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Do-It-Yourself Marriage

Even if your spouse isn't trying, you can bring positive change to your marriage, says popular therapist Michele Weiner-Davis

So what's a nice Jewish therapist like Michele Weiner-Davis doing in a Christian magazine like this? Sharing our commitment to save and strengthen marriages, that's what. With her popular books, including Divorce Busting (Simon & Schuster) and A Woman's Guide to Changing Her Man (Golden), her many years of marriage and family therapy and a happy 22-year marriage to Jim Davis, Weiner-Davis has a lot to say about how anyone can make his or her marriage better—even if he or she is the only one trying.

Is it common for one partner to long for the marriage to improve when the other spouse isn't all that interested?

What's common is a sort of stalemate: he's waiting for her to change, she's waiting for him to change. It comes down to "I'll do this if you do that." It's great when one partner decides to break out of unproductive ruts—and tip the first domino, so to speak.

How can you be so sure one person can bring about change alone?

Married people make things happen in their relationships all the time—but not necessarily positive things. If you wanted to make your spouse fly off the handle right now, could you? Of course! One of my friends says, "All I'd have to do is stand in front of the TV when a football game is on." I know if I tell my husband how to drive when he's driving, he'll snap at me. Everyone knows how to push those buttons. So if you can push negative buttons, couldn't you push positive ones? People have "change buttons," but we're too busy focusing on the negatives to find them. Change is a chain reaction, so I encourage people to find out what they can do differently to trigger a more positive response from their spouse.

So it becomes "changing you by changing me." Sounds simple, so how come this isn't obvious to all of us?

We have this inborn habit of pouncing on the negative and not noticing the positive. Most people don't realize how negative they are toward their partners. When they examine their own words and actions, they're shocked to find how critical they are. One woman came home from work to find that her husband had mowed two acres of their property—something he'd been putting off. She told me, "I got out of the car, and all I noticed was the grass under the trees where he couldn't get to with the lawn mower."

"Treat your spouse based on how you want things to be, not on how they really are."

When I ask individuals to tell me what annoys them about their spouse, they can instantly give me a list. But when I ask what they do that annoys their spouses, they have to go home and ask! Seeing their own behaviors from their partner's point of view can help them see how important their own actions are in shaping all their interactions as a couple.

But those kinds of habits die hard. How can a person change his or her own negative actions?

First you change your perception. For instance, you give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Say a woman complains that her husband is no longer initiating sex. Okay, that's a problem. But how she perceives it is crucial because it will affect how she behaves. If she's convinced that he's mad at her, she may behave defensively. But if she thinks he might have a temporary medical condition, she won't take the rejection personally and will feel able to wait it out. Her perception affected her reaction. Here's a classic example. Our daughter has just gone back to college, so last summer we really wanted her to spend time with us. But of course she wanted to spend time with her friends. One weekend when she'd planned constant activities with friends, my husband became angry and said something unkind. In the past, something like that would have made me really mad at him, and we'd end up fighting. But this time I realized he was angry because his feelings were hurt. That made it easier for me to respond with sympathy: "My feelings get hurt, too. Let's figure out a way to get some time with our daughter."

So changing your perspective leads to healthier actions?

It makes it easier, certainly. It also helps to decide you're going to change your actions no matter what you think or feel. I call this the "act as if" method. You treat your spouse the way you'd treat him or her if everything in your relationship was already the way you wanted it to be. Treat him or her based on how you want things to be, not on how they really are.

That's actually a New Testament concept. Christians call it "doing untor others as you'd have done unto you" or "not returning evil for evil."

