing the issue is not putting your partner down or under the microscope. The starting place is looking within yourself to understand the part you play in perpetuating or co-creating the problem with your partner. Starting with yourself means changing the way you approach or address the issue, or how you respond to your partner about it. 

You and your partner form a connected system. You might not feel emotionally connected, but your interactions are connected. Your actions make sense in light of your partner’s actions, and vice versa. Compare it to “ballroom dancing,” which is patterned and coordinated movement. Your partner takes a “step” forward, and so you take a complementary “step” backward. Your “raise your arm” and your partner “twirls under.” In fact, your “moves” may be so well “rehearsed,” so patterned and interconnected, that you could probably predict how an argument will unfold once it starts. If you carry this analogy through to its conclusion, it means that both parties are responsible for their part in this dance. Somehow it’s easier to get so focused, instead, on getting your partner to change that you don’t see how you’ve become part of the picture. 

To fully understand your partner’s behavior you must be willing to see it as connected somehow to your own behavior. Once you do, you can invite change over time in how your partner responds to you by consistently changing the way you respond to your partner. By modifying how you relate to your partner and to yourself – you take the pressure off of your spouse to defend against forceful efforts to get him or her to change, thereby opening space for your spouse to consider different ways of responding to you willingly, of his or her own choosing. It is an ironic observation of human nature that people tend to make changes and to do so more willingly when people around them stop trying to force them to change.

Another point of resistance is the fear of losing ourselves or compromising who we are. Starting with yourself is usually not about changing your core personality. Core personality traits tend to be fairly stable throughout life.  Indeed, one of the overall goals for developing a great relationship is acceptance of each other’s personality.

Starting with yourself is more about evaluating your priorities, learning to see different perspectives, eliminating self-defeating behavior, learning new communication patterns, giving more freely, and being less selfish.  Whether we realize it or not, these types of things are in a constant state of flux throughout our lives anyway.   Sometimes it’s not fear of losing ourselves that holds us back as much as fear of allowing ourselves to be influenced by another person, which is a significant barrier to relationship happiness.

A final reason to start with yourself is that many of the reactions, feelings, and perceptions you have in relation to your partner may be heavily influenced by the sum of habits and experiences you have accumulated throughout your life. Your partner may certainly be part of the equation, as we have just described, but some of the barriers that prevent you from being happy with your partner and fully enjoying your relationship may come from you – from things you learned in your family of origin, or from past experiences – not from your partner.  These barriers may be preventable.

Application

Take a moment now and think about what you can do to begin improving things in your marriage. Try to think about things that your spouse has specifically requested or expressed concerns about. It may be something you could do more of or something you need to do less of. It may be something you can start doing or something you need to stop doing. It may be something your spouse needs from you in order to feel loved. It may be something you have resisted doing out of fear of losing influence, or fear of losing face. Whatever it is, it should be something specific and meaningful to your partner.

Remember that people feel loved and show love in a multitude of ways. The way you feel loved may be different from the way your partner feels loved. This is an important distinction to make because you need to think about how your partner experiences love when you are deciding how to strengthen your marriage. If you try to show love in the way you want to feel loved, you run the risk of expressing love in a way that your spouse does not understand or appreciate. 

Think about your own experience. If you had to choose, would you rather your spouse expressed her love by affirming you and complimenting you or by touching you and kissing you?  Would you rather your spouse did nice things for you or that they spent time just being with you and talking with you? Would you rather your spouse did romantic things for you, like sending you flowers or a love letter, or that they do practical things for you, like ironing your shirt or mopping the floor? Do you long for your spouse to really know your likes and dislikes, your tastes, and ways of thinking and to genuinely accept you for who you are? Or do you long for your spouse to help you with housework or pay the bills? You might be thinking, “Yes, I’d like all of that, please.” But there are times in our lives when we really long to feel loved in certain ways more than other ways. Your spouse’s need may be different from your need. So try to figure out what your spouse really needs from you. If you’re at a total loss, then sincerely ask your spouse, “How can I be a better husband or wife?” Then listen carefully to the reply and be ready to act on it.

You may want to write your idea down. Write it out as a statement of intention. For example, “In order to strengthen my marriage, I intend to …”  If you have selected something that you can only do on occasion, such as planning a weekend vacation together with your spouse, write that down and set a goal to do it, but try to think of something that you can also do every day. Set a goal to do this thing every day for the next week. At the end of each week, see if you notice any differences or changes in the emotional climate of your relationship as a result of your efforts. Also, notice any differences in the way you feel toward your partner. Even if your partner is not willing to work with you on improving your marriage, you can invite significant changes in the relationship by adopting this approach yourself.  

Be aware that if your partner is not willing to reciprocate right away, try not to get discouraged. Often people make great efforts for the first couple of weeks but then stop because things don’t seem to improve. Sometimes they even get worse. Realize that it takes weeks of consistent effort to start a new habit and to begin reaping the fruits of that habit. Remember the law of the harvest. It takes at least a season before you can reap what you have sown and seasons upon seasons to create a beautiful garden. Think of common New Year’s resolutions to lose weight or exercise more. It seems to be human nature to stop when the way gets difficult or results are not immediate. You may not see results right away, but you will see results if you are persistent.

Conclusion

You and your spouse have the ability to bring out the best in each other or to bring out the worst in each other.   Starting today, no matter where your relationship is headed, regardless of your different personalities, and regardless of how distant and disconnected you presently feel from each other, if you will make every effort to learn what it takes to create a good marriage, it is possible for each of you to find fulfillment and friendship within the marriage. If you are willing to turn toward each other for the long haul, forgive and let go of the past, learn about what happy, stable couples do differently compared to couples who are headed to divorce, and fully apply those principles in your own marriage, it is possible for you and your spouse to develop a rock-solid relationship with each other. 


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