Chapter OneStarting at the Right Place
Invariably, people who want their spouse to change start at the wrong place. A young man named Robert was one such person. He came alone to my office and told me that his wife, Sheila, would not come with him.
"What seems to be the nature of the problem?" I asked.
"For one thing, my wife is so disorganized. She spends half her life looking for her car keys. She never knows where to find anything because she can't remember where she put it. I'm not talking Alzheimer's-she's only thirty-five. I'm talking totally disorganized. I've tried to help her. I've made suggestions, but she's not open to anything I say. She says I'm controlling her. I'm not trying to control her. I just want to help make her life easier. If she would get more organized, it would certainly make my life easier, too. I waste a lot of time helping her find things she's lost."
I jotted some notes while Robert was talking, and when he was done, I asked, "Are there other problem areas?"
"Money. I have a good job. I make enough that we should be able to live comfortably, but not the way Sheila spends it. I mean, she makes no attempt to shop; she pays full price for everything. Like her clothes-if she would just buy them at the right season, they would be half price. We've gone for financial counseling, but she won't follow the financial planner's advice. Right now, we owe $5,000 on our credit card, and yet Sheila won't stop spending."
I nodded my head as I listened. "Are there other problem areas, Robert?"
"Well, yes. Sheila is just not interested in sex. I think she could live without it. If I didn't initiate it, we would never have sex. Even when I do, I'm often rejected. I thought sex was an important part of marriage, but apparently she doesn't feel that way."
As the session continued, Robert shared a few more of his frustrations about his wife's behavior. He said he had made every effort to get her to change, but he had seen few, if any, positive results. He was frustrated and at the point of hopelessness. He had come to me because he had read my books and thought that perhaps if I were to call his wife, she might talk to me and maybe I could get her to change. I knew from experience, however, that if Sheila came to my office, she would tell a different story than the one I'd heard from Robert. She would tell me about her problems with him. She would probably say that instead of being understanding, Robert is demanding and harsh with her. She would say, "If Robert would treat me with a little kindness and be a little romantic, I could be interested in sex." She would say, "I wish I could hear one compliment from him about some purchase I have made, rather than always condemning me for spending too much money." In essence, her perspective would be "If Robert would change, then I would change."
Is there hope for Robert and Sheila? Can they get the changes they desire in each other? I believe the answer is yes, but first they must radically change their approach. They are starting at the wrong place.
In my counseling practice, I have discovered that most of the relationship principles that really work are not new. Many are found in ancient literature, though they've often been overlooked for years. For example, the principle of starting at the right place can be found in a lesson that Jesus taught, commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. I will paraphrase the quote to apply the principle directly to the marriage relationship: "Husband, why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your wife's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Or, wife, how can you say to your husband, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your spouse's eye."
The principle is clear: The place to start is getting the plank out of your own eye. Notice carefully that Jesus did not say, "There's nothing wrong with your mate. Leave him or her alone." In fact, he indicated that there is something wrong with your mate when he said, "Once you get the plank out of your own eye, then you can see more clearly to get the speck out of your spouse's eye."
Everyone needs to change. There are no perfect spouses-although I did hear once of a pastor who asked the question, "Does anyone know of a perfect husband?" One man in the back of the church raised his hand quickly and said, "My wife's first husband." My conclusion is that if there were any perfect husbands, they're all dead. I've never met a real live husband who didn't need to change. Nor have I met a perfect wife.
The most common reason people do not get the changes they desire in their spouse is that they start at the wrong place. They focus on their spouse's failures before they give attention to their own shortcomings. They see that little speck in their spouse's eye and begin to go after it by tossing out a suggestion. When that doesn't work, they overtly request a change. When that approach meets with resistance, they turn up the heat by demanding that their spouse change-or else. From there they move on to intimidation and manipulation. Even if they succeed in bringing about some change, it comes with deep resentment on the part of the spouse. This is not the kind of change that most people desire. Therefore, if you really want to see your spouse change, you must start by dealing with your own failures.