Well, it really works. One time I was away at a seminar. I could tell from our phone calls that Jim was getting short of patience after four days of working and being there for our kids. As I was flying back, I mentioned to my friend who was traveling with me, "He's going to be in a bad mood. I'll have to be careful not to talk about what a great time I had because it'll just make him feel jealous and mad." My friend made me take the advice I'm always giving other people. "What if you're wrong and he's actually looking forward to seeing you?" she asked. "How would you act if that were true?"A light bulb went on in my head. "I'd run off the plane and I'd throw my arms around him. I'd be affectionate and warm and show him how happy I am to see him." Misperceptions work both ways. What if I'd gotten off the plane all reserved and withdrawn? Maybe he'd have acted coldly in response to me, and then I'd be even more convinced that he was angry with me. If one partner experiments by interacting with her mate as if she expects something positive to happen, she might be really surprised at the loving responses she gets. It can make a person think, "Hmm. Maybe my marriage isn't as bad as I thought." All of a sudden, there's hope again.

An hope is important. You see a lot of people in despair because they don't believe their marriages will ever change. What hope do you give them so they won't go back home and call a divorce lawyer?

The people who come to me are often teetering on the edge of divorce. To give them hope, the first thing I ask is "What have you tried?" They tell me, and then I ask, "When that didn't work, what did you do next?" Then they look at me as if I just landed from Mars. They may have been trying for years, but they were trying the same thing—something that didn't work—over and over.
I assure them there are lots of different ways to approach their spouses. I suggest something really different, and ask them: "What might have happened if you'd done that?"

So you encourage spouses to be creative?

I turn them into solution detectives. The question shouldn't be "Is there a solution?" but "What is the solution?" When they start believing there's a solution, that's hopeful. It's a shift away from all-or-nothing thinking. If spouses come in and tell me, "We fight all the time," I know they probably only have a couple of big blow-ups a month. It's just that it feels like it's "all the time." I ask, "What's different about the times when you are getting along?" or "What's different about the times when she's not feeling jealous?" or "What's different about the times when he does help with the kids?" I get them to scrutinize the problem-free times to look for positive solutions. I'll send people home with a notebook so they can record what's going on when they feel better about their marriage. Almost invariably they come back with something good to say: "We argued less in the last two weeks when we spent more time together." They've found a clue. They need to spend more time together. I ask, "What else?" and push until we have a list of six or seven things that worked for them in the past, either recently or early in their marriage, that could work again. One couple realized they were happier early on when they had a shared goal. So they started a home-improvement project so they could work on something together. They made a decision, acted on it, and the good feelings followed.

When couples start discovering solutions, do they stop coming for therapy?

Often, yes. Many couples don't need extensive therapy; they just need help in shifting their focus or restarting in a better direction. They get so excited when they see that really small changes in behavior trigger really big changes in their feelings about their marriage.

So it's the little things that count?

The little things mean everything! Something as small as starting the morning with a kiss on the cheek instead of an argument affects two people all day and leaves them looking forward to being together again in the evening.
If they have started off the day with conflict, one partner could turn it all around by picking up the phone and calling to apologize. It can change dramatically what happens afterward.

In your book you compare changing a spouse's behavior to training a dog. We're going to try not to be offended by that! How do the puppy training principles apply?

It's basic psychology that the best way to teach someone, or a puppy, a new behavior is to reinforce it positively when it occurs. This works a lot better than punishing bad behaviors. But we tend to do the opposite in marriage. We just love to nail our spouses when they do something wrong, but we say nothing when things are going well.

Instead, we should be reinforcing our mate's good behavior, right?

It's important to reward progress, even if there's still a long way to go. It's being able to say, "I'm glad you're helping in the kitchen; the counters look great," even though there are crumbs on the floor and the dishwasher is loaded ineptly. And rewards have to be rewarding. The trick is not to give your spouse what would be rewarding to you. Sometimes a guy rewards his wife with sex, when an evening out might have been more rewarding to her. Or a woman will give her husband a really romantic card, when he would have loved a home-cooked meal. Real giving is when you give your spouse what he or she wants to receive, whether or not you understand it or agree with it or like it.

Christians depend on God to help us love each other with this kind of selflessness. How do you motivate people to undertake this selflessness?

I am encouraging selfless behavior, but ultimately it isn'tselfless because of the positive results that come back to you. It takes determination and some selflessness to tip over that first domino. But the good feelings and good actions come right back to you.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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Behavior; Change; Marriage
Today's Christian Woman, Winter, 1998
Posted September 12, 2008

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