When you become upset or disappointed with your imperfect partner, four
things often happen: 3, 4
1. You blame your partner for your unhappiness.
You judge your partner’s behavior as wrong, unfair or unjust.
2. You fail to
see your contribution to the problem. In many, but not all cases, your attitudes
or behaviors have played some role in the occurrence and persistence of the
3. You attempt to get your partner to change his or her behavior.
4. Your partner becomes defensive and resists change.
example. James and Robyn have been married eight years and have three children,
ages two, four, and seven. James comes home and feels overwhelmed by the
apparent disorder and confusion. He thinks to himself, “What has Robyn been
doing all day? I can’t handle this mess everyday.” James wants to eat and relax,
and he blames his wife for not providing a calm and orderly home. He fails to
understand that Robyn is worn out, and that he usually does little to help with
the house work and kids. Without really seeing beyond his own view, James
criticizes his wife, and Robyn feels accused of laziness and incompetence. She
gets defensive and blames him for not helping her more.
In many conflict
situations such as this, little is accomplished because the focus of change is
on the spouse. The spouse, however, is not likely to alter his habits or
personality just because you want him to. No matter how hard you try to squeeze
change out of your partner, he or she will change only when the person wants to
But if you can’t change your partner, how can you solve the
relationship problem? One answer is this: you can effect some change in the
relationship if you are willing to CHANGE YOURSELF! The focus of change becomes
you, NOT YOUR PARTNER. Consider the words of Norma Tarazi, an authority on
In most cases [of interpersonal conflict], both people
have made some mistakes in dealing with each other. But the other person’s
mistakes are not your concern. When you want to improve a relationship...you
improve yourself and make your behavior the best possible. You cannot force
another individual to change and be the way you wantthat is up to him or
her…. Correct your behavior so the responsibility for this [problem] becomes as
little your fault as possible… hoping perhaps that the other person will change,
but not demanding it as an outcome of your efforts.6
Thus, one way to improve your marriage is to modify your attitudes and your
actions.7 It is a process of turning your attention inward to see what you can
do—not what your spouse should do!
The goal is to become a more loving
person. The most cherished definition of love (at least in the Western world) is
recorded by the Apostle Paul in the 13th chapter of Corinthians in the New
Testament. “It is a Christian definition; but it is so universal that its almost
exact equivalent is used by Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews.”8
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not
itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own,
is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil…beareth all things, believeth all
things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
Harry Stack Sullivan, a noted American psychiatrist, suggested that the state
of love exists when the satisfaction and security of another person becomes as
significant to one as one’s own satisfaction and security.9 M. Scott Peck
asserts that love is less a feeling and more a commitment to the growth of
another person.10 Now note: In all three of these definitions, love is an action
undertaken to benefit another person. Thus one of the keys to improving an
intimate relationship is to give more and demand less from the partner.11 If you
want to improve your marriage, you must be willing to improve yourself. To help
you focus inward (at self) instead of outward (at your partner), I present three
principles for your consideration.
Change Your Behavior:
Dr. Brent Barlow, a professor of marriage and family at Brigham Young
University, likened the parable of the mote and the beam, given by the Jewish
rabbi Jesus, to marital conflict. The parable states that one should first
examine one’s own large faults (the beam, a large piece of wood) before you
criticize the small faults (the mote, a small speck of sawdust) in your
partner.12 I have adapted Dr. Barlow’s ideas and present three steps to the
Change First principle.
1. Exercise patience with your partner’s faults and
annoying habits. Drop the insistence that he or she must change.
responsibility to change yourself and improve the relationship. The focus
becomes you, not your partner. You change first.
3. Assuming there is good
will and love between you and your spouse, your partner may then desire to also
change. As you act in loving, forgiving, and benevolent ways, your spouse may
reciprocate. Tarazi explained that the other person might improve, perhaps in
response to your improvement.13
Reflect on this example of the Change First
principle. Beth and Andrew are newly married. Prior to the wedding Beth admired
Andrew’s carefree, spontaneous, free-spirited approach to living. Now that they
are married and expecting a child, she wants her husband to settle down, and get
serious with school and work. In gestures and words, Beth criticizes Andrew’s
lackadaisical lifestyle and wants him to change.
