Is it possible to change the dynamic in your marriage, if your current relationship just isn’t working?
Because I speak at marriage conferences, I get a lot of hard questions from people in marriages that are very difficult. Perhaps I’m a little jaded, then, when it comes to marriage, because I see all the problems that are going on behind the surface in many people’s marriages that you would never guess from just looking at them. I think many of us are hurting more than we let on.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that your marriage is bad. I went through about four really rocky years in our marriage. I never contemplated leaving Keith, but I wasn’t happy and I cried a lot. But it’s great now.
So just because you’re going through a rough patch doesn’t mean that it will always be that way.
Today I want to share something I wrote to some people on an internet thread, where they were talking about verbally abusive or just plain mean spouses. Their spouses never said anything positive, lectured them constantly, and belittled them, even when they were highly successful and capable individuals. They were finding themselves completely contemptuous of their spouses now, and everything their spouses did bothered them, because of this verbal negativity. It poisoned everything.
What do you do?
Here’s my answer, and I’ll edit it a bit so it’s more generic.
Sometimes in marriage we simply are not getting our legitimate needs met.
God gave us a need for connection and intimacy. Ultimately that’s met in Him, but He also gave us spouses to help with that need. If you live with someone who is very negative, you’re likely not getting that need met.
However, too often when we’re in this negative cycle we actually start contributing to it by creating a pattern of negative behaviour.
Your spouse is negative, and we sit there and take it. And by taking it, We perpetuate it.
But here’s the thing about a pattern: there are two ways to change it. Either you can wait for the other person to change (which rarely happens spontaneously, unless they are knocked with a 2×4 by Jesus), or you can change yourself.
Relationships have their own equilibrium. Just like a teeter totter, they come to rest at a balance, where you each play your role. That balance isn’t necessarily healthy. He may be too controlling, and you may be too timid, or vice versa. But there are two ways to upset that balance: either you move or he moves. And when one of you moves, that teeter totter will shift and find a new balance. When you start acting differently, your spouse often acts differently in return.
UPDATE: As someone pointed out in the comments, this doesn’t apply if you are in an abusive relationship. If you fear that your spouse is abusive, and not just negative, please get some help or some counsel from wise people around you who can guide you through this. I’ve got a post on how to deal with emotionally destructive marriages that may help, too.
Now don’t put your back up just yet; when I talk about changing yourself, I don’t necessarily mean being what we would call “nicer”. Yes, I believe in showing unconditional kindness. Yes, I believe in affection. But sometimes in marriage that ceases working. In fact, it can become detrimental, because if the person has disconnected from you emotionally, and then you start trying to show them how much you love them, you actually end up looking needy (which turns them off even more).
So how do you change? Thought #4 in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage is all about figuring out how to change that dynamic in your marriage. And one of the best ways to do that is to allow your spouse to reap what they sow–to allow them to experience the consequences of their actions. To truly love someone is to want the best for them. If you have a spouse who is very negative, that is not God’s best.
Are you GOOD or are you NICE?
These changes that I’m going to talk about won’t work if you’re angry or out to get your spouse. They won’t work if you’re thinking leaving is the better solution. If you keep that anger and that bitterness, the changes will create a “now it’s your turn to see how it feels” pattern, and that’s even worse. But if you dedicate yourself to God’s best for your marriage and for yourself, you just may find that things change.
So have that out with God first, and let go of your anger so that your primary focus is on loving your husband, and your marriage, towards health.Sometimes when you’re the target of negativity, it’s hard to imagine ever loving that person again because everything has become so negative. Little things they do now grate on you. Their personality grates. But what I’ve found is that personality issues are almost always directly related to relationship issues. My husband bites his fingernails. When I’m mad at him, and he does this in public, it drives me nuts. When I’m happy with him, it barely registers. Don’t assume that because you don’t like a lot about him that you never will again. Work on the relationship, and don’t focus on his personality. Your perspective may actually change in time.
So let’s deal with the relationship issues, not the personality ones.
Have a conversation with your husband in which you tell him that you want your home to be a positive one–with your children, with your relationship–and because of that, you won’t participate in conversations that aren’t positive. You’ll be glad to talk about issues as long as you’re working towards a solution and not calling each other names. But you don’t want negativity; you want love.Then, next time he starts lecturing, put your hand gently on his arm, tell him you love him, but tell him that you won’t participate in this unless he wants to talk, rather than lecture. And then leave the room.
Sometimes we get into this dynamic where we never set boundaries, and then other people walk all over us. That’s not healthy. Jesus has boundaries, after all! Show love, yes. Pray for the person. Show kindness to them. But don’t encourage them to act in an ungodly way, which you do when you perpetuate negative communication patterns.
Instead, suggest that you spend some time talking about the positive things in your day. If he starts bad-mouthing an acquaintance, tell him you would prefer not to hear negative things about someone else. Keep that up for a while and you’ve now changed the dynamic in your marriage, and possibly gained some more respect.
When people respect us, they tend to value us more.
When they walk all over us (as if we were doormats), they don’t value us (and often that’s why sexual attraction goes). Become the person that you want to be, and that God is calling you to be. Then act out that person within your marriage–loving him, but also setting limits. As you do that, you just may find the dynamic changes.
I hope that helps. I know this is really tough. But I don’t think just chucking the relationship is the answer, either. Often people chuck the marriage before they realize that they do have within them the opportunity to change the way you relate. So shake things up a bit. Set boundaries. Set limits. Learn to treat yourself with respect, and go to God to help you be the kind of person others will respect. As you do that, you just may find your relationship changing.