What You Can Do to Improve Your Marriage
Many people I talk to don't know what a healthy marriage looks like. What they've seen in their parents' marriage or what they experienced in their own is disappointing and painful. To them marriage leads to divorce, abuse, betrayal, continual conflict, or emotional distance.
If this includes you then it may be hard for you to believe that it is possible for you to have a good and growing marriage. But some people do. Husbands and wives can be faithful friends who care for and encourage one another as they share their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows. This is God's design. And it makes a strong foundation from which to raise healthy children and to reach out and serve God effectively. I know this is possible because I've experienced it in my own marriage since 1986 and I know others who have too.
Of course, even if your spouse is not a supportive friend you can find satisfaction and opportunity for growth in your marriage. And if you're marriage is disappointing to you there are things you can do to improve it.
Focus on Yourself Not Your Spouse
What can you do for your marriage? How can you increase your marital satisfaction and improve your relationship? The crucial thing is that you have to let go of expecting your spouse to change and work on yourself. Developing a better marriage begins with becoming a better spouse yourself!
I don't think anything hurts a marriage more than expecting your spouse to make things better. I often tell people who think this way that even if their husband or wife changes they won't feel much better about their relationship until they make some needed changes themselves. "But if he would just÷ then I'd feel so much more loved," wives often reply. Similarly, husbands say to me, "If she would÷ then I'd be happy."
This kind of thinking just doesn't work. Here's why. You can't change someone else. You can only change yourself. And trying to change your spouse will create tension in your relationship and actually discourage him or her from changing!
Think about it. You don't like to be pressured, fixed, demanded upon, controlled, or manipulated either. You don't want to be responsible for someone else's happiness. That's probably how your spouse feels if you're expecting him or her to make the marriage better for you. If your spouse has taken on the responsibility for your happiness in the marriage then he or she is likely to feel angry, anxious, or depressed and to either back away from you or to fight you on it.
Change Demands into Wants
The bottom line is that each of us are responsible for our own well-being and behavior. Of course, sacrifice and thoughtful caring for your spouse are important for your marriage. But boundaries of personal responsibility need to be maintained and expectations/demands for your spouse need to be changed into desires/requests.
If there's something important that you want your spouse to do for you then ask. But make sure that you ask without pressure, realizing that your spouse has the right to say no, even if it's disappointing to you. Instead of saying, "You should÷" say "I want÷ Can you support me with that?" And instead of saying, "Why didn't you...?" say, "Next time it would help me if you could try to÷"
The other issue that we need to acknowledge is that it's difficult to make real and lasting changes in how we relate with others. To do it you've got to be motivated. And if you're the one who wants a better relationship then you're the one who is motivated! So don't expect your spouse to do what he or she isn't motivated to do. Instead, focus your energies on what you are responsible for and what you can control Ò your behavior!
Then as you grow and make changes talk to your spouse about what you're learning. And set an example for him or her to follow.
You Can't Lose!
This way you can't lose. Hopefully, your husband or wife will respond well to the changes you make by making some changes of his or her own. In this case you're marriage will certainly improve. But even if you're spouse doesn't join you and follow your example you'll still be better off. Any positive changes that you make and any new skills that you develop will work to increase your happiness and effectiveness not only in your marriage, but in your other relationships and activities as well.
So with this in mind, let's work on your growth. All of us have issues that we can improve on in order to be a better husband or wife. Here's a list of what I think are some of the most important characteristics of a healthy spouse. I've limited this list to things that you can do to improve your marriage regardless of whether or not your spouse participates in working on your marriage.
As you read these traits I invite you to take inventory of yourself. Resist the temptation to evaluate your spouse. Instead check the areas that you need to work on. Then pick two or three to focus on and work at putting them into practice - one at a time.
Characteristics of a Good Spouse
- Pray. Ask your spouse how you can pray for him/her. If appropriate pray together for one another and your marriage. In either case, pray for your marriage privately or with a confidante.