Over several months her
anger grows and engenders cold, distant interaction. Eventually, she realizes
that her husband is neither lazy nor irresponsible, and she stops the
disparagement. She thinks to herself, “What can I do to be a better wife and
partner; how can I support and encourage my husband?” Andrew feels the change
immediately; her acceptance and positive attitude lifts his spirit and frees him
to pursue his goals and dreams. Over the next year, Andrew is accepted into an
architecture program and finds a good job as a draftsman.
To sum up the
Change First principle: At times, instead of blaming the partner for your
unhappiness, or focusing attention on the spouse’s mistakes and imperfections,
take the first step to improve things yourself. Decide what you can do and do
it. If you are unhappy with the way your spouse treats you, then improve your
care and treatment of your spouse. You take the first stepyou show more
Change Your Attitude
Several years ago I read a short story entitled, “80 percent I love you, 20
percent I hate you.”14 I’ve borrowed the idea and created my own version of the
A middle-aged man named Steve is reflecting on his marriage of 15
years to his wife Susan. They have three school-aged children. Steve is
dissatisfied with Susan, though he admits she has many good qualities; he likes
80 percent of Susan. She is (1) a good cook and homemaker, (2) she shares many
of his leisure activities, (3) she manages money wisely, (4) she is helpful to
Steve’s elderly parents, (5) she is a loving and affectionate sexual partner,
(6) she is an excellent parent, (7) she is charitable and helps others, and (8)
Susan is usually pleasant, positive, and supportive in her attitude toward him.
Yes, there is a lot (80 percent) to like about Susan, but Steve is dissatisfied.
There is 20 percent of Susan he dislikes. He believes she doesn’t measure up to
his ideal in two important ways. She (1) is overweight and doesn’t look or dress
as attractively as she used to, and (2) she still doesn’t like to socialize and
go out with his friends and co-workers for dinner, parties, and other
activities. As the months pass, Steve continually thinks about the 20 percent
that he dislikes and takes for granted the 80 percent that is good. At this
time, he begins to notice that his new administrative assistant, Mary, is very
nice looking and loves to socialize and party with clients and co-workers. One
year later Steve divorces Susan and marries Mary. Two years later Steve is again
contemplating his marriage, but this time he is analyzing his likes and dislikes
with his new wife Mary. Yes, she is still winsome and attractive, and she loves
to party with his friends and co-workers and she has other good qualities, but
there are some problems. Mary is a disinterested stepmother, she is critical of
many of his personal habits, and she doesn’t like to cook so they must eat out
most of the time.
One moral of this story is that no partner is perfect. No
matter whom you marry, there will be some things you dislike about the person.
You may have to learn to live with some of your spouse’s minor, irritating
habits or behaviors without anger, without resentment.15 Toleration without
rancor is the key to overlooking small faults. I am assuming, however, that
these faults are not morally wrong or evil acts, such as abuse, dishonesty, or
To avoid over-focusing on the spouse’s negatives, you can train
your mind to focus on the positives.16 Overlook the few small things (the 20
percent) that you don’t like about your spouse and continually remind yourself
of the 80 percent that you like. Make it a habit to thank your spouse for the
things he or she does well. As you compliment and praise your spouse for
strengths, you will be less likely to notice the partner’s weaknesses and
To illustrate the “Change Your Attitude” principle, take the
situation of Nancy and Nick. They have been married for 15 years. They have
struggled at times with money issues and some differences on parenting, but
overall they consider their marriage healthy and strong. Over the years,
however, Nancy has noticed that Nick doesn’t get around to fixing things around
the house. Currently, the kitchen faucet leaks, the weeds in the garden are
taller than the corn, and the bedroom is always cold because the large window
won’t seal tight. She expects her husband to be more like her handyman father.
