Can one person alone work on improving a marriage? The short answer is yes, but it will mean taking a leap of faith that will call for a fairly radical alteration in your thinking patterns.
Most marital discord is a result of residual anger and resentment built up over a period of months and years concerning topics as large as infidelity and as small as squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube. These feelings grow until they become the signature characteristic of the relationship, far outpacing any of its other more positive qualities. This resentment, anger and frustration make take the form of violent or explosive arguments or it could be characterized by stony silences, dirty looks, terse, sarcastic comments or intentionally inconsiderate behavior. If any of this sounds familiar to you, take hope! You have the wherewithal to change it.
No less a genius than Albert Einstein defined insanity as repeating the same behavior and expecting a different outcome. If, for example, you greet you spouse upon arriving home from work with a surly look or sarcastic remark, you can pretty much guess what the immediate response and the emotional climate for the remainder of the evening is going to be. You don’t need me to go on about it; you’ve been there and done that often enough to recognize the truth in what I’m saying.
Now suppose, for example, you considered putting a smile on your face (even if you didn’t really feel it) and giving your spouse a hug and a kiss before inquiring how their day was? I know, I know, you want to go immediately to Why should I be the one to give in?, Why should he/she get their way after all this time?, Oh, what am I now, a slave?, etc, etc, etc. A lot of hurt feelings come up immediately and our ego assures us that the other should mend their ways first and then, maybe, we’ll consider mending ours.
But consider this. Every relationship has an emotional leader, one who due to temperament, maturity or past experience can take it upon themselves to lead the way when the relationship has jumped the rails. That person could be you. The real problem with relationships in trouble is that each person becomes deeply entrenched in their own position and point of view and is unwilling to give it up or modify it. This leads to emotional deadlock and nothing moves. If you were to take it upon yourself to behave differently, movement would once again begin to occur, even if it were only out of bewilderment on the part of your spouse. And where there is movement there is the possibility for change and growth and hope.
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One thing that people often fear is that if they were to “give in” and modify their behavior then their spouse would never change. We’d be taken for granted and expected to give in at every future turn. We try to force the other to change by employing punishing behavior. What we fail to appreciate is that this tactic not only doesn’t work very well but that we are hurting ourselves at least as much as the other by acting like a mean SOB. For those of us who are not SOBs by nature, acting like one is a tremendous drain on the life force and the source of no small amount of self-inflicted guilt and pain. And most of our spouses aren’t SOBs either. If we act with tenderness and love toward them, they are more than likely to respond in kind, once they get over their astonishment. When you stop hurting them and yourself and they stop hurting you and themselves, anything is likely to occur, including the rekindling of feelings of love and trust. This, in time, provides the necessary background in which to begin to address and resolve some of the issues that have turned problematic. Remember, at one time you loved them and they loved you.
Changing your behavior in and of itself isn’t going to solve your marital problems, though it will dramatically improve the short-term emotional climate. What behavioral change does is frees up the emotional deadlock and opens the way to work on issues. It provides a window of opportunity. If you use your head even a little bit and recall Einstein’s definition of insanity, you’ll see the sense in trying something different. In the process you will inspire your spouse to follow suit and I guarantee that more often than not they will. From there you can begin to work things out on your own or seek marriage counseling. Often it is very helpful to have an experienced, neutral third-party guide you through the difficult areas.
The old saw (what is an “old saw” anyway?) is that you can’t change someone else, you can only change yourself. It’s a shame that so often our own pride blinds us into behaving in ways that are not only unkind to our loved ones but are painful and destructive to ourselves. Most marriages, unless they are overtly abusive, are worth saving. Even if things may appear hopeless now, you can devise a plan to help bring about positive change in your relationship and restore some of the mutual respect and admiration that has gone missing. Once that starts, a benign cycle is possible, for the simple reason that you don’t really want to be hurt or continue hurting someone else, particularly someone you care about (even if you’ve lost touch with that caring.) You can be a positive force and will inspire your spouse to react similarly, no arm-twisting needed. Try it out sometime, even if only as an experiment, and you’ll see what I mean.
Need some help in getting your marriage back on track? For as little as $9.95 you can purchase a copy of my latest workbook A Nice Little Path: Rediscovering the Warmth, Closeness and Trust in Your Marriage. Why struggle when the help you deserve is only a click away?