Kevin could hardly wait for his wife to get home from her business trip. She had been gone 3 days and Kevin took off work so that he could watch their two little girls while Abigail was gone.
As she entered through the front door he could see she was not happy. “Look at this place! Why do you always make such a mess in the house when I go out of town? There are dirty dishes in the sink, the garbage is overflowing, and the counters are stained with last night’s spaghetti sauce.”
Kevin looked back at his wife with an empty stare. He knew that it was best not to answer.
Abigail went into their bedroom and closed the door. As she sat down on the bed, she began thinking about the areas of Kevin’s life that she had worked so hard to change over the last 13 years. Instead of seeing improvements, things had remained basically the same.
The story of Kevin and Abigail is all too familiar to so many married couples. While there are plenty of things we could say about Kevin, let’s focus on Abigail for a moment.
Given the circumstances, Abigail has 3 choices. She could
1. Accept her husband’s inadequacies and live in a mediocre marriage.
2. Try to change her husband.
3. Partner with God to change herself instead.
I can tell you from experience that option 3 is by far the most difficult, but it is the best one. Before we examine it, let’s talk a little more about number 2.
In an article called You Can’t Change Your Spouse, Dorothy Littell Greco makes some great observations regarding some of the ways we try to change our partner.
A. We moralize.
Dictionary.com defines moralizing as “commenting on issues of right and wrong, typically with an unfounded air of superiority.”
This is the husband who can cook well but leaves it up to his wife to prepare dinner each night. He then puts her down because she can’t ever get the recipes right. Because of his negative comments, she feels as though she will never measure up to the standards he is imposing on her.
This husband is making cooking a moral issue. Unfortunately, by framing his argument this way he only makes his wife feel worse. There is no way his treatment of her will make her a better cook. Instead, if he continues this tactic, she may just give up being the cook altogether.
B. We manipulate.
Manipulation can be best described by the words “if” and “then”. While we don’t often use these words in an explicit way, our behavior can definitely be described by them.
Here’s an example that I have seen on numerous occasions with married couples.
A husband tries to manipulate his wife by saying, “If you keep turning me down for sex, then I will find someone else to meet my needs.” This man thinks he will threaten his wife into having sex with him. He leverages the fact that he is the sole provider for their family and uses it as a point of control.
Unfortunately, this only deepens the divide between him and his wife.
C. We express our disappointment repetitively.
As I thought about this one, I couldn’t help but hear the word “nag”. When we nag, we constantly harass our spouse to do something. There is an old proverb that talks about having a nagging wife.
“Better to live on the corner of a roof than to share a house with a nagging wife” (Proverbs 21:9).
Wow! You can’t say it any straighter than that!
Whether you are the nagging wife or the nagging husband, the principle applies to either one. Nagging your spouse only causes them to feel frustrated, angry, and resentful.
Instead of using so much energy nagging your spouse, use that same energy to give him positive reinforcement when you see him taking steps towards accomplishing the things you asked him to do.
D. We give our spouse the silent treatment.
In 2013, researchers did 74 studies that looked at the effects of an overarching behavior called the demand-withdrawal pattern. The silent treatment happens to be one of those behaviors.
Dr. Paul Schrodt, one of the leading professors of the study, said that the silent treatment does much more damage than we think. In fact, his studies show that this behavior leads to an even greater wedge between a husband and a wife.
Schrodt goes on to say that both partners have a responsibility to take action when one person is giving the silent treatment.
A Better Plan
As you can see, none of these techniques will change your spouse. There is a much better way.
Earlier in this post, I mentioned that option 3 was the best approach but also the most difficult. Here are some things you need to consider when deciding to partner with God to change yourself.
1. This approach does not mean that you condone their behavior.
I must admit, this is one of the hardest ones for me. Why? I struggle with this one because it doesn’t seem logical. How does this not send the message to our spouse that we do not oppose their actions?
This one is hard to understand because we often look at things from the short-term. Changing yourself is a day by day decision. Over time, those good decisions add up together to change you and show your spouse that God is doing something inside of you.
A good example of this in my marriage took place when Cheryl and I first were married. We had been high school sweethearts so there wasn’t much of a learning curve our first year of marriage.
Counting our honeymoon, we took a couple of vacations that year. Both of us found out very quickly that the word “vacation” meant something different to us.
Cheryl had grown up in a family that liked to visit theme parks on their vacation. It wasn’t unusual for her parents and her two brothers and her to jump in the car and drive 12 hours to the city they were visiting. Her dad would then get all the brochures he could find at the hotel and plan each day they would be there.
On most days, her family would wake up early in the morning to make sure that they were at the theme park when the doors opened. They would then stay all day until the park closed and do the same thing the next day.
My family, however, would fly to our destination. We would stay with family who would join us in going to the beach every day. While we did wind up going to Disney a few times, most of the times we would just take it easy and take things as they came.
I’m sure you can see now why our perspectives were so different. How did we work it out? Actually, we both had to change our approach. Instead of expecting either of us to change, we worked on our own attitudes.
This made a world of difference, and 21 years later we both enjoy taking vacations together.
2. Examine your expectations.
Have you ever noticed that we often have higher expectations for others than ourselves? This is also true in marriage.
In our vacation dilemma, I had to take a good look at my expectations for Cheryl. Once I looked at them, I realized that I was only thinking of one person: me!
It takes intentionality to look at yourself and it takes humility to admit that what you see is not what’s best for your spouse. If you currently find yourself trying to change your spouse, take a good look at yourself and ask the question, “Is it unfair for me to expect…?”
If this is difficult for you, find a good friend who will speak honestly into your life. This reminds me of another old proverb.
“Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses” (Proverbs 27:6).
3. Come face to face with your “change” tactics.
Whether we admit it or not, most married people have a few “change” tactics that they know will work on their spouse in the short-term.
They may be some of the ones mentioned earlier in this post or you may have a few that are “custom” to your spouse. Whatever the case, the path toward change always begins by acknowledging that your current way of doing things is not working.
4. Do your best not to complain.
Complaining does not help anyone! Instead, try having a constructive conversation with your spouse about the issues at hand. Use the word “I” or “me” to describe how their behavior makes you feel. Avoid using the word “you”. It comes across accusatory.
5. Be patient and pray for your spouse.
No one likes to hear this. Even so, change takes time and no one is perfect. Reward your spouse when you see them exhibiting positive behavior.
Will my spouse ever change?
Despite everything that has been said above, it’s still normal to wonder if your spouse will ever change. Only God knows the answer to this question. However, your job is to pray for him/her and to work on changing yourself.
Don’t fall into the trap of carrying the responsibility to change your spouse. This is God’s job, and He is more than able to do it. He truly is the life-changer!
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