Thursday, September 13, 2012

Saving Marriage -- Part III

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.

2. Trying to change someone else will only may you unhappy.

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.

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?”

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.”

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.

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.


  1. I was with you till the end, when it seemed as if you're saying we should give up trying to bring about change. Maybe it's semantics, but I don't think it's wrong to try to change people. That seems to be why talks are given in sacrament and general conference, why we're encouraged to preach the gospel and read the scriptures, and so forth. I agree it's against the doctrine of agency to "make" someone change. Perhaps "invite" someone to change is the phrase I'm looking for. Anyway, let me use this example. Husband gets cup out and pours himself a glass of milk, drinks the milk, then sets cup on kitchen counter and walks away. Wife, frustrated, "How can I make him put his cup in the dishwasher?" I agree that she can't physically take his hand and force him to grasp the cup and put it into the dishwasher. She can invite him to do so. She can communicate her needs or desire that he do so in a loving way, by begging, by pleading, and so forth (sometimes by nagging!). But at the end of the day, it's up to him. My impression is that if she communicates those needs, and he still won't do it, then your position is that she should just give up. I disagree. Sometimes, all the verbal communication in the world won't get the job done. I think if she takes the cup, and sets it on his pillow, that eventually he'll get the hint and start putting his cup in the dishwasher. Or, if she simply leaves it, and all other cups he uses, out on the counter, that eventually his behavior will change. That, or he'll go broke buying new cups, and live in a house with cups piled high to the ceiling. She technically didn't "make" him change, but she created the set of conditions necessary for change to take place. I think that's why we hear all those talks in sacrament and conference talks, Sunday school lessons, and so forth. It's to create conditions necessary for us to make a change. At the most basic level, that change is still an exercise of our agency. But creating those conditions, whether verbally or by physical acts, shouldn't make us unhappy. Do you understand where I'm coming from?

  2. You are right: we can invite; we cannot force. That's the whole point of the post.

    As I say at the end of the post, I'll talk in the next installment about how we can communicate our needs in a constructive way that may lead to change.

    But it may not, too. And if a wife treats her husband like a child (or if a husband treats his wife like a child), that's not a healthy marriage in my view.

    In the example of the cup, at some point the wife will have to decide whether the cup will destroy the marriage or not. Only she has power to do that. The cup's not being in the dishwasher doesn't bother the husband. It may be that if she communicates with him about her need to have the cup in the dishwasher, he'll put it there because of his love for his wife (I hope so!). But only she can decide what she will do if he doesn't.

    It cuts both ways, by the way. The husband cannot say that it's not important (to the wife) whether the cup is in the dishwasher or not. Only she gets to decide that. And he would be wise to pay attention to her answer to that question.

    Receiving invitations to change via talks in church is very different from receiving those invitations from a spouse. We go to church so we can improve ourselves. While there we reinforce our views about what righteous living is. Talks are impersonal (though once in a while get get specific personal insights). A conversation within our most trusted and private relationship is very different, I think.

    And yes, couples can talk about change. But they cannot force it.

    Thanks for your comment, and for reading!

  3. I once dated a man who thought that love meant you should tell a person how they should change so they could be better. I thought that you accepted a person the way they were and through your love they would change to be better. This guy and I did not stay together for long. However, I am not perfect in not telling my husband how to change. Once I was really furious for him not doing something the "right" way. I steamed about it all day at work. Finally, at some point at work, the thought came to me that I wasn't perfect so I shouldn't ask him to be perfect.

  4. There certainly is value in recognizing our mutual imperfection!

    At the same time, I don't advocate that we suffer silently. If we never communicate our needs, we can't possibly hope that someone will meet them. At the same time, just because we communicate our needs is not a guarantee that they'll be met. But at least we'll have articulated them, and then we can sort out if that need is more or less important than the rest of the relationship.

  5. Great post. It is a struggle for me to not expect my husband to be different that what he is, but I work on letting him make his own decisions.
    As a parent, I want to point out that I disagree with you about the following.
    " 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. "
    Actually, your mother in law gave you excellent advice. The part I disagree with is that there are many things you actually can force a child to do or not do. You can change their environment, for instance, to not include TV--so no TV. You can physically pick them up and move them away from something, etc. I'm not saying you want to force them to do everything, but it actually is possible.

