A Happier Marriage Includes NOT Demanding Change from Your Spouse
By: Stuart Wolpert
In marriages, people are unlikely to change no matter how much their spouses demand it, says Andrew Christensen, professor of psychology at UCLA, whose new book on reducing marital conflict is being published this week.
“People cannot change their basic essence even if they try, and it is futile to demand that they do so,” said Christensen, who for more than 20 years has worked with hundreds of couples in therapy. “To love and marry someone, you must accept the essence of the other person; you must accept who he or she is. You can push for change at the periphery, but not at the core. Marriage is a package deal; you don’t get a line-item veto over your partner’s personality where you can discard the traits you don’t like.”
All couples have conflicts, says Christensen, co-author of “Reconcilable Differences” (Guilford Press), a book that helps couples learn how to recover from arguments more quickly, reduce the number of arguments, and minimize the anger and resentment that often accompany arguments. His co-author is Neil S. Jacobson, who was professor of psychology at the University of Washington until his death last year.
One study by psychologists found that “incompatibility is a mathematical certainty,” although early in relationships, we may not see, or pay attention to, important differences. When the differences become clear, we often have the “fantasy” that we can make our partner change.
“We want our partner to admit we are right and to make the changes we say are necessary,” Christensen said. “We think a transformation will take place in our partner’s behavior and attitude, and we even may expect to be thanked for pointing out the other person’s deficiencies. Most of our efforts toward change in our partners are driven by this fantasy, and most of these efforts are unsuccessful. Eliciting change from your spouse without demonstrating acceptance of his or her position is difficult, and often impossible.”
A solution, say Christensen and Jacobson, is to be more accepting and to see our spouse’s shortcomings as “endearing, or at least easily forgivable.” The best solutions to most problems, they say, involve a combination of acceptance and change. Crimes of the heart are usually misdemeanors.
“The crimes of the heart are usually misdemeanors, even though they sometimes feel like felonies,” Christensen said.
Couples fight about all kinds of things, but most common are “daily slights, inattentive acts, and routine disrespects that hurt and anger us,” Christensen said. For example, he shows little interest when she talks about her day.
“Most of the change we seek in our relationships is gradual change in everyday behavior,” Christensen said. “Do more of the housework; spend more time with the kids; don’t be so critical; pay more attention when I talk to you; be more ambitious at work; put more energy into our relationship.”
We may grow to dislike in our spouses the very personality traits that attracted us in the first place, Christensen and Jacobson say.
“It’s great, for example, to have a responsible husband who takes care of business, is punctual, neat and orderly,” Christensen said. “You never have to wait for him, pick up after him, do his chores, or worry whether he’ll pick up the kids on time. If he says he will do it, you know he will. But often such husbands may be rigid about following rules and inflexible. The ‘tight ship’ they run is rarely a pleasure cruise.”
The way we can be annoyed by the same traits that initially attracted us is illustrated in a “Cathy” cartoon in which Cathy’s mother says to her: “When you met Irving, you raved about his ambition. . When you broke up, you called him a ‘self-absorbed workaholic.’ When you met Alex, you gushed about his free spirit. . When you broke up, he was ‘directionless and immature.'”
Two major issues that need to be resolved in marriages involve closeness and power, Christensen and Jacobson say. There are all kinds of marriages, and couples need to make their own rules that work best for them.
“Closeness can be so intense that one or both have little existence apart from their relationship or, at the other extreme, grow so far apart over the years that they live in entirely separate worlds,” Christensen said. “Couples must find their own level of closeness that fulfills their needs for companionship and intimacy without robbing them of their needs for independence. There is no one right level of closeness; what feels right for one couple may be stifling for another. We all differ in the degree of closeness and autonomy that suits us best, and our preferences may change over time.”
Each may want a high level of closeness but may disagree on what that means. He may mean mainly physical proximity, while she may want mainly emotional connection. “For one person in a couple, making love may be a way to achieve closeness, while for the other, it may be an expression of closeness that has already been achieved,” Christensen said.
In addition to having compatible views on the right level of closeness, couples should also work out a division of power and responsibility for such matters as household tasks and childcare according to their needs, interests and abilities.
Who controls the money?
Consider disputes over spending money. The husband may feel he should control the finances, and the wife may feel she should have equal control, Christensen said.
“Many couples today have joint control over finances, but does joint control mean that we both agree on every purchase or only on major purchases?” Christensen said. “Do we each have our own checkbook or our own credit cards that allow us to spend a certain amount of money away from the scrutiny and control of our spouse, or do all purchases come from a joint checkbook or joint credit card? Do we each have a source of money that is completely our own? What if one wants to put extra money into remodeling the house and new furniture, while the other wants to spend it on vacations, expensive clothes or perhaps plastic surgery? Who decides where we go on vacation and how often? If we disagree, how will we resolve our differences?”
Many couples address conflict with “toxic cures” – including accusation, blame, coercion, defensiveness, avoidance and denial, Christensen and Jacobson write. As a result, “we end up hurt, angry, defensive and frustrated – and our conflicts perpetuate themselves,” Christensen said.