Nancy also thinks that Nick spends too much time fishing and hunting with his
brothers. Over several months her resentment begins to boil over. She thinks to
herself, “How can I continue to live with this man who makes my life so
miserable?” Nancy sees his behavior as intentional and blames him for her
unhappiness. After some introspection and lots of prayers, Nancy begins to see
that the real problem is with her attitude, not her husband’s behaviors. She
says to herself, “Ok, I wish he would learn to fix things, and yes, I’d like him
home more on the weekends and not out chasing trout or pheasant, but it’s not
that bad. Look at all the good things he does. He’s a good father; he treats me
with kindness and respect; we are not rich but he provides a good living for us,
and he’s fun to be with.” Her thinking continues, “When I look at the big
picture, he is really a great guy and I should consider myself lucky.” During
the next few weeks, Nancy consciously attends to the good things about Nick and
the bright side of the marriage. She fixes the faucet herself, and she and her
friend weed the garden!
To review principle two, Change Your Attitude: be
positive and optimistic about your spouse. Focus on the 80 percent you love.
Remind yourself often of your partners’ good qualities and virtues. Live
peaceably with your partner’s few minor imperfections, the 20 percent you don’t
like. Some things may change; accommodations can be negotiated, but don’t expect
perfection and realize some things may never suit you. Harold Kushner, a Jewish
Rabbi, said it well:
The illusion of perfection in the partner will not
last. And that is why the essence of marital love is not romance but
forgiveness…Forgiveness as the truest form of love means accepting without
bitterness the flaws and imperfection of our partner, and praying that our
partner accepts our flaws as well…Mature marital love sees faults clearly and
forgives them, understanding that there are no perfect people, and that an
imperfect spouse is all that an imperfect person like us can aspire to…If we
cannot love imperfect people, if we cannot forgive them for their exasperating
faults, we will condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness, because imperfect
people are the only kind we will ever find.18
Change Your Heart
Common approaches used to treat individual or family problems include: (1)
education, to teach new skills; (2) therapy, to alter thinking or change
behavior; and (3) medicine, to control impulses and/or enhance mood.19 Each
method, alone or in combination, has value and can achieve good results, but is
often ineffective.20 These interventions may be unproductive because the
person’s heart is not changed. The heart, in this context, refers to one’s will,
desire, or motivation to be kind, forgiving, patient, loving, gentle, and
unselfish. For example, in therapy, you can teach a couple more effective
communication skills, but unless the spouses are humble, patient, and forgiving
(they experience a change of heart), then the new skills are not likely to be
used or used properly.
Thus, there is a fourth approach to mental health
often overlooked by secular social scientists—and that is divine intervention,
or put more simply: getting help from God.21 Many family professionals prefer to
ignore God and God’s influence on human relationships because it is not readily
observable or easily measured it is not scientific. Many other social
scientists are agnostic or atheistic and hence have neither experience nor
interest in religion.22 Some are simply hostile to religion because it has too
often been associated with ignorance, superstition, inflexibility, and
dogmatism. Allen E. Bergin, a nationally recognized psychologist, once mused,
“Like the entomologist who found a bug he couldn’t classify and therefore
stepped on it, behavioral scientists have chosen to ignore the world of
spiritual reality because their assumptions and methods would not allow it.”23
For most people, however, God is a reality, and many report they have felt God’s
influence in their lives.24, 25
There are many ways that God could influence
a marriage. First, a couple’s common commitment to God may increase their
loyalty and commitment to each other. Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, taught that
half of one’s religious duty is to love and serve his family. Thus, love of God
requires love of spouse. The Qur’an, the holy book of the Muslims, speaks
clearly to this issue:
And among the signs of God is this, that He created for you mates, that
you might live in tranquility with them; and He has put love and mercy between
your hearts. (Sura 30:21).
Second, the religious believer will avoid actions that could hurt and destroy
the marriage—such as lying, abuse, or adultery. Many Christians and Jews believe
that if you love God, you will obey God’s commands. God prohibits many hurtful
behaviors and encourages spouses to respect, honor, and serve one another.
third way that closeness to Deity may improve a marriage is by “softening” the
hearts of the martial partners. As previously stated, a “change of heart” means
that as one gets closer to God in true and meaningful worship, God’s spirit or
influence can transform one’s will, temperament, attitudes, and desires. As the
person moves nearer to God, he or she will become more forgiving, patient, kind,
tolerant, and unselfish.
