It Takes One to Tango

Many people believe that a good relationship requires equal effort from both husband and wife. And so, if your spouse is unwilling to change or invest more in the marriage then the relationship is doomed to lack-lustre intimacy, or even steady deterioration.

While it is certainly the ideal is to have both spouses fully invested and contributing to the marriage, it is not necessary to make a positive and substantial improvement. You can make a difference on your own.

How does this work? On this simple principle: if one person changes, they change the dynamic of the relationship and this spontaneously leads the other person to change too. Actually, everybody knows this principle. We just don’t access its power to make positive change.

Let’s say your spouse comes home in a really good mood and is being loving and attentive towards you, but you respond by criticising, ignoring or bringing up a touchy subject. We all know how easy it is to kill the positive mood of the other. In fact, this happens all too often; we start out well, but then one of us strikes a small but fatal blow and all of sudden, the good will and positive vibes vanish. In a flash that warm, romantic atmosphere turns into an icy wind.

One person can most definitely influence the relationship and do so very effectively!

Equally so, this principle applies in the positive as well. When your spouse is narky or withdrawn, don’t react with your typical comeback. Nagging, criticising or shutting down yourself only perpetuates the cycle of moodiness and diminishes your intimacy.

Rather try responding with a more loving gesture. Think about what would help your narky or withdrawn spouse feel loved and do that instead. Perhaps a sympathetic “I can see you’ve had a bad day; is there anything I can do to help?” or “You look like you need some time to yourself right now; why don’t you take some time out and I’ll handle things here?” Maybe your spouse needs to hear your affirmation and appreciation. Maybe no words are necessary, just silent companionship while you each read the paper or watch a TV show.

Whatever way you choose to respond in love, be assured: you can change your marriage for the better with the simple act of changing yourself.  All change starts from within. So before we say “why must I change first”, remind yourself: the only person holding you back from changing is yourself!

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About the Author:

Francine & Byron Pirola
Francine & Byron Pirola are the founders and principal authors of the SmartLoving series. They are passionate about living Catholic marriage to the full and helping couples reach their marital potential. They have been married since 1988 and have five children. Their articles may be reproduced for non commercial purposes with appropriate acknowledgement and back links.


  1. Louise January 13, 2018 at 11:43 pm - Reply

    How would this work in an emotionally or verbally abusive marriage? I don’t think it can.

    • Francine & Byron Pirola
      Francine & Byron Pirola January 15, 2018 at 3:49 pm - Reply

      Hi Louise,
      Thanks for your question – there are a couple of points to make.
      Firstly, the principle that it takes only one person to change a relationship holds in every relationship and for changes in either direction (i.e. better or worse). For example, if a husband starts returning angry criticism to his wife, this WILL change the relationship – but probably for WORSE!

      The real question is, what change would improve the situation.

      Abuse is complex. To start with, many people call what we would judge as isolated incidents of bad behaviour as abuse. Emotional and verbal abuse are particularly difficult to define. For example, how loud can one raise one’s voice before it becomes verbal abuse?

      None of us is perfect, and one of the roles of marriage is to help each other grow in virtue and spiritual maturity. This growth doesn’t tend to happen without some tension and friction. For example, self-centred behaviour by one spouse will typically go unchecked unless the other spouse protests in some way. If the protest is done in an accusing, judgemental way, the other will most likely be defensive and it may not be effective in bringing about the desired change.

      For the purposes of answering your question though, we will assume that you are talking about serious abuse such as one-sided, persistent, chronic shouting of obscenities and name calling, with angry intimidation and threats. If the ‘victim’ has sufficient psychological strength, then a calm, firm “When you shout at me, I feel attacked and threatened and I am unable to hear what you are trying to say. From now on, when this happens, I will leave the room until you calm down and can state your concern calmly and considerately”. Obviously, it must be followed through.

      If the person doesn’t have the psychological resources to take this stand, a period of controlled separation with the support and guidance of an appropriate professional might be necessary to allow both spouses the ‘space’ away from their toxic interactions to process their issues. (see this article for more on triggers and hotbuttons: )

      Both of these actions are a change in the steps of the dance and will change the relationship. Whether the other person (the ‘abuser’) responds by addressing their own psychological conflicts or not, is their choice. The next steps will depend largely on how that person reacts.

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