In marital conflicts, there are often “three sides to every story” – hers, his and an outsider’s, who often would see partial truth in each version. For example, she says he never shares his feelings and withdraws; she says he gives perfunctory answers to her questions and does not confide in her, which makes her feel neglected. His side of the story is that she’s always pressuring him to reveal his innermost feelings when he’s often tired at the end of the day and not feeling much of anything. He feels he can handle his problems himself and does not want to burden her with them.
An outsider who knows the couple might say that her style is to speak her mind and be open with her feelings, while he is shy and private. His need for time alone conflicts with her need for time together. The more he seeks independence, the more she presses for closeness. She begins to see his shyness as inadequacy and his reluctance to communicate as a lack of love. He begins to see her emotional responses as immaturity. The more he withdraws, the angrier she gets. Their differences become a source of argument, with criticisms, defensiveness and withdrawal.
Every couple starts out with differences that could potentially damage the relationship, Christensen and Jacobson write. The approach they endorse is to accept their partner and not try to change her or him. Or, in the words of one of Christensen’s colleagues, “Choose well, then work like hell.”
“Acceptance does not mean giving in or tolerating behavior with which you are not comfortable, and does not mean you never argue,” Christensen said. “Rather, it means seeing behavior in the larger picture of who your spouse is. It means sending the message ‘I love you the way you are, and I don’t expect you to change to accommodate my needs.’
“Paradoxically, when we feel accepted, we don’t feel defensive, are better able to understand our spouse’s feelings and concerns, and may change because we want our spouse to feel better.”
Christensen and Jacobson eschew simple-minded, one-size-fits-all advice. Instead, they show how you can understand your own relationship and the conflicts that trouble it. “From this greater awareness of yourself, your partner and the ways in which your vulnerabilities sometimes collide, you and your partner may achieve an in-the-moment awareness that may help you manage conflict-ridden territory. Even when conflict is difficult to manage, ‘hindsight awareness’ may enable you to recover from the conflict more quickly.”
Once a better understanding of your relationship has been achieved, Christensen and Jacobson offer some general guidelines for improving relationships. Among their many suggestions:
- Develop the “third side” of the story that incorporates your partner’s perspective, as well as your own;
- Try viewing the problem as an unfortunate “difficulty we have” rather than something your partner does to you. Christensen refers to this approach as viewing the problem as an “it” rather than a “you”;
- In an argument, demonstrate that you have heard your spouse by accurately and fairly summarizing what he or she says before responding, and then ask your spouse to accurately summarize your point of view before replying;
- When in conflict with your spouse, do something positive for your partner, with no strings attached;
- If talking with your spouse about some issues is not constructive, try writing a note or perhaps making an audio or videotape recording. This may get your spouse’s attention and make the communication less accusatory and less defensive. Perhaps your partner will choose to respond in kind. The change in medium may change the message;
- Focus on one specific problem at a time, and not on a whole litany of complaints and accusations;
- Focus more on the painful reactions that each of you has experienced rather than the negative actions that each of you believes the other has committed;
- Try to understand that hurtful actions by your spouse may be protective defense mechanisms to mask his or her own pain;
- Don’t dig in your heels and insist that your way is the only right way;
- Remember that the one person you can change is yourself. When making change in your own behavior, do not do a mere variation of your old behavior. Try to do “less of the same and more of the different.”
“When examined closely, many of our incompatibilities reveal themselves as smaller than we thought, understandable and solvable,” Christensen said. “By softening our position and accepting our partner’s limitations, we may be able to move away from adversarial incompatibilities to reconcilable differences.”
Do not tolerate violence or emotional abuse
Violence should not be accepted in any relationship, and neither should emotional or verbal abuse, Christensen and Jacobson write. While couples make their own rules on most matters, physical and psychological abuse is one area where you have the right to say, “Whatever I did, I don’t deserve this; no one deserves to be treated this way.”
“For couples in which there is battering and intimidation of the woman, therapy could be dangerous for these women and could precipitate violent episodes. The husband’s problem with violence should not be treated as if it were a marital problem. Stopping battering is the husband’s responsibility and his alone. In addition, treating the pair as a couple implies that the relationship is worth saving, and staying together is seldom the right course for a couple where the husband is battering his wife. Further, there is little evidence that any treatment will stop battering.
“The best solution to battering is for women to leave, which they usually do once they have an adequate safety plan. We advise battered women interested in escaping safely to call the National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (800) 799-7233, which refers battered women to local low-cost help from trained advocates. Reading this book is not going to help battered women any more than couple therapy would. We recommend the books ‘Getting Free’ by Ginny NiCarthy and ‘When Men Batter Women: New Insights into Ending Abusive Relationships’ by Neil S. Jacobson and John Gottman.”
Taunting and abusive comments can create psychological suffering that may be more severe than physical pain. Threats such as the following should not be tolerated: “You do that again and I will hit you”; “You do that again and you’re going to regret it”; “I won’t let you leave the house”; “I won’t let you see your family or friends”; “I will take the kids, and you will never see them again.”
In relationships that are not abusive, therapy can help many couples resolve their problems and improve their relationships, “but only,” Christensen said, “if both of you sincerely want the relationship to succeed and are willing to do your share to work at the relationship.”