In the last installment, I said I’d talk about how to get someone else to change.
Have you ever had a say something like this to you, “My husband drives me nuts! How do I get him to…?”
Here’s the answer: You can’t.
I could stop the post there, since I’ve written complete truth, but there’s still more I want to say. But you could stop reading here and get the basic message.
When I was in a position that had me counseling couples from time to time, the most common experience was that a spouse (usually a wife) came to see me and asked, “How do I get my husband to…?” Fill in the blank with anything from spend more time with the children, get a better job, earn more money, honor his priesthood (apparently the list of husband-infractions is long; fortunately most people did not have a list of more than two or three things).
My first response to these questions (which I never said out loud, as far as I remember) was, “How should I know?” Sometimes I listened to the spouse complain a while and then offered some technique for communicating. Once or twice I might have even offered to speak to the spouse (where I usually got a completely different side of the story and a similar question: “How do I get her to….?” A few times I sent the couple off to LDS Family Services for counseling.
During my time as bishop -- and since then -- I’ve learned a few things about people, and one of them is this: I can’t make you do anything. (Even if you’re my teenager.)
It’s not that I should not try to make you do something. I simply cannot do it.
I learned part of this lesson early in our marriage when children started to come. My sweet mother-in-law reminded us that a parent can never make a child eat, sleep or go to the bathroom. What she neglected to say is that a parent cannot make a child do anything. Had I learned that lesson sooner, I might have saved my oldest son some years of emotional pain. As it is, his younger siblings owe him a great debt.
There are (at least) two huge marriage lessons to take from this truth:
1. You can’t fall in love and marry someone assuming you will change him or her over time. He or she may change, but you can’t build your future on it.I was really fortunate when I married my lovely wife. I loved her just the way she was. I saw nothing about her I wanted to change. Some would say I was naïve, or maybe immature (and they would be right: I was just 21, after all), but that was my reality when we married. But I have known spouses who desperately wanted to change their partners. Those seeking the change were always unhappy.
2. Trying to change someone else will only may you unhappy.
I believe the source of their unhappiness was less in the behavior of their spouse (the behavior they wanted to change) and more in their determination to do something they simply could not do.
We could talk about the doctrine of agency here. Often when we do, we speak in terms of allowing someone to make choices. Real agency in adults is not about allowing someone to choose; it’s about recognizing that each of us will choose. Our teenagers who lead wholesome lives choose to do so. Our teenagers who stray choose that, too. They will make choices. Foolish parents assume they have more influence over the choices their teens make than they do. (I’m not saying parents don’t have influence, but at some point our kids make their own choices independent of what we have taught them. The sooner we recognize that, the better parents we can be, because we can operate in the light of truth – but that’s a different post.)
From my 21st-century American viewpoint, it seems unthinkable to me that there may be husbands or wives who think they can keep a spouse from doing something by “not allowing” it. But I acknowledge that there must be some who do. After all, as recently as last April’s conference, Elder Wilson told of an interchange with his new bride within a month of their marriage. He thought she should drive more slowly and told her so. He tells the story:
She replied, “What gives you the right to tell me how to drive?”When the laughter in the conference center died down, he then spoke at length about how we influence our family, but also about the fact that we cannot force them into good behavior.
Frankly, her question caught me off guard. So, doing my best to step up to my new responsibilities as a married man, I said, “I don’t know—because I’m your husband and I hold the priesthood.”
Since we cannot force someone into our way of thinking, trying to do so will frustrate us. We may develop an expectation that our partner behaves a certain way. We may mistakenly try to compel that behavior. And when the desired behavior fails to materialize, we will be frustrated, and maybe angry. That resentment may lead us to try to control the situation even more, which will ultimately lead to any number of unhappy endings.
We cannot force someone to choose our way. Trying to do so will ultimately make us unhappy.
In a future installment, I’ll write about how we can communicate our needs in a way that may facilitate change.