It Takes One to Tango


We’ve all heard the saying: it takes two to tango. But is it true that the only way to improve a marriage is if both husband and wife co-operate? Marriage is like a dance. If one spouse changes his or her steps, that changes the dance. The truth is, it only takes one spouse 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 husband and wife fully invested and contributing to the marriage, it is not necessary for 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 also change.

Actually, everybody knows this principle. We just don’t access its power to make positive change.

Let’s say your spouse comes home in an upbeat mood and is loving and attentive towards you. Instead of responding warmly, you react by criticising, ignoring them or bringing up a touchy subject.

We all know how easy it is to sour 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.

The interaction between husband and wife is like a dance. When things are good between us, we move together and it can be a lot of fun. Or we can be out of step and our relationship becomes discordant and unpleasant.

But if one person changes the steps, that changes the dance. And that change can move in either direction. From good to bad, or from ok to better.

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

Change for the better

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 When your spouse is narky or withdrawn, don’t react with your typical comeback.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 Think about what would help your narky or withdrawn spouse feel loved and do that instead.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!



Recipe for Marriage Decline

I'll change if you change first! I'm not changing until you do!

It takes one to tango. The question is, who will make a change for the better first?

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. For Media Enquiries Please Contact us here

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  1. rain on October 18, 2018 at 2:00 am

    my husband is a hoarder..I think. our 2 car garage is packed and cannot walk thru. in addition, he has his room which i wanted him to have when we moved in 2 yrs ago, since he has lots of stuff. but that’s also full + piled up high and blocking windows. although not as bad, he has more stuff in the dining room, living room, sun room, back yard… and he likes to get more things.
    if i touch his stuff, he gets upset. i ask him to clear our family space about once a week. he ignores the request 90% of the time. he would clear 1/2 of mess in our common space (living +dining) if guests are coming. it’s so hard for him to toss anything (boxes, receipts, plastic bags, VCR, CD, broken wash machine, broken cars, tires…)makes it so much harder to clean. i wish i can help him. I am sad.

    • Francine & Byron Pirola on January 20, 2023 at 3:12 pm

      Hello ‘rain’. It sounds like this is a real tension in your marriage. Here’s a few thoughts.

      1. Why people hoard: mostly this is based in anxiety. All of us get attached to things to some degree. When something is associated with positive emotion, we naturally want to maintain it in our life and protect it. For most of us this is a sensible and positive contributor to our life. For example, we lock our car to avoid it being stolen, or hold our kids hands when crossing the street to avoid harm etc. In these cases, we choose to be ‘protective’ of our ‘stuff’ because to lose it would cause significant suffering and guilt in the case of a neglect of our responsibilities as parents and spouses. There is a point however, where our attachments becomes dysfunctional and our freedom is compromised. Compulsive hoarding as you describe almost always has a deep psychological basis and may require professional help for your husband to address it.

      2. Communal living comes with obligations. These obligations include being open to compromise, being willing to tolerate the preferences of others and being cooperative in sharing the responsibilities of maintaining shared spaces for the benefit of all. As you describe it, it sounds like your husband’s habits are seriously undercutting his obligations. You are thus perfectly justified in requesting a change of behaviour.

      3. How to get effective change. Simply asking nicely or criticising him will be ineffective as you no doubt have discovered. Threatening him will most likely also be ineffective as he is already anxious and this will likely trigger it further. One tool for broaching the subject is ‘The Respectful Request’ which we developed to deal with ‘marriage saboteurs’. You can access this tool through our course for Sponsors Lesson 8, Topic 5. Go to to enroll. An important part of a Respectful Request is tempering it against what your husband can reasonable do. Asking him to ‘Get rid of all this stuff’ is unrealistic. Asking him to keep the common areas free of his things is more achievable, but if he truly has a disorder, even this will be overwhelming. The only sensible request in this case might be to get professional help. The Respectful Request Tool is a process to help you effectively approach this difficult conversation so that you have a better chance of success.
      You might also find this article helpful.

      4. Prayer and spiritual growth. It’s also important to remember that difficulties in our life and marriage are opportunities – they are an invitation to grow in our relationship with the Lord and to develop virtue. Now is the time for you to dive deep into prayer so that you can draw closer to God and thus be more attuned to his voice in your life. We have recently published a prayer journal for women to help us learn how to hear God’s voice and to have meaningful conversations with him. You can order here

  2. Louise on January 13, 2018 at 11:43 pm

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

    • Francine & Byron Pirola on January 20, 2023 at 3:13 pm

      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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