Want A Better Marriage? Change One Thing

Yes, just one. Even if there are ten things that keep you from being nominated for Spouse of the Year, start by changing one.iStock_000026522045XSmall copy

Maybe it’s your stinginess or the way you’re quick to criticize. Perhaps it’s your passivity or your hit-and-run style of arguing or how you’ll hang onto a grudge until hell freezes over. Then again, it might be your “look.” You know which look. I’m talking about the look that says, this again? Really? You’ve got to be kidding! The look that’s guaranteed to set your partner’s teeth on edge.

When I ask people to identify one thing they could do to be a better relater, very few have a ready-made answer. Most can, without hesitation, list five or ten things that their partner might do, yet they draw a complete blank when it comes to themselves.

“What would she say?” some ask.

“No. What would you say?” I repeat, knowing that when push comes to shove every one of us knows at least one thing we could do to be a higher quality partner.

Several years ago, on the eve of my husband’s birthday, I decided that the best gift I could give him would be to stop making comments on the insignificant, yet annoying, things that he does. How hard could it be to go silent about the sponge being left in the sink speckled with tomato seeds or the wooden spoon ending up in the dishwasher? Or, for that matter, the two (or three, or possibly four) days of newspapers taking up residence on the chair in the bathroom?

How hard? Impossible.

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A far too generous accounting would say I lasted forty-eight hours before the first “honey, do you think you could….” slipped through my lips.

I’ll be the first to admit it. Changing our behaviors is no 1-2-3 deal. Pretty much everything is working against any change effort we make. Let’s start with the fact that the human brain is designed to maintain the status quo, even if that status quo is insufferable. As far as your brain is concerned, if you’re not about to be eaten by lions, things are fine as they are.

Then there’s the business of something called secondary gain, which means that even our most crummy behavior and the misery it engenders will, in some form or another, give us a payoff. Even if that payoff amounts to nothing more than a confirmation that life is a bear or that our mother was right that it was a mistake to have gotten married in the first place. If we somehow manage to get past all that, there’s also the hard truth that most of us set low standards for how we treat the person we’ve married.

Even so, I suggest that if you want a better marriage, you can begin by choosing one thing to change and then going about the business of figuring out how to change it. Even if the changing is hard.

In my thirty-plus years as a couples therapist I’ve made the “change one thing” suggestion many hundreds of times. And though not every client has marched out of my office and thrown body and soul into changing the thing that they chose, when those who have done little or nothing complain that their marriage is still in the toilet, I ask why they’re surprised.

Face it. Our less-than-stellar behaviors are responsible for creating our less-than-stellar relationships. Every eye-roll or snippy tone, every impatient sigh or critical comment we make, every refusal to keep to a budget, every carelessness about a commitment we’ve made (and the defensiveness we exhibit when confronted about it) leaves its mark. iStock_000014086767XSmallEventually, what was once a loving and caring and promise-filled relationship ends up being a wreck.

So it’s up to you. If you want to have a better marriage, you have a place to begin.

Tell me, which one thing will you pick?

11 thoughts on “Want A Better Marriage? Change One Thing

  1. I like your suggestion and have, over the last 26 years applied it many times. I can attest to the fact that it works. For the one person who commented asking what to start with, I can say: start with what’s easiest for you. I started with finding something nice, encouraging, loving, caring to say every day. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. Now its a routine and it helps the relationship, my wife, and unexpectedly, me 🙂

  2. My “one thing” a few years ago was to make a point to stop what I was doing and get up to greet my husband when he came home from work. More recently, another “one thing” was to make sure no dishes are left in the sink overnight. My husband got on board with that one and does a generous share of kitchen cleanup before bedtime.

    • Thanks for commenting. Yes, the hello and goodbyes are really important times to connect. For many of us, they can get pretty perfunctory over the years.

      Once in a keynote speech John Gottman suggested that people kiss hello and goodbye for 6 seconds. He counted the time out 1-2-3-4-5-6 and asked how many seconds we usually kissed, if at all.

      Who has that much time what you’re running out the door? I thought to myself. When I slowed down to do it it was a great way to start the day.

      With this reminder, I might give it another go.

  3. I speak from the point of view of a woman whose husband of 26 years left her. I am now picking up the pieces, and part of that is the inevitable regret. There are many things I could have changed (and he could have changed), but a lot of these suggestions seemed “corny” to me at the time. Now I know that, yeah, they may be corny, but they’re a precious opportunity to connect. If I’d done them and my husband had rejected my attempts, at least I would’ve known that he couldn’t give me what I needed.

    Anyway, thanks, Winnifred, for a really insightful blog. I learn something new every time I read your posts!

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