Should I Patiently Wait for My Spouse to Change?
Being patient is more likely to result in divorce, but that doesn’t mean you need do something needy or controlling either.
Are you “patiently” drifting further and further away from your spouse? Problems in your marriage can make you seriously consider whether you married your soul mate or whether you made a big mistake. When problems happen in marriage, people raise their concerns with their spouse. Depending on the type of response they get, they either work with their spouse to make things better (ideal situation), nag and control (damaging), or withdraw and wait (also damaging). This withdrawing and waiting is what most people think of as being patient, but it’s a far cry from what the Bible talks about when it says “love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4). The full verse is “Love is patient, love is kind.” There is nothing kind about withdrawing from your spouse while your marriage slowly goes down the tubes. Anything that we do that contributes to the destruction of our relationship (including passivity), is actually not loving at all. All you need to determine that is to think how you would like your spouse to behave if you were doing something destructive to your relationship. Would you want him or her to just wait until all of his or her feeling of love for you were gone? Would you want to be controlled and nagged? Or, would you want some kind of loving response? If you are being patient, it’s time to focus on instead being loving and effective, if you want to save your marriage.
Patience Is No One’s First Choice
As I mentioned above, being patient is a default choice that people often come to after they unsuccessfully try to resolve problems with their spouse. When being patient doesn’t work, the default choice often becomes separation and then divorce. By increasing the number of options that people have for improving their relationship, the default choice of being patient is not necessary. Simply learning other ways to respond when your spouse is not cooperative can bring new hope without any prolonged period of being a victim.
Patience Sends the Wrong Message
Imagine this–your spouse has been complaining about some behavior of yours for quite some time. You don’t think that what you have been doing is all that bad. You are just trying to enjoy your life; not trying to do any harm to your spouse. After a while, your spouse stops complaining to you and seems to really be working on controlling what he or she says to you. Would you be inclined to then stop doing whatever your spouse used to complain about? Or, would you think that your spouse has finally gotten used to the way you enjoy your life? This is one of the main problems with patience–it sends the message, “I accept you as you are,” when actually love is dying inside you. Real acceptance is not patience, but they may both look the same to your spouse.
Complaining Is Not a Good First Step in Dealing with Marriage Problems
It is absolutely right to talk to your spouse about your concerns for what his or her behavior may be doing to your marriage. Your spouse needs to know clearly what you don’t like and why you don’t like it. Your spouse also needs to know what you want instead and why you think your idea would be better for both of you. That is, addressing your concerns with your spouse is not a process of complaining, but a process of communicating your love and concern for the relationship, as well as how your spouse can be helpful. Regardless of how you believe your spouse will respond, that is the first step to take whenever there is a problem in your marriage. Your message needs to be clear, but it needs to be loving. Your spouse may not agree with you, but at least he or she will better understand your motivation.
When Your Spouse Won’t Agree to Change
If you have done a good job with the first step of communicating clearly and lovingly, your spouse will understand what you want, what you don’t want, and why you think that is best for your marriage. Past this point, continuing to explain this to your spouse will not be helpful. It will just make him or her not want to listen to you or be with you at all. It will also lose you respect since repeatedly explaining yourself is a powerless and irritating behavior. Continuing to explain yourself can even create bigger problems than your spouse’s original behavior did. I regularly get email from people who have nagged their spouse right out of the marriage, only to realize too late that what they thought they were doing to help their marriage actually was one of the most damaging things ever to happen in their marriage.
Why Spouses Don’t Change
Most of the time, people know very well what their spouse wants from them. It isn’t lack of understanding that keeps them from changing–it is lack of desire. Although your spouse can understand what you are saying, he or she derives too much pleasure from the behavior to give it up, or believes that the benefits of continuing that behavior outweighs the risks. If you are nagging, he or she will see your nagging as a downside to the behavior that can probably be dealt with by avoiding you more. If you are patient, then the downside to the behavior is even further reduced. Early in a relationship, when feelings of love are intense, upsetting our partners has a greater cost and they give more weight to our desires. As the relationship matures, each partner considers more how changes will affect them. It may sound more selfish, but it’s probably more accurate to say that early on people were too sacrificial in their attempt to secure the relationship. Then, after marriage, they swing back to doing what’s really important to them.
The Solution to Ongoing Damage by Your Spouse
The approach that I use with my clients, especially with my difficult spouses coaching package, is based on the premise that people don’t want to lose someone they value. I have never seen a case where someone actually wanted to lose a valued girlfriend, boyfriend, husband, or wife. If I heard someone say, “My husband/wife is really great, but I don’t care what he/she wants anymore,” I would be rendered speechless. To promote change, we work on building the relationship through loving communication and cooperation, while at the same time using boundaries to stop damaging behaviors. This is a very active process. It is patient in the sense that it is persistent, without trying to force immediate change. In my experience, people who try to force immediate change usually do severe damage to their marriage. And no one can rebuild a loving connection overnight, no matter what they say or do. It takes time. But, not idle waiting, hoping, resentful time.
How Most People Fail to Create Change
There are a lot of people who try to improve their marriages with loving communication and with boundaries. The problem is, they don’t combine these methods. That is, for a while they try to use loving communication to build their relationship and convince their spouse to change. When that doesn’t work, they stop being loving and instead use boundaries to try to force change. What this looks like–feels like–to their spouse is that something is wrong with their husband or wife who has gone from being nice to being some kind of monster they just want to escape from. The result is usually distance and frustration for both–leading to greater emotional distance and loss of love. The likelihood of an affair, drug and/or alcohol abuse, depressive disorders, and avoidance are all greatly increased with this one-two punch of first being loving and then replacing that with just being tough. Just as successful parent can’t stop loving their children when they are acting out, we still need to love our spouses at the same time we set healthy boundaries. And, we need to help them feel that they are loved.
In Your Spouse’s Shoes
So, to answer the question I posed to you at the beginning of this article, “What would you want your spouse to do if you were doing something damaging to your marriage?” I think you would want your spouse to be loving and understanding, while at the same time refusing to help you hurt yourself or the marriage. You would want your spouse to be motivated by his or her love for you. That would even help you to see that what you are doing might really not be the best thing. To do interventions like this well, be need to feel secure so that our attempts to help our spouse and save our marriage don’t come across as needy or controlling. If you can do that, your husband or wife will respond because no one wants to lose someone they value highly. Whatever it is your spouse needs to stop doing (except for abusing you) may be very hard for him or her, but you will be there to help and to make it worthwhile. There will be some tension, but the end result will be a closer relationship.
Many of the people who come to me for help in reconciling their marriage or rebuilding a loving relationship have first tried things that they learned in books or the internet that was downright harmful. I have a disgust and an anger with amateur counselors and coaches who promote coercive and unloving ways to mend relationships. I am not angry with the people who try these things because I understand how they are hurting and willing to try anything to get their spouse to stop doing something. What I encourage you to do before you try anything, is to put yourself in your husband’s or wife’s place and ask yourself what it would do to your love and your trust if your spouse did such a thing. In most cases, that will immediately let you know whether the advice you are getting is trash or truth. Reconciling and repairing a relationship is really about restoring love and not just about forcing a certain behavior change. We should never seek to restore love in a way that harms our spouse or his/her trust for us. That is why I use methods that do not promote conflict, which communicate love, and which promote respect with healthy boundaries. In 20 years of marriage counseling and coaching, I have never had a client complain that what we were doing was harming their marriage.