GETTING THE PLANK OUT OF YOUR OWN EYE
Dealing with our own failures first is not the way most of us have been trained to think. We're more likely to say, "If my spouse weren't like that, then I wouldn't be like this." "If my spouse didn't do that, then I wouldn't do this." "If my spouse would change, then I would change." Entire marriages have been built on this approach. One wife said, "If my husband would treat me with respect, then I would be able to be affectionate; but when he acts like I'm his slave, I want to run away and hope he'll never find me." To be honest, I empathize greatly with this wife; however, "waiting for my spouse to change" has led thousands of couples to an emotional state of hopelessness, which often ends in divorce when one or both spouses conclude, "He (or she) will never change; therefore, I'm getting out."
If we're honest with ourselves, we have to admit that waiting and hoping has not worked. We have seen little change unless it has been the result of manipulation-external pressure, either emotional or physical, that was designed to make a spouse uncomfortable enough to want to change. Unfortunately, manipulation creates resentment, and the marriage ends up worse after the change than it was before. If this has been your experience, as it was in the early years of my own marriage, then I hope you will be open to a different approach, one that works without creating resentment.
Learning to deal first with your own failures will not come easy. If I were to give you a sheet of paper, as I often do to those who come to me for counseling, and ask you to take fifteen minutes to make a list of the things you would like to see changed in your spouse, chances are you could make a rather formidable list. However, if I gave you another sheet of paper and asked you to take fifteen minutes to make a list of your own failures-things that you know need to be changed in the way you treat your spouse-my guess is that your list would be very short.
The typical husband's lists will have twenty-seven things wrong with his wife and only four things wrong with him. The wives' lists are not much different. One wife came back with a list of seventeen things that she wanted her husband to change, but the page of her own shortcomings was blank. She said, "I know you are not going to believe this, but I honestly can't think of a single thing I'm doing wrong."
I have to confess I was speechless. I had never met a perfect woman before. I thought about calling my secretary to bring in the camera: "Let's get a picture of this lady."
After about thirty seconds of silence, she said, "Well, I know what he would say."
"What's that?" I asked.
"He'd say that I am failing in the sexual area, but that's all I can think of."
I didn't say it, but the thought did run through my mind: That's pretty major, even if it's the only thing you can think of.
It's not easy to get the plank out of your own eye, but let me give you three steps that will help you do it:
STEP 1: ASK FOR OUTSIDE HELP
Most people will not be able to identify their own flaws without some outside help. We are so accustomed to our own ways of thinking and acting that we fail to recognize when they are dysfunctional and negative. Let me suggest some sources of help in identifying the plank in your own eye:
Talk to God
For some people, this might be uncomfortable, but I suggest you ask God's advice if you want some good insight. Your prayer might go something like this: "God, what is wrong with me? Where am I failing my spouse? What am I doing and saying that I shouldn't? What am I failing to do or say that I should? Please show me my failures." This simple prayer (or one like it) has been prayed and answered for thousands of years. Take a look at this prayer from the Hebrew Psalms, written in approximately 1000 BC by King David, Israel's second king: "Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life." We can be certain that when we pray a prayer like this, God will answer.
If you're ready, take fifteen minutes to ask God to show you your failures in your marriage, then list whatever he brings to your mind. These may not be major moral failures, but could be words and actions that have not been loving and kind. Whatever things come to mind that have been detrimental to your marriage, write them down.
Here are the lists that one couple compiled after praying this prayer. (I suggest you complete your own list before looking at these.)
I watch too much TV.
I need to be more helpful with things around the house.
I don't use my time wisely.
I don't listen to her like I should.
I don't act kindly to her at times.
I don't talk things out with her.
I don't listen to her ideas.
Our time of sharing is sparse.
I have made her afraid to voice her views.
We don't pray together like we should.
I fail to encourage him.
I put myself and my needs above his needs.
I put him down at times.
I am not affectionate enough.
I expect him to do things the way I would.
I am sometimes rude and harsh in my speech.
