Note: This is the second installment of a four-part series entitled “How to Change Your Spouse in Four Easy Steps.” If you missed Step One, catch up here.
You probably knew at least on some level before reading the first post in this series that it’s not possible for you to change your spouse. Nonetheless, spouses frequently do try to change each other. Take a quick look at any Facebook group or other Internet forum geared towards wives or mothers. Chances are, you’ll find that a not insignificant number of posts involve women seeking advice, in essence, on how to change their husbands. These posts usually take the form of asking for tips on how to get one’s husband to agree on a certain point, how to convince him to change his behavior on some issue, or simply venting about various of their husband’s traits.
While men are probably less likely to seek solidarity from a Facebook group consisting of thousands of other semi-anonymous men, they don’t remain guiltless in this arena. A study on reasons for divorce published by P.R. Amato and S.J. Rogers in the Journal of Marriage and Family looked at the probability of divorce based on certain behaviors or traits of each of the spouses. The study found that the husband’s preoccupation with “irritating habits” in the wife increased the likelihood that the husband would file for divorce by 127%! (For the record, perceived irritating habits in the husband increased the likelihood that the wife would file for divorce by 92%).
Let that sink in for a moment. Data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that approximately 40% of first marriages in the United States will end in divorce. That means that, in about 40% of couples, one spouse’s inability to let go of some annoying habit or trait in the other will play a significant role in that marriage ultimately ending in divorce.
Given the above, it’s pretty clear that a substantial percentage of us struggle with some degree of control issues in our lives and relationships. So how do you fix this in your own marriage? If you’ve followed Step One and brought the situation to God in prayer and (here’s the kicker) prayed for the willingness to submit to His will, you’re already well on your way. The next step is to figure out how to work within the bounds of the sacrament of your marriage as it exists (as opposed to how you want or expect it to be) and grow in holiness anyway. How do you do that? By controlling the way you think, respond, and feel with respect to your spouse.
You change your marriage by controlling the way you think, respond, and feel with respect to your spouse.
Step Two deals with changing the way you respond to your spouse with your words. Steps Three and Four will discuss changing the way you think and feel with respect to your spouse. After prayer, one of the biggest things you can do to positively affect your marriage is to control how you speak to and about your spouse. The Ancient Hebrews had immense respect for the power of the spoken word. For evidence of this, look no further than Genesis 1: God spoke creation into existence. What you say, how you say it, and to whom has enormous consequences.
What You Say to Your Spouse Matters
In his book The Choice Wine, Steve Bollman recounts a compelling story about Edith Stein and the power of words. Edith Stein was born Jewish, became an atheist, and eventually converted to Catholicism after reading the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila. A truly brilliant philosopher, Edith was able to mentally run ahead of others in conversation and identify the weak points in their logic before they reached their conclusion. She frequently used this skill to embarrass or tear down others – a trait that eventually contributed to her being denied tenure. Following this career blow, she sought the advice of her mentor, who brought this particular trait to her attention. Rather than responding in anger or denial, she used the opportunity to engage in humble self-introspection and resolved that going forward, she would only use her mental acumen and speech to build others up. In fact, she was so successful in her resolution that in 1998 Pope John Paul II canonized her as a saint in the Roman Catholic Church.
If more of us could adopt the attitude of Edith Stein in our marriages, imagine the difference it would make! Trust is a critical component of all relationships, and especially marriages. When you use your words to belittle your spouse, lie, or distort the truth, you quickly begin to break down the foundation of trust you’ve built with your spouse. And when trust goes, the rest of the relationship is soon to follow.
Maybe speaking negatively to your spouse isn’t a problem in your marriage. If so, that’s great! Don’t stop there, though. The next thing to examine is the opposite and often more insidious problem: how often do you speak positively to your spouse?
A failure to consistently uplift and praise your spouse is a slower poison but will just as assuredly result in a breakdown of trust in your relationship. It’s harder to be aware of – you’re both tired from a long day of work, you get caught up in the mad dash to get the kids fed, bathed, and put to bed, then you have to catch up on missed work emails, get a quick workout in, and spend some time trying to decompress via social media before bed. Before you know it, your alarm is going off and you’re both up to start the daily rat race again. After a while of this routine, you realize that you and your spouse are essentially living as roommates; you are ships passing in the night.
Go out of your way to find at least one thing every day, even if it’s small, that you appreciate about or are thankful for with respect to your spouse, and verbally express it to them. You might assume they already know how thankful you are for them, but go ahead and say it anyway. Frequent, authentic positive reinforcement goes a long way to shoring up the bonds of trust between you and your spouse.
How You Speak to Your Spouse Matters
Effective communication involves more than just words, of course. It involves your entire body. In fact, you could be saying all the right things on paper, but if your body language doesn’t match your words, it will negate everything you say. You’ve got to walk the walk in addition to talking the talk.
Are you facing your spouse and maintaining eye contact when the two of you speak, free from other distractions, or do you sit with your shoulders squared away from them, walk into another room, or keep your head buried in your phone? Are you assuming a relaxed position, or are you sitting with your legs and armed crossed? When your spouse speaks to you, do you interrupt? Do you assume you know what they’re going to say and spend the time they’re speaking preparing your rebuttal instead of actively listening? Spend some time in self-reflection on these points. Changing your body language takes concerted effort, especially during an uncomfortable or heated conversation, but getting it right can completely change the tone and trajectory of a dialogue.
One other easy tip: make a point to hug and kiss your spouse before you leave every morning and as soon as you walk through the door at night. The Gottman Institute, a think tank dedicated to researching relationships and providing couples with tools to strengthen their marriages, found that a six-second kiss gives your brain just enough time to activate all the chemicals critical to building connection and trust. All of that, without using any words at all!
What You Say About Your Spouse to Others Matters
Think back to the last time you were out with friends and the topic of spouses came up. What was the general tone of those conversations? Chances are, it was negative. Steve Bollman writes in The Choice Wine that when he first got engaged, he took an informal poll of his married friends and coworkers. Not one of them spoke positively about their marriages, and those that weren’t overly negative still resorted to deprecating humor when speaking about their relationships and the institution of marriage as a whole. I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but combined with my own personal observations, I would guess this is a fairly common phenomenon across the board.
It’s amazing how often we bypass expressing our concerns to our spouse in an honest, thoughtful, and loving way and instead go straight to someone outside our relationship to vent about our problems: a best friend, a parent, a coworker. Not only is speaking negatively about your spouse to others a problem from a spiritual aspect – it can easily cross over into the sin of detraction (CCC 2477) – but the mere act of letting an outsider in to your relationship in this manner erodes trust and can create a slippery slope.
Dr. Shirley Glass, an expert on infidelity, explored the ideas of boundaries in relationships in her book Not “Just Friends.” Her research revealed that when one spouse begins confiding in another person about their marriage, whether of the same or opposite sex, they begin opening a window to the outside person and building a wall between themselves and their spouse. If you’re not careful, windows become doorways, and doorways become exit strategies.
It is so important to guard your words – both to your spouse and to others when speaking about your spouse. If this is an area you struggle with, take it to confession and pray for discernment in your speech. Healthy couples build walls around their relationship, protecting it from outsiders, rather than building walls between each other by engaging in methods of communication that erode trust. It’s a matter of emotional commitment and fidelity. And it’s an area that, regardless of what your spouse is doing, you can change for the better in your relationship.
This is part two of a series of posts on How to Change Your Spouse in 4 Easy Steps. Catch up on part one here. If you enjoyed this piece, please be sure to share and subscribe at the link below or follow me on Facebook or Instagram @thecontemplative_homemaker.