You can get your spouse to change by working 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. 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. You do not want to take the long way to drive to work. But, if your regular route is closed off, you will take the longer route. People adjust, when they have to, in order to get what they want. Effectively getting your spouse to change means changing the route for your spouse when your spouse talks or does things in his or her usual way.
When you do that, your spouse will change out of necessity. Much of the way your spouse treats you now is a result of your spouse learning the quickest route to some desired outcome for your spouse. People with the best behaving children and spouses give lots of love and affection, while maintaining good boundaries. That results both in love and good treatment from children or spouses.
People who treat their spouse poorly, or who have poor boundaries, get a lack of love and bad behavior in return. Even if such a bad situation has gone on for a long time, the relationship can still be rekindled. Many people are somewhere in between. They have been somewhat loving, have somewhat had boundaries, that they used some of the time. Be learning to become more consistent with both the love and boundaries, your relationship can be greatly improved.
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 persuade and coax your spouse to talk to you. All your spouse has to do is to refuse to talk to you in order to make you upset, make you back off, or to get extra attention from you. Since this makes the problem worse as time goes by, this direct approach is not a good solution.
Instead of trying to get your spouse to talk, 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. Although the first few times you do this your spouse will hold out longer, the behavior will then rapidly decrease and almost disappear. Boundaries create initial distance, but closer long term relationships. If that initial distance is too difficult for you, then you will need to work on overcoming your neediness first.
Example: You feel like your spouse does not love you or does not love you enough
Common solutions to this that don’t work include criticizing, complaining and arguing. Those never work to get more love. Another solution that does NOT work is telling your spouse how you feel and what you need. Therapists promote this method, but it doesn’t work either. Saying what you need has the same impact as criticizing, complaining and arguing. It makes the other person feel inadequate, insufficient, and just plain not-good-enough. The result is more distance, not more love.
A more effective approach is to own the problem. Learn to accept and encourage your spouse. Help your spouse to feel that you love him or her just the way he or she is. You can still use boundaries, just as you would with children. You let your kids know that they are the best and that you love them so much. But, you still put them in time out, if necessary. As long as your boundaries are reasonable, it will not interfere with the love in either direction.
We always get more from people when we make them feel good about themselves. People who believe their spouse should love them if they don’t show love to their spouse miss out. When is the last time you gave your spouse a compliment? Showed genuine appreciation? Said what you really admire? What is it that YOU do that makes your spouse feel loved?
“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. What we do or don’t do influences the way others treat us.
Saying, “Don’t call me bad names ever again,” is a controlling statement and is not a boundary. A boundary is choosing to walk away or hang up as soon as you are called a bad name. Walking away is under your control, whereas making your spouse stop is not.
When we tell others what to do, we may get temporary compliance, but the behavior will happen again. If instead we take responsibility for our reaction (like walking away or hanging up the phone), we change the dynamic, and typically, other people change their behavior.
By continuing to focus on your boundaries for yourself, you change the way you and your spouse interact and improve your relationship. It is important to make sure that most of your interactions involve loving communication. Limiting yourself to one boundary at a time will help to make sure that you have a high love to boundary ratio.
“Your approach seems to make me responsible for my spouse’s behavior”
You are exactly right. Although you don’t cause your spouse’s behavior, you have the power to make positive changes. And, since you are responsible for loving your spouse, you are responsible to make these changes for the sake of your spouse as well as you.
Consider the following two statements:
You have a problem shouting at me.
I have a problem giving you the power to continue shouting at me.
They are both true, but depending on which one you say or think, you will tend towards different actions. The first, you have a problem shouting at me, will make you feel angry, and will create a defensive reaction in your spouse. Although true, it resolves nothing. The second, I have a problem giving you the power to continue shouting at me, will lead you to use a boundary and that will help things to change for the better.
“The problem is I don’t know how to respond in a more helpful way”
That is a great realization and indicates good insight. For every problem in relationships, there is a good way to respond. My clients are learning to become effective responders. They are moving away from saying whatever comes into their mind. Saying and doing whatever you feel is not a Christian sentiment, though it is a common one in our culture.
If you want to do better than others, then you need to do better things and use better ways than others. You can find many ways to effectively respond in my books, on agreement, neediness, and difficult spouses. If you are willing to see your spouse’s behavior as your problem to fix, then you can create the change that will make a better relationship for both of you.