Change is difficult. It can also be complicated. Despite our best intentions, sustained change often eludes us. We’ve had many spouses tell us that their husband or wife promised to change and things were good for a while but then there was a relapse. Their good intentions were not enough to sustain their energy for change.
So what can you do when you really need a change to stick? The most basic starting point is to work out what really needs to change. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we focus on the wrong things to change and so the results are disappointing which in turn undermines our motivation.
Consider David who is in the habit of getting a bit crude and insulting after a few too many drinks. After an embarrassing social event in which his wife stormed out, he is filled with remorse and promises he’ll never do that again. For a month, everything is fine. His wife starts to feel that maybe this time it will last, then there’s another devastating blowout.
Instead of promising to hold his tongue, if David looked at what was happening to him before he started talking crudely, he’d get a better insight into the kind of change that will work. In this case, alcohol is a contributor but that’s not the main problem. If he examined why he drinks to excess, he would discover that it happens when he feels inadequate, like after the boss has chewed him out or his father has criticized him. David would have more success holding his tongue if he found a healthier way of dealing with his emotions of inadequacy, such as learning how to assert himself appropriately with his father and boss. Then he’d feel stronger and less powerless when things go badly with the boss or his dad.
Let’s take another example; Sharon chronically nags and undermines her husband which leads him to withdraw and emotionally shutdown. She resolves to cease her nagging criticism. For the first few days she consciously bites her tongue when under the impulse to nag. She manages to refrain from saying the critical words, but her whole demeanour and body language is conveying her meaning just as effectively. Her husband continues to withdraw under the assault of her passive aggressive attitude. She concludes the situation is hopeless – no matter what she does, her husband is unreformable (so much for trying to change herself).
Instead, Sharon needs to change her attitude rather than her behaviour. If she starts to think about her husband differently, consciously suspending judgment and searching out his more noble qualities on which to focus, rather than obsessing about his weaker points, her attitude towards him will shift and her intended behaviour will follow more easily. She’ll start to see his goodness more and his shortcomings less, which makes it easier to quit the nagging.
Changing behaviours without addressing the underlying attitudes will seldom work. Whatever personal change you want to see in your marriage, remember: if you want the change to endure, start with a change in attitude before you tackle a change in behaviour.