Why Changing One Thing Changes Everything

iStock_000004215488XSmallIf you had to guess the most frequently cited reason for divorce, what would you say?

Family violence? Infidelity? Money troubles?

Guess again.

In a recent study done in the UK, forty-seven percent of couples claimed that unreasonable behavior had prompted them to untie the knot.

My experience with couples in the US bears that out. It is well-documented that a vast majority of couples survive infidelity. Some studies suggest numbers as high as seventy-five percent.

Unreasonableness… that’s another thing entirely.

When I ask couples what brought them to therapy, most complain about their seemingly unresolvable issues— issues that range from struggles around spending and tidiness to differences in parenting styles and sexual desire. Many claim that they have trouble communicating and most are worn out by the repetitive fights they’ve been having for years.

But the worst of it, the couples closest to the brink, are those who are dealing with extremely unreasonable behavior in some form or another.

Granted, unreasonable is a vague and subjective term. I might claim that it’s unreasonable for my husband to leave his shoes under foot and he might say the same about my tendency to dawdle or to be busily moving about until well after midnight.

Woman refereeAs a couples therapist I have long since learned not to take sides or to claim the moral high ground about how other people should live. Nonetheless, I’m not the least bit passive when it comes to clients confronting their own unreasonableness or making decisions about what they themselves are willing to live with and what they cannot abide.

Drinking, lying, broken agreements, icy withdrawal, rage. People live in untenable situations because they live with people who are willing to behave in untenable ways.

One of the most powerful questions I can ask a client is this: “What do tell yourself that makes it okay for you to continue doing ___?”

Perhaps it’s a question we can all ask ourselves.

A few weeks ago in my post titled Want A Better Marriage? Change One Thing, I challenged readers to change one less-than-stellar behavior that is responsible for creating their less-than-stellar relationship.

I received at least a dozen private emails and a few public comments about which one thing people had chosen to change.

This one stood out:

For years I have been a very demanding person. When I don’t get my way I pout or I give my wife the cold-shoulder. I know that there are times that she’s cried herself to sleep because of the way that I treat her. My son sent me your article about changing one thing.

My wife and I will be married fifty years in November. I think there’s still time for me to change. Especially if it’s only one thing.

I’m not sure what to call my one thing, but my son once suggested that I stop thinking I’m entitled to have things my way. I think he’s right.

Thanks for your advice.

Old dog, new tricks.

What one thing have you changed? I’d love to hear how it’s going. Comment by pressing the dialogue box next to the title.

Please feel free to share this post with others!

10 thoughts on “Why Changing One Thing Changes Everything

  1. how realistic is it to change one thing? how many people have failed with this one little “new years eve resolution”? i could come up with (many) but possibly one that would make a big difference, but tell me, how do i hang onto not doing it for dear life!?!?!?!


    • Great question. The thing about choosing one thing is that it’s a way of focusing our efforts. People are more successful because they keep their one thing central in their mind.

      The trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that people set their sights on a result- I want to lose weight, I want to save money- but they may not break it down onto small do-able steps. And they may not make their goal “central” enough to literally keep it in mind.

      Change one thing is about practice. Which means it’s about trying and failing and then trying again. That’s how we learn.

      Choose one thing to change and then explore what helps you succeed. People do better when they have a tool in their pocket, ready to use. (Examples of tools: take a deep breath, visualize calm, pause before speaking.) Hmmm. Maybe I’ll make a future post about tools.


  2. I agree that the point of ‘just one thing’ is about taking one step, rather than look at the desired end result. For me, and many clients it is around those darn expectations. For me, questioning whether I have a right to expect something of another often provides the necessary and salutary answer.


  3. It was difficult to choose and really commit to one thing, as this forced me to confront aspects of my behavior that I can feel guilty about. I first chose “no longer withholding uncomfortable communications,” but I realized that one is too big and too threatening, at least right now. So I thought about habitual behaviors to which I know my wife reacts badly, and I settled on my tendency to buy things online on impulse, hence ending up with books I don’t read, three jackets when I only needed one, and photographic gizmos that sit idly in my camera bag 99% of the time. I decided that when I see something I really “must have,” I will wait at least three and ideally five days or more to determine whether it’s something I actually can do quite nicely without. This has already curbed my spending noticeably, and I think it’s a practice that will benefit our marriage both financially and emotionally.


    • The thing that’s so helpful about your comment is how you made your one thing a do-able, bite-sized change. Too often we set good but undefined or enormous goals for ourselves.

      Breaking it down to I’ll wait 3-5 days is an observable, hence measurable goal.

      Did you tell your wife you were doing this or was it your own project? Works well either way. Just curious.

      Thanks for commenting.


  4. I have had some awesome loving relationships with some great women. One of them for 6 years. Understanding and applying the dynamics of what makes a healthy relationship has always come easy for me. Now that I have met the woman that I love like none before, I am realizing that there I need to learn and apply much more for this healthy relationship to become a healthy marriage. Great post!


  5. Before we made our cross-country move, it was really up in the air whether our marriage would survive. And we both had to change the same thing–we needed to stop personalizing the other person’s behavior, and keep the focus on them, and their fears. This has made a HUGE difference and all but eliminated our fights.


Leave a Reply to Winifred M. Reilly Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s