We’ve defined acceptance in marriage as meeting our spouse exactly where they are, being willing to hear where they’re coming from, and working together from that point.
Unfortunately, many of us have spent a lot of time, effort, and heartache doing exactly the opposite. Not only are we poor at executing the task of acceptance, but we employ endless strategies to get our spouse on board with our plan for them to change. We often feel quite confident about the righteousness of our cause, too. We’re convinced that marital harmony is within reach, if only our spouse would follow our advice for how they should improve.
This is the most common way that non-acceptance is expressed in marriage: the futile attempt to make our spouse into the person we want them to be.
Some of us set out on this “change-mission” fairly early in our relationships. Soon after marriage, we quickly realize how difficult it is to adjust ourselves to the quirks and habits of another person. Besides for issues like toothpaste-tube management and the clandestine up/down toilet seat battle (two common causes of shalom bayis struggles in modern times), we are faced with trying to reconcile numerous discrepancies between each other’s expectations of what is “normal.” Conflict ensues, and we figure, of course, that our way of doing things is the right one. We therefore instinctively embark upon a mission of getting our partner to fall in line with the way they “ought” to be.
One tactic we use to generate change in our spouse is direct communication. We conclude that if we just find the right way to express what our partner is doing wrong, he or she will get the message and correct their mistakes. No matter that this has not worked in the past (though we have tried). Our failure is surely because we just haven’t said it clearly enough, or with enough force or conviction. Unfortunately, this line of thinking can lead to much uglier forms of attempted coercion, such as yelling or name-calling, all aimed at persuading our partner that they are the problem.
Very often, however, the change-mission looks more like a covert operation. We drop subtle hints that we hope our spouse picks up on and takes to heart. This is what is meant by being passive-aggressive. This behavior can take many forms: backhanded comments, sarcastic digs, or the infamous silent treatment are all examples of the covert change strategy. No matter which method we employ, the overall objective is to let our spouse know that they need to be different than how they are.
Forced Change Doesn’t Work
I recall once watching the esteemed family therapist Mary Jo Barrett work with a woman who had come to therapy to change her husband. Mary Jo astutely realized this hidden agenda (because we rarely say it outright) and then said, “So it sounds like you’re looking for me to help you find ways to get your husband to change the behavior you’re describing.”
“Yes!” the wife replied, feeling hopeful that the therapist was ready to jump on board the change train.
“Well, I don’t know how to get people to change each other,” Mary Jo responded. “If that’s what you’re here for, I’m afraid I can’t help you. If you’d like to tell me more about yourself so that we can find a way to go about things differently, I can help you with that.”
Just like that. “I don’t know how to get people to change each other.” I remember being awed by the simplicity of this statement of fact, that even Mary Jo Barrett has no tools to help anyone change anyone else.
When I channel my inner-Mary-Jo and say this to couples, it rings true to them. Because, deep down, we all know that changing other people does not work. This axiom was expressed poignantly by Rav Yisrael Salanter, the father of the Mussar Movement, who once taught:
“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my nation. When I found I couldn’t change the nation, I began to focus on my town. I couldn’t change the town and as an older man, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself.”
Rav Salanter ultimately realized that, despite our best efforts, all attempts at changing other people inevitably fall flat.
Yet for some reason we can’t seem to help it. We’re all a little irrational in that way. Despite knowing the futility of our change-mission, most of us gear up and try it out anyway. Why do we do this?
The answer is that the spouse-change-mission is driven by fear, and fear is stronger than the conscious mind.
What Are We Afraid Of?
The next time you find yourself engaged in the change-mission, ask yourself, “What am I afraid would happen if I were to accept this (fill in the trait/behavior of choice) about my spouse?” If you are brave enough to follow the thought-trail sparked by this question, the answer you will find is a form of fear.
If we stop and think, we’ll notice that every perspective or behavior we have a hard time accepting in our spouse triggers something within us that we don’t like feeling. If our spouse talks too much or is very opinionated, we can feel unseen, not heard, or flat-out ignored. If they are cold and unemotional, we can feel unloved, lonely, or unappreciated. If they are critical, we can feel hurt, rejected, or not good enough. If they act in ways that we find unbecoming, we can feel put-off, disgusted, or embarrassed.
Each time we try to change our spouse, we are protesting the way they make us feel. We want them to change because we cannot imagine being triggered by them in this way over and over again for the rest of our lives. The possibility of feeling this way forever is what we’re afraid of and is why we push back as hard as we do.
Putting Down the Armor
To be sure, it is crucial to learn productive methods for communicating with your spouse when they do something that makes you feel bad. This is how we let each other know the effect they are having on us, so that we can be considerate of one another and grow together. Telling our partner in a non-attacking way that we are struggling with something they did or said gives them a window into our world that they would not have otherwise had.
However, the only way to do this in a calm, productive way, is to first be in a position where we are not running away from our own pain. Otherwise, we will approach the conversation from a defensive position, which our spouse will sense, and their guard will go up as well. The result will be two people engaged in dialogue fully armed and ready for battle, not quite a recipe for productive sharing.
Facing Ourselves Before Facing Our Spouse
We cannot work with our spouse until we are first prepared to work with ourselves. This means bringing ourselves to a point where we know that we are ok even though our spouse is the way they are. Please read that line again, because it holds the key to diffusing a great deal of marital tension. In order to tolerate our spouse’s prickly behavior, we must know that we can still be ok whether or not they behave the way we want them to.
We must not hinge our wellbeing entirely upon the way our partner acts. Yes, we want them to understand how they trigger us, but we must also view ourselves as separate individuals with the ability to prop ourselves up even when facing parts of our spouse that we find difficult. This requires us to self-soothe, which is an ability that comes from within ourselves, not from anyone else.
Paradoxically, the adult relationship in which we are the most dependent – marriage – is also the one in which we need to develop the capacity to (at times) be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency in marriage does not mean denying our dependency needs or trying to convince ourselves that we can make it on our own. We can’t. We need each other. Nowhere in our adult lives is this felt more than in marriage.
However, being self-sufficient in marriage does mean viewing myself as capable of soothing our own reactivity so that we can stay engaged in productive dialogue with our partner. We are not dependent on our spouse to do that for us. We are able to put down our guard and let our spounse in because we know that even if they trigger us, we are strong enough to handle it and stay present with them long enough for us to talk things out and work them through.
No Longer Afraid
None of us wants to live in fear of our spouse. The way to get there is not living in fear of ourselves. As we’ve explained, we only seek to change our partner because we experience the need to protect ourselves from how they make us feel. But what if we didn’t need to do that? What if we weren’t afraid of our own feelings? What if we could handle our emotions so that we didn’t crumble when they get triggered?
The answer is that we can. We are all tough enough to look at ourselves and deal with our own triggers (see the post on Holding Space for a further discussion on holding our feelings). We will still get thrown off sometimes, yes, but we will be better able to recover from our own reactivity if we’re not afraid to face it.
So let’s drop the spouse-changing-mission and get to work on changing ourselves, a project where investing mental and emotional energy has far greater chances of being met with success.