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When You Don't Think Your Spouse Can Change

Dr. David B. Hawkins

I sat with a new couple today. 

Jen and Frank were the stereotypical couple coming to see me: they had been married 15 years, with the past five being “absolutely terrible.”

“What’s going on?” I asked by way of introduction. 

“I’m just one big ‘I’m sorry,’” Frank said. He stroked the tuft of hair on his chin. “I just can’t seem to get it. I’m always messing up and having to apologize for it.” 

I was impressed with his sincerity. He was in the beginning stages of change, knowing something was wrong, knowing he needed to change and yet being unclear how to do it. 

“There are stages to change Frank,” I said, “and being willing to change is a huge first step.” 

“That doesn’t seem to be helping me much now,” he said in a surly tone. He was obviously quite discouraged. 

“I don’t know if I can wait for change,” Jen said. “This has been going on for years and I’m at the end of my rope.” 

“We are just beginning our work together folks and it is going to take some time to learn these new skills and apply them to your lives,” I said. 

“But we’ve been to counseling before,” Jen said with exasperation. “Like Frank said, he’s one big ‘I’m sorry.’ I’m ready for change!”

“I’m not sure what relationship counseling you’ve done before,” I said. “What we can do now is assess where you are at, what the problems are, and what needs to be done to get you connected in a healthy way. How does that sound to you?” 

“I’d like change to happen now,” Jen said impatiently. “I’m telling you I can’t take much more of our fighting. I can’t take Frank saying hurtful things and then apologizing. He’s good about saying he’s sorry, but not good about changing his behavior.” 

“I agree with you Jen, that things need to change. I will help you do that. However, in the process, you both must manage your expectations. Change will come slowly but steadily. Let’s talk more specifically about what our work will look like and what you can expect from each other.” 

I offered the following counsel to Jen and Frank, as well as others attempting a new change process:   

First, change begins with a decision to change. We cannot simply wish to change; we must be determined to change and know exactly what it is that must be changed. You will likely need a coach or therapist to help you look objectively at yourself and your marriage. Find the best help you can to step back and look at yourself in a new light. Then, make the decision to dedicate time and energy to changing.

Second, change is a process. Change involves giving up old habits and replacing them with new, healthy ones. Change begins with changing our hearts and minds. Scripture says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Romans 12:1) As we renew our minds, we think differently and behave differently.      

Third, change comes from a motivation to be different, to be a healthy husband/ wife and to be like Christ. We decide we want to change because we love the Lord and desire to be like Him. “This is love for God: to keep his commandments.” (I John 5:3) This love for the Lord motivates us to want to be different and to incorporate His power and strength.  

Fourth, set clear goals for change. Again, it is likely you will need outside feedback on what exactly needs to be changed. We are often not the best observer of our behavior. Seek outside help to discover your “shadow side” and your self-defeating behaviors.  

Fifth, seek accountability for change. It is the nature of all things to revert back into chaos. If you don’t establish a clear plan of change and accountability for change, you will be disappointed. Someone has said it takes 40 days to establish a new pattern of behavior, however it takes accountability to maintain the change process. Stay in counseling, stick to your Bible study plan, continue reading good self-help books. Stick with it!

Finally, be patient with each other in the change process. Know that change takes an honest appraisal of the situation, a clear plan for change as well as accountability for change. Then, catch each other doing things well and be patient with setbacks. With these pieces of the puzzle in place, change will occur.   

 

Do you really want change? Do you find yourself sabotaging growth? If you would like further help, we are here for you. Please send responses to me at [email protected] and read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website and learn about our Personal and Marriage Intensives as well as our newly formed Subscription Group for women struggling with emotional abuse.

Photo courtesy: Thinkstockphotos.com

Publication date: March 21, 2017