I spend too much time on the computer.
I am not sensitive to my husband's love language.
I don't like to admit when I'm wrong.
I don't spend enough time with God.
I focus more time and energy on our son than on our marriage.
I hold on to wrongs from the past and use them in arguments.
I need to stop looking at his faults and look at mine.
Talk to Your Friends
In addition to talking with God, I suggest that you talk with a couple of friends who know you well and who have observed you and your marriage. Tell them that you are trying to improve your marriage and you want them to be completely honest with you. Tell them you are focusing on areas in which you need to improve in your own life. Ask them to give you honest feedback on whatever they have observed in your life, particularly the ways you respond to your spouse. Tell them that you will still be friends after they give you the truth-in fact, it's because of your friendship that you know you can trust them to be truthful with you. Don't argue with your friends. Simply write down whatever they tell you.
One friend said to a wife who had asked for input, "Do you really want me to be honest?" When the wife said yes, the friend said, "You are critical of your husband in front of other people. I have often felt sorry for your husband. I know it's embarrassing for him." The truth may be hard to hear (in some cases, it will be very hard), but if you don't hear it, you'll never take the necessary steps to change and you won't accomplish your goal of a better marriage.
A friend said to a husband who had asked for feedback, "My observation is that you often try to control your wife. I remember that just last week she was standing in the lobby of the church talking with another lady, and you walked up and said, 'We've got to go.' It was like you were her father telling her what she needed to do." Friends will often give you perceptions of yourself you have never imagined.
Talk to Your Parents and In-laws
If you are really courageous, and if your parents and your in-laws have had a chance to observe you and your marriage, you might ask them the same questions you asked your friends. Begin the conversation by telling them that you are trying to improve your marriage and you are focusing on the things that you need to change. Again, please don't argue with their comments. Simply write them down and express your appreciation for their honesty.
Talk to Your Spouse
Now, if you really want to get serious, ask your spouse for the same information. You might say, "Honey, I really want to make our marriage better. I know that I have not been a perfect spouse, but I want to get better in the areas that are most important to you. So I want you to make a list of the things I've done, or failed to do, that have hurt you the most. Or perhaps it's things I've said or failed to say. I want to deal with my failures and try to make things different in the future." Don't argue with your spouse's list or rebuff the comments you are given. Simply receive them as information and thank your spouse for helping you become a better person.
STEP 2: REFLECT ON THE INFORMATION YOU HAVE GATHERED
When you have collected all the lists, what you will have in your hands is valuable information-about yourself and the way you relate to your spouse, from God's perspective and from the perspective of the people who are closest to you. Now it's time for you to come to grips with this information. This is not a time to develop rationalized defenses to the comments you've received. It is a time to accept the possibility that there is some truth in all these perspectives. From the lists you have received, make your own list of things that you agree are wrong in the way you treat your spouse.
I suggest that you personalize each sentence, starting with the word I, so that you are honestly reporting your own awareness of the flaws in your behavior. For example, "I recognize that I often lose my temper and say hurtful words to my spouse." Starting your sentences with I will help you keep it personal. Include statements about things that you should be doing but aren't, as well as things you are doing that you shouldn't. For example, in addition to the statement above about losing your temper and saying hurtful things to your spouse, you might also say, "I do not give my spouse enough positive, encouraging words."
In this time of reflection, be as honest as possible with yourself. You might even ask God to help you honestly evaluate your failures. Trying to justify yourself or excuse your behavior based on your spouse's behavior is a futile attempt at rationalization. Don't do it. You will never get the plank out of your own eye as long as you are excusing your failures.
STEP 3: CONFESSION
We have long known the emotional and spiritual power of confession. Confessing the things we've done wrong liberates us from the bondage of past failures and opens us up to the possibility for changed behavior in the future. I suggest that you begin by confessing your failures to God. Here is King David's confession, written after God showed David his failures. Your own confessions may not be expressed as poetically as David's, but you may find that his words of confession will help you express your own.