Hate and anger are incompatible with God; thus, as
one develops a more meaningful relationship with Deity, the person must shed
those attitudes or actions that are in opposition to God’s nature and will. A
poignant example of the change of heart phenomena is told in the Book of Mormon,
one of the sacred scriptures of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A prophet named Benjamin is urging his people to believe in God, give up their
sins, obey the commandments, and accept Christ as their savior. At the end of
his sermon the people exclaim: “The Spirit of the Lord has wrought a mighty
change in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil,
but to do good continually” (Mosiah 5:1). Thus, the anger, the contempt, or a
disposition to hurt the spouse are all greatly lessened or eliminated by one’s
emotional/spiritual nearness to God. Or, put more simply, you cannot love God
and hate your spouse; and conversely, you are more likely to love your spouse if
you love God (see the New Testament, First Epistle of John, chapter 4).
order to further understand the Change of Heart principle, the reader is asked
to consider several assumptions:
1. God exists and God can influence human
nature and social relationships. God is the Lord of all humanity.
have a self-centered nature. We tend to put our own needs, wants, and desires
ahead of others, including family members.
3. Selfishness is at the heart of
many marital and family problems.26
4. A personal, meaningful relationship
with God tends to reduce personal selfishness, which in turn improves
Unselfish behavior can also be described as
other-centered, prosocial, charitable, or altruistic. Altruism can be considered
the opposite of selfishness; it is the selfless concern for others. An
altruistic person is as concerned, or at times more concerned, with the
happiness and welfare of the family unit, than with his own personal comforts,
convenience, and preferences. Such a person gives up (or delays) his own
immediate wants in favor of doing that which is best for other family members.27
It does not mean that the person becomes a drudge to others, or that he neglects
his own legitimate needs. An altruistic person shifts the balance away from
“What is best for me,” to “What is best for my family?” If one becomes more
altruistic (i.e., less selfish), that person can negotiate family relationships
more effectively and fairly. Relationships are often improved when one acts in
more altruistic ways.28
It appears that God’s spirit or influence can change
one’s heart—a selfish, egotistical person can become less so with God’s help.
Dr. Terry Warner has given a heartfelt example of this principle.29
relates the story of a woman whose husband was emotionally neglectful. The more
she pushed him for intimacy, the more he withdrew from her. She believed her
anger was caused by her husband’s lack of attention and affection. In her eyes,
he was to blame for her emotional suffering. Though she exhibited the outward
trappings of religion (i.e., she attended church, prayed and read scriptures),
she finally realized she was not really close to God in her thoughts and the
intents of her heart. She went through a spiritual awakening, a change of heart,
and she stopped the blaming and criticism. She prayed more earnestly and
attended more closely to God’s spiritual promptings. As she came to God “with
full purpose of heart,” she in turn had a “change of heart” and showed more
patience, kindness, and love to her husband. After two months she reported that
her husband awoke one morning and said to her, “You know, we find fault too much
with each other. I am never going to find fault with you again.” She concluded:
“It was as if an icy glass wall between us had melted away. Almost overnight our
relationship became warm and sweet. Three years have passed, and still it [the
marriage] continues warmer and happier.”
To recapitulate a Change of Heart:
If you worship and serve God in true and healthy ways, you may become less
selfish. The unselfish person is more likely to build happy and satisfying
marital and family relationships. His thoughts and actions are more often
directed to the welfare of family members rather than upon his own personal
wants and desires.
These three principles of change may be useful in your marriage, but they
will not cure all problems and complaints. They may work best in marriages
without severe conflict or other serious dysfunctions such as mental illness,
addiction, abuse, or infidelity. For these more serious problems, family
education, therapy, and/or medical treatment may be more effective.
consider the merit and usefulness of these ideas, remember that the focus of
change is you, your attitudes, and your behaviors. Remember, however, I’m not
suggesting that your partner never needs to change or that you must always be
the one to give in, to sacrifice, or to take the first healing step. Of course
the partner must, at times, change too. But the point is this: the usual way one
tries to fix a marital problem is by trying to force the partner to
changeand this approach often fails. You cannot easily change your partner,
but you can change yourself. Thus, one way to improve your marriage is to take
personal responsibility and deliberate action to improve yourself.
