To get your spouse to change, work on effectively responding to what your spouse is or is not doing
If you are like many dissatisfied spouses, you can identify some significant problems that your spouse has. It may be that the only way for your relationship to improve is to somehow get your spouse to change. While you may be right, directly trying to get your spouse to change is likely to bring resistance. Right or wrong, people don’t like to change and if someone tries to change them, they become more entrenched in their position. However, people will change out of necessity in order to deal with something in their lives that has changed. Effectively getting your spouse to change means changing the way that you interact with your spouse. Your spouse will then change in order to adjust to you. Much of the way your spouse treats you now was influenced by how you have behaved with your spouse over the years. If you gave lots of love and affection, while maintaining good boundaries, your spouse probably treats you very well. If you treated your spouse poorly or had poor boundaries, your spouse either avoids you or treats you badly. The good news is that you can turn what feels like a hopeless situation into a hopeful one. You do this by using good connection skills and boundaries, and persisting, until things have restabilized.
Example: Get your spouse to change when your spouse is upset and won’t talk to you
If you see the solution to this as directly fixing your spouse, then you will try to get your spouse to feel better and to talk to you. All he or she has to do is to refuse to either feel better or to talk to you in order to remain in control of both of you. This is your clue that fixing him or her is not the solution. Instead of trying to get your spouse to change, leave your spouse alone while you get on with your daily routine. Do not go to your spouse. Eventually your spouse will finish sulking (how long depends on how bad things have become). When he or she does, be friendly and don’t mention anything about what happened before. Return to normal. The idea is to take away any gain your spouse has by withdrawing, and making it easier for your spouse to end that behavior. If you are used to going to your spouse to cajole or comfort, you have inadvertently trained your spouse to withdraw more and more. Couple this method with effective communication for building your relationship to restore closeness.
Example: You feel like your spouse does not love you or does not love you enough
If you think the solution is to train your spouse to be loving, then you will continually try to get your spouse to show you more love while getting more and more resistance from your spouse. This is classic needy behavior. Pressuring your spouse to show you more love creates a no-win situation for both of you and an overall loss of love in your relationship. A more effective approach is to own the problem. Learn to accept and encourage your spouse’s love, rather than complain about it not being enough. By doing this, you will get your spouse to change by creating the desire in him or her to love you more. We always get more from people when we make them feel good about themselves. Be sure to respond to any hurtful behaviors by having good boundaries rather than by complaining or criticizing. You can also make sure you are not being too dependent on your spouse for your feelings of self-worth. Your spouse can’t fix a part of you that is broken. You need to do that yourself. Give your spouse the best parts of yourself.
“Aren’t boundaries a way to fix the problems that our spouses have?”
There is a lot of confusion about boundaries. Most people mistakenly believe that boundaries are a way of controlling other people’s behavior. Boundaries are actually self-control actions we take when our spouse continues to behave the same way. Rather than saying, “Don’t call me bad names ever again,” which is a direct attempt at control, instead we walk away as soon as someone calls us a bad name. Walking away is under our control, whereas making out spouse stop is not under our control. When we tell others what to do, they gain power by refusing and are actually more likely to do the same again when upset. If instead we take responsibility for our behavior (like walking away or hanging up the phone), we become empowered. By continuing to focus on your boundaries instead of their behavior, you change the interactions and improve the relationship. It is also important to make sure that most of your interactions involve loving communication. Boundaries can stop the damage, but they can’t do the work of growing the relationship.
“I understand about boundaries, but why do I have to be loving at the same time?”
Boundaries without loving behavior is experienced as rejection. The implicit message is, “You are bad and I’m not going to let you hurt me anymore.” That may be OK for someone we don’t want to maintain a relationship with, but not for others. If feeling personally rejected, your spouse is likely to attack and reject you if you use boundaries without also using loving messages. A loving message, such as, “I love you so much that I am not going to let this behavior destroy our relationship,” gives a different meaning to your actions. This is particularly true if your spouse can understand the reasons for your behavior (even if he or she doesn’t agree with them). Never expect your spouse, or anyone, to agree with your boundaries. If you do, then it will create an unnecessary obstacle for your attempts at improving your relationship. Good boundaries in marriage create initial resistance, which intensifies, then fades, as you continue to use them.
“Your approach seems to make a lot of the problems mine, although I can see my spouse is the actual cause of them”
You are exactly right. Although you don’t cause your spouse’s behavior, you have the power to make positive changes. That means that you are responsible to do something for the sake of your relationship, even if you are not responsible for the behavior. Consider the following two statements:
You have a problem shouting at me.
I have a problem giving you power to continue to shout at me.
They are both true, but depending on which one you say or think, you are pushed towards different actions. The first creates anger toward your spouse and makes you feel stuck when your spouse doesn’t change. The second suggests a course of action you can take and conceptualizes the problem as belonging to both of you.
Taking responsibility means personal empowerment and easier relationship improvement
The more you see the problems as belonging to your spouse, the more you are likely to resent him or her. Your tendency will be to blame him or her (whether you say it or not) without doing anything effective about it. Blame, resentment, and attempts to persuade or coerce create emotional distance without improving relationships. They also give your spouse control over your happiness. You start to believe that the only way for you to be happy is for your spouse to change or for you to leave the relationship. And, your spouse starts to think the same way. However, when we take responsibility for improvement, we become empowered, stop blaming, and have appropriate responses. This builds respect and improves our relationships.
“The problem is I don’t know how to respond to what he or she is doing”
That is a great realization and indicates good insight. Many people continue to use the same ineffective responses and attempts to control, although they are having no success. Not until their relationships are almost over do they realize they need to change what they are doing. For every problem in a marriage, there is a good way to respond. The people who get relationship coaching with me are learning to become effective responders to some behavior that their spouse or significant other is or is not doing. I have given many examples of these methods in my books. By effective, I mean that they are learning to gain respect, stop damage, and help their spouses feel loved. My clients tell me they feel empowered and positive about their new behaviors. They are changing the way they relate with their spouses, which in turn changes the way their spouses behave. When we take responsibility for problems by changing the way we interact with others, they change the way they interact with us.