Change is difficult. It can also be complicated. Despite our best intentions, sustained change often eludes us.

We’ve had many spouses tell us that their husband or wife promised to change, and things were good for a while, but then there was a relapse. Their good intentions were not enough to sustain their energy for change.

So what can we do when we really need a change to stick?

What needs to change?

The most basic starting point is to work out what really needs to change. It sounds obvious, but sometimes we focus on the wrong things to change and so the results are disappointing. This, in turn, undermines our motivation.

Consider David, who is in the habit of getting a bit crude and insulting after a few too many drinks. After an embarrassing social event in which his wife stormed out, he is filled with remorse and promises he’ll never do that again. For a month, everything is fine. His wife starts to feel that maybe this time it will last, but then there’s another devastating relapse.

Instead of promising to hold his tongue, if David looked at what was happening to him before he started talking crudely, he’d get a better insight into the kind of change that will work.

In this case, alcohol is a contributor, but that’s not the main problem. If he examined why he drinks to excess, he would discover that it happens when he feels inadequate, like after the boss has chewed him out or his father has criticised him.

David would have more success holding his tongue if he found a healthier way of dealing with his emotions of inadequacy. For example, he could learn how to assert himself appropriately with his father and boss. Or he could do some interior work to help him detach from the hurtful comments of these men by learning to recognise that they too often act out of their own feelings of inadequacy.

Then he’d feel stronger and less powerless when things go badly with the boss or his dad.

Focus on attitude rather than behaviour

Let’s take another example: Sharon chronically nags and undermines her husband when he disappoints her or fails to do what she has asked. He responds to her nagging by withdrawing and shutting down emotionally. She knows she shouldn’t do that and resolves to cease her nagging criticism.

For the first few days, she consciously bites her tongue when under the impulse to nag. She manages to refrain from saying the critical words, but her whole demeanour and body language is conveying her meaning just as effectively.

Her husband continues to withdraw under the assault of her passive aggression. She concludes the situation is hopeless — no matter what she does, her husband is unreformable (so much for trying to change herself!).

Instead, Sharon needs to change her attitude rather than her behaviour. If she starts to think about her husband differently, her attitude towards him will shift and her intended behaviour will follow more easily. Rather than obsessing about his weaker points, she could consciously suspend judgment and instead search out his more noble qualities on which to focus.

Then she’ll start to see his goodness more and his shortcomings less, which makes it easier to quit the nagging. And maybe even affirm and encourage him rather than cutting him down.

The mind is the battlefield

“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
~ Romans 12:2

St Paul tells us that our mind is a spiritual battlefield — the place where we make decisions for good or evil. It is in our mind — our attitudes and interpretations, our thoughts and our beliefs — that set us up to make good (or bad) choices in our actions and behaviours.

Changing our behaviour without addressing the underlying attitudes will seldom work. Whatever change we want to see in our marriage, if we want it to endure, we need to start with a change in our attitude.


Originally published at SmartLoving. Photo by Vera Arsic.

About the Author: Byron and Francine Pirola

Married for 25 years, with 5 children, Byron & Francine Pirola are the founders and co-authors of the SmartLoving Series – marriage enrichment and marriage preparation courses designed to help build successful and resilient marriages. International speakers and authors of numerous articles on marriage, more than 3000 couples have attended their programs, workshops and conferences in Australia, New Zealand and Great Britain Byron & Francine are Executive Directors of the Marriage Resource Centre from which they run SmartLoving programs and produce digital resources. Francine graduated from Fordham University with a Masters in Religion and Religious Education. Byron is a founding partner of the strategic consulting firm, Port Jackson Partners Limited, and a Director of both listed and unlisted companies. He holds a PhD from the Commonwealth Centre for Gene Technology, Adelaide University.

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