"I looked at every card in the rack. I just can't buy my husband a 'husband' card for his birthday. I don't feel like any of those cards." I sighed and turned from my friend Alene's sweet face to examine the ceiling. "I don't even know him any more. He works late, goes to bed early, and leaves before I get up. We never talk. We never even see each other."
Alene lifted my chin with her finger tips. "You should stop acting like you feel about your husband and start acting the way you want to feel," she said. "After all, love isn't a feeling. Love is an action. And how we feel flows from the things we choose to do." She patted my back. "Start doing kind, loving things for your husband, and I guarantee you'll begin to feel kind and loving toward him. I suggest you buy a card that expresses how you'd like to feel. Pick one that says everything you hoped for your marriage when you walked down the aisle."
I shared my frustration with Alene because she and Karl had been married 48 years, and she was the most together person I knew. I'd determined I would never leave my husband, and I knew I didn't want to settle for a lonely marriage. So despite my misgivings about being insincere, I followed her advice. I bought my husband a romantic birthday card, and I started buying him other passionate cards several times a week and leaving them on his pillow.
Within months, my feelings did change. Words are powerful things, and the words in those cards changed us both. This exercise had me thinking about my husband's positive qualities, and the kind words had him feeling respected and encouraged. He started coming home earlier and staying up later. He became attentive and tender. He hugged me from behind as I cooked, ate with me at the table rather than in front of the TV, squeezed my hand as I reached for his empty plate, and followed me to the kitchen again. We talked. We grew positive and hopeful. I even started getting up early to have coffee with him before he left for work. I learned from this experience that I could change my marriage.
Do unto others
One party in a marriage can change the relationship even if the other party is unaware of the attempt. Even a stubborn person often responds to changes a willing partner makes, and as a result changes too. It's cause and effect.
But most struggling couples are stuck in a stand off. Trapped in a test of wills, each waits for the other one to change first. Someone has to make the move. Someone has to choose to be everything their spouse needs them to be rather than yearning for their spouse to be everything they need.
A friend recently said she thinks her husband loves her but doesn't like her. She doesn't think he's her friend. Sharing the same kind of wisdom that Alene shared with me, I suggested if she wanted her husband to be her best friend, she should start treating him as if he already was her best friend. We talked about how you share your dreams and longings with best friends, how you hold nothing back. She said she was afraid he wouldn't like the real her. She felt insecure, so she protected herself and refused to be transparent. He knew she was holding back. He felt rejected, responded defensively, and they stayed stuck.
Except in cases of mental illness, drug abuse, or other addictive or abusive behaviors, how we treat each other can influence how they treat us. Remember the Golden Rule? We are to treat others as we want to be treated. We are to act first, but we put too much emphasis on being right. Rather than calming an argument, we focus on winning.
When I choose to act rather than just react, I stop fueling a conflict. I can minimize friction through my effort to understand and communicate. Usually, if I'm loving and supportive, my husband reacts one way. If I'm cruel and critical, he reacts in quite a different way. If I choose to make my husband feel loved, wanted, accepted, valued, appreciated, and if I choose to give him the sense that he belongs, he's more likely to feel loving toward me.
So the spouse who chooses to change first initiates change in the other. Just as in a game of tug-of-war, when one side lets go of the rope, the other side falls. When one partner develops a greater awareness of his or her thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and releases the tension, the force affects the other party. We can choose how to respond to the events in our lives. We can not change our mate, but we can change our behavior, and how we respond and act will change how our mate responds and acts. It is Newton's first law of motion at work: "Every object in a state … remains is that state … unless an external force is applied to it."
We can be fearful and get negative, as we focus on what's wrong and on what's missing. A disrespectful attitude can result in our spouse becoming hardened toward us because he or she feels unappreciated. Our words can diminish and minimize our mate. Our actions can show a lack of value and interest. Attitudes, words, and actions are our communication tools, and even if only one party learns new skills in these areas, it can be very helpful to a marriage. If just one person accepts responsibility for what he or she has been doing to strain the bond, quits feeling like a victim, and quits blaming his or her spouse, the relationship can change. Just one party can affect a positive turn around.
Making things different
Relationship dynamics can be complicated. Being bored or lonely is different from having a spouse cheating, blowing the savings account, or being emotionally or physically abusive. Sometimes we're with a partner who has severe problems. These serious problems call for professional help, counseling, and treatment. But many marriages have smaller problems, and these couples split up because each partner is waiting for the other one to fix the problems or at least meet them halfway. But a marriage is not a 50/50 proposition; it is 100/100.
There's a popular saying that marriages are made in heaven, but those of us who have lived in long-term relationships know that marriages come in kits that we have to put together. Virtues are the parts we assemble into good marriages. They're things like patience, kindness, forgiveness, self-control, respect, commitment, and hope. These qualities of moral excellence build all good relationships, but many are missing in our marriages.
Ask yourself, "Am I generous with my spouse? Am I humble when I'm with this person? Am I faithful? Not only am I not having an affair, but also do I build my mate up to other people? Am I supportive and encouraging? Do I build hope? Do I create a joyful, peaceful environment in our home? Am I gentle? Do I give my spouse what I think he or she deserves, or do I offer grace and mercy? How do I work to improve our relationship?
A fundamental law of science states that there's no cause without an effect and no effect without a cause. This is true in physics, nature, philosophy, and relationships. One thing makes something else happen, so one person has the power to change the way he or she thinks, acts, and feels, and in so doing has the power to change the relationship.
It's easy to grumble and complain and to blame our spouse for our problems. It's easy to focus on our significant other's weaknesses and to think things would be different if this other person were different. But the truth is things will be different, if we will change. Maybe our mate will respond to our changes, and he or she will change too.
If you want to give it a try but don't know where to start, try some of these ideas:
- Write down your hope for your marriage. Read this every day to focus your attitude.
- Make a list of positive statements you can say to your spouse about his or her character and commit to saying one each day.
- Describe who you would like to be married to and work to be that person.
- Look for ways to sincerely compliment and praise your mate's behaviors and achievements every day.
- Make a list of things you have fun doing together and schedule time for them on your calendars.
- Look for opportunities to touch. Give hugs, kisses, and pats on the back freely every day.
My husband's birthday is coming up again, and I'll be heading back to the husband section of the greeting card display. I'll select another card that expresses my heart's desire for my marriage. This act has become symbolic of my choice to take responsibility for my attitudes and actions.
Attitude is contagious. We all need someone letting us know we are loved no matter what. Words are powerful, but actions speak louder than words, and Alene let me know that love is an action.
Sherry Van Zante married Loyd when she was 18. Thirty-four years later, marriage is the hardest, but also the best, thing she's ever done. She and Loyd live on the central coast of California.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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