- Get help. Talk with others you trust and respect in confidence about your marriage and your role in it. Seek compassionate support and solicit honest feedback on what you need to work on.
- Take initiative to spend time with your spouse. Don't wait for your spouse to make a date with you or to set time to talk with you. Suggest it yourself. If your husband or wife feels pressured by this then you'll need to back off some and chose your opportunities carefully.
- Say, "I'm sorry." Admit to your weaknesses and wrongdoings, especially when they're hurtful to your spouse. And then show concern for your spouse's feelings and try not to do it again.
- Forgive. When you've been hurt by your spouse extend forgiveness. Don't hold onto resentments, they'll eat away at your insides and your marriage too.
- Be an active listener. Ask your spouse how he/she feels and then listen. Listen without giving advice or reacting emotionally. Try to understand life from his/her perspective. Then demonstrate your understanding by summarizing what you're hearing.
- Invite your spouse to understand you. Time and again I see people misuse their opportunity to be understood and supported by their spouse because they're blaming or talking about their partner's behavior instead of their own experience. When it's your chance to share, verbalize your feelings (experiences and needs). Don't argue about what really happened. Don't analyze your spouse's behavior, feelings, or motives. Talk about your feelings, making "I statements" and not "You statements."
- Respect your spouse's boundaries. If he/she says, "I can't talk now." or "It hurts me when you criticize me. Please don't." then you need to respect that. Don't try to control your partner's behavior. You're responsible for your behavior and that's enough for you to manage!
- Set your boundaries. Acknowledge your limitations on your time and energy and abilities. Give what you can to your spouse, but take care of yourself too. And, by all means, don't tolerate being repeatedly abused, raged at, betrayed, mistreated, or manipulated. You should be treated with respect. If you're not then set boundaries to protect yourself and to get your needs met.
- Work to improve your own weaknesses. People with strong character that I know are aware of their faults and work to improve themselves. They learn from the feedback about themselves that they receive from others and are invested in their own growth. Perhaps more than any other relationship, marriage makes us aware of our personal issues that we need to work on. Accept this as an opportunity for personal growth.
- Be considerate of your spouse's weaknesses. In troubled marriages the partners criticize each other's faults, continually expecting each other to be different than they are. By contrast, in growing marriages partners compensate for one another's weakness by anticipating them and working around them. Give your spouse grace!
- Affirm your spouse's strengths. Verbalize admiration and appreciation for the good qualities and contributions he or she makes. This is just as important for little things like, "Thanks for taking out the trash" as it is for big things like, "I admire you as a parent. You really put yourself into caring for our kids." Appreciation is especially valuable if it relates directly to your marriage. For instance, a wife said to her husband, "It meant a lot to me when you took time to listen to me last night before we went to bed. Thanks."
- Talk positively about your spouse to others. Frequently, when I talk with people who are having problems in their marriage I find out that they routinely talk badly about their husband or wife to their family and friends, sometimes even in front of him or her. People I know who have good marriages never do this! If they have a problem with their spouse then they talk to him or her about it or they talk to a trusted confidante. And when they talk about their marriage problems they do so without blaming their spouse. They take responsibility for their part in a problem and own up to their reactions as being under their control.
- Respond to your spouse's needs. What's important to your spouse is probably different than what's important to you. People feel loved in different ways. Sharing feelings, being appreciated, special time together, affection, sex, thoughtful gifts, and shared activities are a few examples. Know your spouse's love language and be sure to use it often.
- Express interest in what's important to your spouse. Talk to your spouse about the things that interest him or her. Questions like "How did you enjoy lunch with your friend today?" or "How's your project going?" show that you care.
- Be kind. This tip may be last in the list, but it's certainly not the least important. Kindness goes along ways to create warmth and positive feelings in a relationship. Every day there are opportunities for simple, kind gestures that show you care. A compliment, a hug, a note, or a favor takes only a moment, and yet they can brighten your spouse's day and your marriage.
By Dr. Bill Gaultiere
© 2001 NewHopeNow.org. Used by permission.