do three things. You can change your behavior and try to improve your own
conduct relative to a specific marital issue. Ask yourself, “What can I do to
make this situation better?” Then do it without pressuring your partner to
You can change your attitude and focus on your partner’s positive
qualities and overlook his few irritating behaviors. Be content with all the
good things your spouse is and does, and be less troubled by his faults or minor
And last but not least, you can change your heart if you develop
a more true and meaningful relationship to God. You may become less selfish as
you draw nearer to God. Your altruistic actions will improve your marriage, and
your spouse will respond favorably to your selfless service and support.
conclude, if you want to change your marriage, first ask yourself, “Am I willing
to change myself?” “Will I look inward for answers instead of outward for
blame?” If you can answer, “Yes” to these questions, then try one of the three
principles. Your relationships with your spouse (or even a child, friend, or
employer) may improve if you change yourself for the better.
Douglas A. Abbott is a professor of Family Sciences at the
University of Nebraska.
1 David Mace, Love and Anger in Marriage, Grand Rapids, MI,
Zondervan Press, 1982.
2 Paul Watzlawick, John Weakland and Richard Fisch,
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3 Carlfred Broderick, Couples: How to Confront Problems and
Maintain Loving Relationships, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
Kayser, When Love Dies: The Process of Marital Disaffection, New York, Guildford
5 Michelle Weiner-Davis, Divorce Busting, New York, Simon &
6 Norma Tarazi, The Child in Islam. Plainfield, IN, American
Trust Publications, 1995.
7 H. Markman, S. Stanley and S. Blumberg, Fighting for Your
Marriage: Positive Steps for Preventing Divorce and Preserving a Lasting Love,
Somerset, NJ, Josey-Bass, 1994.
8 William Lederer & Don Jackson, The
Mirages of Marriage, New York, W.W. Norton, 1990.
9 Harry S. Sullivan,
Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry, New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 1953.
10 M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love,
Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997.
11 Bill O’Hanlon and Patricia Hudson, Love is a Verb: How to Stop Analyzing
Your Relationship and Start Making it Great, W.W. Norton, 1995.
Barlow, “To Build A Better Marriage”, Ensign, Sept. 1992, pp. 15-17.
Tarazi op. cit.
14 Frank Cox, Human Intimacy, Marriage and Family. Wadsworth
Publishers, Belmont, CA, 1984.
15 John M. Gottman, The Seven Principles for
Making Marriage Work, New York, Crown Publishing Group, 2000.
Baker, “Don’t Let Negativism Ruin Your Marriage”, Ensign, March 2001.
David Olson and Amy Olson. Empowering Couples, Building on Your Strengths,
Minneapolis, MN, Life Innovations, 2000.
18 Harold S. Kushener, How Good Do
We Have to Be?, New York, Little, Brown Publishing, 1996.
19 Dorthy Becvar
and Raphael Becvar, Family Therapy. Boston, MA, Allyn and Bacon Publishers,
20 Allen E. Bergin and Sol L. Garfield, Handbook of Psychotherapy and
Behavioral Change, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1994.
21 P. Scot
Richards and Allen E. Bergin, A Spiritual Strategy for Counseling and
Psychotherapy, American Psychological Association, Washington, DC, 1997.
Allen E. Bergin and Jay Jensen, “Religiosity of Psychotherapists: A National
Survey”, Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, 1990, volume 27,
23 Allen E. Bergin, “Psychotherapy and Religious Values”, Journal
of Consulting and Clincial Psychology, 1980, volume 48, pages 95-105.
Darwin Thomas (editor), Religion and Family Connection, Salt Lake City, UT,
Deseret Book, 1993.
25 Douglas A. Abbott, “Religious Belief and Practice: A
Potential Asset in Helping Families”, Family Relations, 1990, pp. 443-447.
26 Spencer W. Kimball, Marriage and Divorce, Salt Lake City, UT, Deseret
27 Wesley Burr, Randal Day and Kathleen Bahr, “Family Love”, in
Burr et al., Family Science, Pacific Grove, CA, Brooks/Cole Publishing, 1993.
28 Robert N. Bellah. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in
American Life. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1985.
Terry Warner, “Honest, Simple, Solid, True,” BYU Magazine, Provo, UT, Brigham
Young University Press. See also Warner’s new book, Bonds that Make Us Free,
Salt Lake City, UT, Shadow Mountain Press, 2001.