    The eat, sleep and go to the bathroom is something to avoid because if the child is stubborn enough you can actually lose and lose so badly and it is important to know that before you get into a battle of wills with a 2 year old who is potty training. You can give enemas and you can give IVs but you can't actually force a child to choose to poop or choose to eat if they have chosen not to.
    As a parent, it is important to realize you can insist on, for instance, that I child lie down in bed and you can enforce that, but you can't make them go to sleep. You can make a rule about no privelege if they don't eat their vegetable but you can't force them to swallow it. I can't force a child not to cry, but if they don't cry quietly when I request for them to cry quietly so they don't disturb everyone, I can pick them up and put them in their room and I can stay outside the door and prevent them from leaving.
    I just wanted to point out that for parenting it is completely different than for a marriage. When you are a parent it is your responsibility to teach your children. As a spouse you have a different responsibility and it is not appropriate to try to raise your spouse and assume that your opinion of how he/she should act is the valid one. You have a responsibility to the marriage and to yourself and to your spouse to act in ways that are conducive to a healthy marriage, mutual respect, and mutual care of each other.

  6. Anonymous #1 - Actually, with the husband and the cup scenario, I have some ideas on how to stay happily married. I assume asking him hasn't helped, or if it helped it helped for a short time before he goes back to leaving the cup out. Here is what I have tried doing over the years in these kinds of things.
    1. Try to identify things that he does that I never bother with. Like maybe he always puts the new toilet paper on the roll or maybe he is the one who always gets the hair off the shower walls where I left it after getting it off the drain.
    2. Try to listen to his feelings about why he doesn't do it. Is he always in a rush before he leaves? Why is it difficult for him. Is he never sure whether the dishes are clean or dirty in the dishwasher so "checking" is time consuming (whereas I already know they are dirty so I would never run into the problem of trying to load a dirty dish only to find clean dishes). Is this something that is harder for him to remember to do or is it harder for me to take care of for him?
    3. Creative problem solving. Is there something I can do to change our life more so that him loading the dish makes more sense to him, or him not loading the dish becomes less of an irritant to me. Creative problem solving might be him using paper cups.
    4. Realize that this area might just be an area he is a complete loser in but overall I wouldn't trade him so it isn't really him being intentionally disrepectful of my feelings. People have you tell a husband with dyslexia that he is being thoughtless if he doesn't proofread your written work? No, you give him a pass on that.
    5. I examine it from his perspective and imagine that he was insisting on me doing something differently in my life. Do I want him to have that much say in every little thing I do?

    I look forward to hearing about the communication part. Nagging doesn't work but good communication is very helpful and sometimes produces desired results.
    I find that for certain things I have to step in and tell my husband that he needs to do something. Without me telling him he doesn't realize that there is a need in our family either my need or the needs of our children.

  7. Anonymous, you wrote, "I just wanted to point out that for parenting it is completely different than for a marriage. When you are a parent it is your responsibility to teach your children." You are precisely correct: it IS different for parenting than for marriage-making. In communications lingo, parents should speak to one another adult-to-adult, not adult-to-child.

    But when you remove TV from your child's environment, you are not "forcing" him not to watch TV." You simply aren't making it available. (And when he's old and wise enough -- by about age six, probably -- he'll go to the neighbors' if he really wants to watch.) Even with our children, teaching them is very different from forcing them. In the long run, we really can't force our kids to do anything. That's another series of posts, however...

    Other anon (I don't know if all the anons are the same person or not) those are some great ideas for communicating with a spouse. Clearly putting ourselves in our spouse's shoes is a great way to gain empathetic understanding, which will strengthen any relationship.

  8. I am the Anon #1. Certainly all the ideas on communication are great. Surely as adults we know the difference of when to accept the faults, failings, idiosyncracies and eccentricities of our spouses. I gave the cup on the counter as a real life example. My son-in-law was raised with a mother who picked up after him, cooked his meals, did the dishes, and so forth. My daughter was raised in a household where everyone does their fair share. We all contribute to the household chores, though Mom does the bulk of the cooking. The rest of us help out in the kitchen, and certainly don't make Mother's job any harder by leaving dirty dishes laying around for her to pick up. Hence, my dirty cup on the counter example. Yes, you can communicate your feelings that he shouldn't leave the dirty cup on the counter. You can empathisize, you can sympathize, you can be resentful, and on and on. But the bottom line? He leaves the cup on the counter because he was raised by a mother who picked up after him, and he expects/assumes my daughter to do the same thing as his mother. Every couple goes through these kinds of adjustments in marriage, as we all bring our baggage into the marriage, good and bad. What I'm saying is that sometimes, communication in and of itself doesn't amount to anything. There has to be a change of heart, a change in habit, and so forth. And I'm saying that sometimes, that change of heart can be facilitated by a change in conditions.

  9. Anon#1, you're right, of course. And even a cup on the pillow is a form of communication. It sounds like it was more important for your SIL to understand your daughter's point of view than to continue in his old ways. Good for both of them.