How can a husband and wife stop trying to change each other?

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“How can a husband and wife stop trying to change each other?” Ensign, Aug. 1980, 32–33

My wife and I have become aware of a problem in our marriage: each of us is always trying to change the other. How can we resolve this conflict?

Clark Swain, associate professor of marriage and family studies at Boise State University, Idaho, and marriage and family counselor Since successful marriage is a continual process of change and accommodation, you are not alone in coming up against some rough edges in your own adjustment. Ongoing changes in some areas are necessary for a good marriage. So change itself is not the problem—but admitting the need to change and helping one’s spouse make changes can be.

Let’s look at the issue of change in that light. Let me propose some questions that you can ask yourself:

1. Is this change that I’m getting messages about one that I should make? I think everyone will agree that it’s not much of a marriage if we’re not willing to make certain kinds of ongoing changes in ourselves, for the simple reason that we want to please our partners.

For example, one husband was bothered by what he considered to be too much talking on the phone. His wife interpreted his fidgeting when she was on the phone as a sign of displeasure. Instead of acting defensively, she kindly asked him about it. They both agreed to limit their evening calls to a few minutes, if possible, so they could spend more time together.

This wife’s action exemplifies good judgment in human relations. When we feel criticized, we tend to counterattack with a complaint of our own, or a statement of our “rights.” Instead, she asked herself what making the change would be worth to their relationship, and then she willingly made it as an act of love. One of the benefits was that her husband was more willing to make some of the changes that she desired.

2. How can I persuade my partner to make certain changes? Here’s how Eleanor, my wife, convinced me to change my attitude about typewriters:

When I was in graduate school, Eleanor thought that a standard typewriter would be more useful than the little portable we had. I was used to the small typewriter and resisted, but Eleanor had a standard model delivered to our house on a tryout basis and asked me to see how I liked it. I reluctantly yielded to the idea, but within a few days was using the standard more often because I liked it better. She used persuasion—not coercion or nagging—to get me to change.

Timing is important: if you want your husband or wife to make certain changes in attitude or behavior, be careful not to bring up the subject at mealtime or bedtime: tired, hungry people are often not receptive.

And there is another consideration: What is your motivation? Why should your spouse make the change? Is it really necessary? Is it a flaw in his or her behavior that needs to be improved? Or is it something that you should change your attitude about?

3. Can we improve our marriage by either compromising or kindly agreeing to disagree? A newlywed couple that I counseled made an easy adjustment about weekend entertainment. He liked to bowl; she preferred movies. Each, of course, wanted the company of the other for his or her favorite activity. Having a sense of fairness, they compromised by agreeing to go bowling one weekend and to the movies the next weekend.

Another solution where the husband and wife genuinely don’t share interests is for each person to concentrate on what he likes and leave the other space and permission to pursue his own interests. One older couple, after trying to compromise for years, discovered it worked much better to let the husband watch his football alone while the wife went to the symphony with a girlfriend. A sincere effort to share the other’s pleasure wasn’t enough to create a valid interest. And their solution certainly didn’t reduce their love for each other.

4. What circumstances can we change to improve our relationship? It must be recognized that as much as you may want a certain change, sometimes neither you nor your partner will be willing or perhaps able to make that change. In this case, you might try changing the circumstances. Eleanor decided that a firmer mattress would be better for her back, so we put a sheet of plywood over the box springs. Then I started waking up with backaches and wanted the plywood to go. Eleanor wanted it to remain. By cutting the board down the middle and removing half of it we changed the circumstances and thereby resolved our disagreement.

5. Will altering my attitude about the desired change improve our marriage? You may wish that your husband had more money or more hair, or that your wife were slimmer or had more education. But your partner cannot change some things and will not change others. Then it’s time to change your mind or attitude—not about your mate, but about what you think you have to have in a marriage partner in order to be happy.

In conclusion, husbands and wives in satisfying marriages realize that adjustment is a never-ending process. A successful marriage requires a continual effort to bring about positive changes in yourself, in your partner, in unwanted circumstances, and in your attitude.