Opinion | Family

You Can’t Change Your Spouse

But you can change yourself.
You Can’t Change Your Spouse

My husband and I fall on opposite ends of the spectrum in many ways, including our need for order.

Because we both work, we divvy up the cleaning, and one of his assigned rooms is the master bath. I don’t want to gender stereotype, but I’ve noticed that some men have an uncanny gift of selectively overlooking just about anything, whether that be a dirty diaper or a dirty bathroom. On a practical level, my husband’s “gift” means I have to choose not to be bothered by the mess—or clean the room myself. Since I don’t want to disempower him, I typically choose the former.

One morning, I noticed his brown sock lying in the middle of the master bathroom. Instinctively, I bent down to pick it up and experienced what was either an epiphany or déjà vu. Why was I picking up his sock when cleaning the bathroom was his job?

I decided to leave it there and wait him out. It remained untouched for three weeks. He eventually picked it up—only because the toilet overflowed on his watch.

Together, we laughed about my failed experiment, but in truth, it symbolizes a painful reality that all couples eventually discover: our spouses will fail and disappoint us—just as we will fail and disappoint them. We can respond by resigning ourselves to a marginal marriage, by trying to change our spouse, or by partnering with God to change ourselves instead. After 24 years of experience, I have come to the conclusion that if we want our marriages to thrive, we have only one option.

Sacred Otherness

Most of us tend to gravitate toward relational sameness, spending time with friends who are very similar to ourselves. But however satisfying and easy they are, such homogenous relationships fail to reflect the glorious diversity of God’s creation. Though the Lord blesses those friendships, he also invites us to intentionally engage with those who are radically different . . . like my husband.

When my husband leaves his metaphorical brown socks strewn throughout the house, I lose sight of our sacred partnership because I’m honing in on his need to notice the socks and pick them up. From my selfish vantage point, it would be far easier for him to become a different person than for me to change my heart and love him, limitations and all, but I’m realizing that this is exactly what needs to happen.

By designing marriage to be between one man and one woman, God calls us into the deep waters of otherness. Your spouse is different anatomically, neurologically, and psychologically—by design, not by accident. Since both men and women were created in God’s image and called to labor side by side, it is in the context of sacred partnerships that we reflect God more completely. Carolyn Custis James writes in Malestrom, “Adam is one. But the God he represents is plural . . . . A solitary image bearer cannot adequately or accurately reveal God in the world.”

If Only My Spouse . . .

Whether we know it or not, we enter into marriage with specific, unspoken expectations. Many of these are both godly and good. It’s reasonable, for example, for us to expect that our beloved will remain faithful, speak the truth, forgive well, and prioritize our relationship. But sometimes we cling to extra-biblical and extra-unhelpful expectations. For instance, we may expect our spouse to also prefer a Hyatt over a campground, to intuitively know how to please us sexually, or to agree with us regarding how often the bathroom needs to be cleaned.

Dashed expectations result in disappointment and conflict, and after years of repeated conflicts and struggles, we begin to feel powerless. When we focus on how our spouses need to change, we amplify these feelings. We may think we are avoiding suffering, but we’re actually prolonging it.

There are as many methods to changing our spouses as there are motivating factors. Some of us moralize, communicating in no uncertain terms that our preferences are superior to theirs. We may also bundle in shame for good measure. Some of us manipulate. (For example, early in our marriage when I couldn’t handle my husband’s feelings of anger, if I sensed that he was upset I would become exceedingly nice, effectively blocking his ire.) Some of us articulate our disappointment—often with a particular tone or deep sighs. We repeat ourselves, assuming our spouses will react differently when they hear the 21st version of our requests. And some of us punish by giving emotional consequences, like withdrawing in steely silence or threatening to leave.

Regardless of the methodology, after attempting to invoke change, our spouses and our marriages will inevitably fall short of our goals, causing couples to endlessly eddy around the same conflicts. Frustration and resentment build, anger surfaces, and we choose to either disengage from one another or lash out. Or sometimes both. We may even escape through fantasy (like pornography, romance novels, or chat sites), emotional or sexual affairs, or by attaching to our devices or work. Typically, both sexual and emotional intimacy diminish.

Commitment Changes Everything

For marriages to thrive and succeed, a change in this cycle is imperative. However, it’s not our spouses who need to change—it’s us. And the type of change that empowers us to have fruitful marriages is not simply behavior modification. It’s transformation from the inside out.

In my own marriage, there have been three significant components to this transformation.

1. Focusing on My Own Issues

As we were processing some intense and prolonged conflicts in year ten, I invited God to reveal how my sin was contributing to our unhappiness. Almost immediately, I became aware of my impatience, ungratefulness, and lack of grace.

2. Being a Confessional Spouse

It’s now my habit to confess such sins to my husband, in real time, whenever the Holy Spirit convicts me. This practice is humiliating, but that’s part of the point. Humility is a good thing.

3. Asking God to Align My Expectations with His

The Lord allowed me to understand how my oft-stated expectations were impacting my husband. For example, I entered into marriage anticipating regular romantic evenings, replete with flowers, gushy cards, and passionate kissing. Because these expectations were not grounded in the reality of my husband’s strengths, when I repeatedly communicated them, he felt shamed.

It’s not that we need to stop desiring things from our spouses, but we do need to allow our longings and desires to be converted into healthy expectations. This is difficult work, and it should emerge out of a realistic assessment of our spouse’s abilities and limitations.

Becoming a Malleable Spouse

Shifting the focus from our spouse’s faults to our own, confessing sins, and aligning our expectations with God’s heart for our spouses all result in some degree of suffering. Though we prefer to avoid pain, learning to willingly suffer in the presence of the Lord will make us more like Jesus. Conversely, when we detour around pain, we miss the healing God intended for us.

With the brown sock, my need for order wasn’t simply a personal preference. As with many of us who grew up with an addicted parent, physical mess overwhelms me. I can’t think, pray, or create in a chaotic environment. Order brings some semblance of peace. When I walk into the living room and find my husband’s jacket, shoes, computer, empty chip bag, and textbooks, I immediately face residual anxiety from my childhood—anxiety I would prefer to ignore.

But what if I could choose to see my husband’s inability to change as an invitation from God for me to change—to press into my historic wounds and grow so that my peace is not dependent upon someone else’s behavior? This attitude takes me out of the powerless position and into a place of possibility and hope.

In The Mystery of Marriage, Mike Mason writes, “Marriage, under the very best of circumstances, is a crisis—one of the major crises of life—and it is a dangerous thing not to be aware of this. Whether it turns out to be a healthy, challenging, and constructive crisis, or a disastrous nightmare, depends largely upon how willing the partners are to be changed, how malleable they are.”

I’m working hard to become more malleable with each passing year. I want to be able to love my husband well. And someday, I even hope to overlook the brown socks.

July/August
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