Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Michael and Amy Smalley's new book, The Surprising Way to a Stronger Marriage, (Tyndale House Publishers, 2010).
When your marriage isn't what you want it to be, you may think your frustration will end only if your spouse makes the changes you want to see happen. But waiting for your spouse to change can be a futile effort.
Still, that doesn't mean your marriage has to remain the same. Whether or not your spouse works on your marriage, you can improve it on your own. By taking responsibility for what you need to change to strengthen the relationship, you can push your marriage in a better direction. Shifting your focus from how you want your spouse to change to how you can change is a great act of love that has the power to transform your marriage, no matter what your spouse does. Here's how you can change your marriage by changing yourself:
Be the solution to your marriage problems. Don't wait for your spouse to change or even to decide to work on your marriage before you decide to do something to improve it yourself. Don't blame your spouse for the state of your marriage or even just focus on your marriage's problems. Instead, choose to personally become the solution you need by focusing on your own attitudes and behavior, taking responsibility for what you say and do, and pursuing personal change. Be the kind of spouse you want to have - someone who chooses to do what's right, no matter what. As you change, the dynamic of your relationship with your spouse will change, which will change your marriage.
Recognize destructive patterns. Ask God to show you which of your negative thoughts and actions are causing destructive patterns in your marriage. Reflect on how your spouse reacted the last time you put one of those patterns - such as being impatient or judgmental - into motion. Realize that you need take a different path from here forward to achieve better results in your relationship with your spouse. So ask yourself: "What could I have done differently?" and "How do I need to change to make this marriage better?".
Stop being defensive. Arguing with your spouse over the facts relating to any problem won't solve the problem. In fact, such defensiveness will often make the problem worse. So rather than being defensive when you and your spouse are dealing with conflict, focus on how you can repair your relationship by: validating that your spouse's feelings matter and that you want to understand them, listening carefully to your spouse, asking open-ended questions, respecting your spouse's opinions even when they differ from yours, encouraging your spouse to share his or her feelings, and taking a temporary time-out break from the discussion when it becomes too heated while planning to talk more later after you and your spouse have calmed down.
Don't be a victim. You have a choice about how you respond when your spouse sins against you. You can let your spouse's mistakes bring you down and cause you to feel humiliated, upset, or depressed. Or, you can decide to respond in a loving and productive way, staying calm and working to repair the damage to your relationship. Reject a victim mentality; take control of your emotions and move forward in peace.
Give your concerns to God. Don't waste time or energy trying to change your spouse; the effort is futile. Only God has the power to change another person. So pray about your concerns about your spouse's issues and invite God to take over each situation, trusting Him to work it all out for the best. Ask a few people you trust to commit to interceding regularly in prayer for your marriage. Encourage your spouse when he or she is trying to change, but don't nag or manipulate. Each day, release your spouse to God and keep praying for him or her.
Forgive when your spouse hurts or offends you. Choose to forgive your spouse whenever he or she hurts or offends you. Remember how much God has forgiven you for; let that knowledge motivate you to obey His call to forgive other people. When you decide to begin the forgiveness process despite your feelings, you can count on God to help you every step of the way.
Be patient when you've hurt or offended your spouse. Allow your spouse to freely express his or her thoughts and feelings about your mistakes, and let your spouse know that you're genuinely sorry.
Focus on feelings instead of on facts. During a disagreement, discussing the facts surrounding the issue usually only leads to arguing. But focusing on how both you and your spouse feel about the issue will help you figure out how to heal the hurt so you can begin to solve problems together.
Ask questions. Clarify whether or not the negative beliefs you have about your spouse or your spouse's views on an issue are actually true by asking questions. Then, once you're satisfied that you understand each other's perspectives, ask your spouse what you can do to resolve the issues and repair your marriage.
Focus on what you want to happen. Rather than dwelling on what's broken and sinful in your marriage, pay attention to what's good and holy. Instead of complaining about your marriage problems, pray for the positive changes that you hope God will help you make in your marriage and every other part of your life.
Give your spouse grace instead of judgment. Avoid judging your spouse for his or her sins and weaknesses. Keep in mind that God gives you plenty of grace to cover your own flaws every day. If you give your spouse grace whenever you can, that will draw you closer to each other in love.
Love your spouse unconditionally. Act in love toward your spouse no matter what, since that's how God chooses to love you. Expect your spouse to mess up sometimes because he or she is in an imperfect person living in a fallen world. But don't give up on your marriage when that happens. Work together to adjust your expectations of each other so they're realistic. Rely on God - not your spouse - to be fulfilled, since God will never disappoint you and your spouse can't be responsible for your happiness.
Keep your heart open. Remain hopeful that your spouse will change as God continues to work in his or her life. Anything is possible with God, so allow for the possibility that your spouse can change in profound ways as you keep doing what's right on your end of the marriage.
September 16, 2010
Adapted from The Surprising Way to a Stronger Marriage, copyright 2010 by Michael and Amy Smalley. Published by Tyndale House Publishers, Carol Stream, Ill., www.tyndale.com.
Michael and Amy Smalley specialize in teaching couples the principles of loving well and loving for a lifetime. Their popularity as nationally renowned marriage builders, authors, and couples' consultants has grown in response to their signature no-nonsense advice. The Smalleys' message inspires, motivates, and challenges people to thrive in their most important relationships. Their love story began at Baylor University. After graduation, they went on to earn master's degrees in clinical psychology from Wheaton College. They currently serve as executive directors of the Smalley Marriage and Family Center in The Woodlands, near Houston, Texas. The center provides premarital counseling, marriage crisis consulting, and marriage and parenting seminars. The Smalleys have enjoyed 15 years of marriage and have three children--Cole, Reagan, and David.