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/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.
Here are some tips for how to make lasting change for the better.
1. Work out what really needs to change.
Sounds obvious, but sometimes we focus on the wrong change and so the results are disappointing which undermines our motivation.
For example, say a man is in the habit of getting abusive after a few drinks. After yet another aggressive shouting tirade, he is filled with remorse and promises he’ll never lose his temper and do that again. For a week, everything is fine. His wife starts to feel that maybe this time it will last, then there’s another devastating blowout. The cycle repeats again and again, but eventually the wife loses hope – she knows better. Instead of promising to keep his temper, if the husband looked at what was happening to him before he blew his top, he’d get a better insight into the kind of change that will work. In this case, it’s likely that the alcohol is a contributor. Moreover, if he examined why he drinks to excess, he’d discover that it happens when he feels inadequate, like after the boss has chewed him out, or his father criticized him. He’d have more success keeping his temper, if he committed to finding a healthier way of dealing with feelings of inadequacy.
Let’s take another example; perhaps there is a wife who chronically nags and undermines her husband which leads him to withdraw and shut down emotionally. 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 demeanor 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 – not matter what she does, her husband is unreformable. Mmmmm… we thought she was trying to change herself. Instead, she needs to change her attitude rather than her behavior. 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, she’ll more easily over look his shortcomings in word and action. Morevover, she’ll feel a lot more contented in the marriage because she’ll be focused on what is great about him, instead of his limitations.
All change starts with ourselves. Lasting change starts with a change in attitude before a change in behavior.
2. Make a plan
To maximize your chances of permanent change, make a plan that respects the three rules of relationship goal setting:
- Positive – make it something you will proactively do rather than something you’ll avoid. For example, instead of resolving not to criticize, commit to being consciously affirming. Affirmation is a very effective way to displace criticism.
- Specific – make it something specific and achievable so that you know when you are doing it … or not. For example, a promise to be more patient is too vague. Rather make a promise to wait patiently when your spouse is running late. When you’ve successfully mastered patience in that circumstance, take on another, like listening patiently when your spouse is talking.
- Daily – a small, daily change is better than an infrequent grand gesture because it has a cumulative impact, and because the rewiring of neural patterns needs to be repeated regularly and frequently for it to be effective and permanent. For example, if you need to spend more time at home, it’s better to commit to coming home half an hour earlier than to setting aside one weekend a month. The new daily routine reminds you that you are not just changing your behavior, but also your attitude. If you only do the once a month routine, you’ll only give it any thought once a month – the rest of the month, you’re still reinforcing the old behavior.
3. Commit it to paper
Formalising your commitment to change has a powerful impact on your psyche in terms of your motivation and follow-through. A formal vow spoken aloud or written down helps you to crystalise your commitment as it facilitates clarity and provides an objective reference when your memory gets fuzzy! Moreover, the process will also consolidate your resolve as your mental commitment is reinforced by a concrete physical gesture. If there is a witness, it’s even better as your resolve will be fortified by the awareness that someone else is supporting you.
Accountability is a great way for couples to support their ongoing growth. It can be enormously helpful to have an accountability partner; someone to whom you can go for encouragement and support in sticking to your plan. These are peers (usually a friend of the same sex), another couple, a spiritual advisor or counsellor who has a commitment to strengthening your marriage. Accountability partners can be especially helpful when you ‘relapse’ and need encouragement and new ideas. For accountability to work, you need to have regular contact with your accountability partner where you ‘report’ on your progress as well as emergency access when you have a relapse. For tips of choosing a good therapist: https://smartloving.org/getting-help-counsellors/
Prayer is one of the great resources at our disposal and God most definitely has an interest in supporting our marriages. We recommend a very targeted prayer in this circumstance so that you can get maximum results. Called, ‘prayer for graces’, the idea is that you identify the key graces you need to make the change and ask God specifically for those graces. You can be sure that God desires you to have whatever grace you need to live your marriage well, so if you are lacking in a particular grace, for example patience, examine how you might be blocking that grace in your life. Perhaps you fear that if you are too patient, you’ll be taken for granted and your own needs will get overlooked. In this case, pray for the grace of patience, but pray also for God to remove your fear of being neglected so that the grace can be manifested in your life.
Here’s another example: perhaps you use pornography and have a problem with lust. Ask God for the graces of purity, self-control and honesty (almost every porn addict keeps his habit secret). Ask yourself what might be blocking the action of those graces in your life; perhaps you carry a psychological wound from a childhood trauma and your pornography serves to protect you from feeling the pain of that trauma. Ask God for the graces you need, but ask also for his healing of your trauma wound.
Or perhaps you are a chronic criticizer and need the graces of humility and self-restraint. You resist them because you fear that your need to be affirmed and acknowledged for your goodness will be ignored… your habitual, destructive criticism is how you subconsciously reassure yourself that you are indeed good and lovable. Pray for the graces you need as well as asking God heal your wounded self-esteem.
And don’t forget to access the Sacrament of Penance – it sounds old fashioned, but there are 2000 years of tried and proven tradition behind this practice. Confessing your faults in a confidential, anonymous (if desired) situation and receiving God’s absolution unlocks spiritual graces that can strengthen you in your commitment to change. If you’re not a Catholic, you’ll still be welcome – just tell the priest so he can lead you through the prayers, or visit a pastor of your own faith tradition.
Change is never easy, especially the change needed to correct entrenched behaviours. And it can be so disheartening when our attempts at change are frustrated. Apply these five principles to maximize your results and bring on the new you!