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11. Stop Trying To Fix Your Spouse

In 1993 Erma Bomback, a newspaper family life columnist/satirist wrote A Match Made in Heaven, or Too Tired for an Affair, in which she related her inspiration for writing about marriage.

She shared that in preparation for a party to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary, she rummaged through a shoebox filled with memorabilia from when she and her husband were dating. In the box she found her journal where she had listed 14 things she was going to change about her husband. She quipped, “The only thing that changed was the list. Today it would have been 65 things.”

Creating Into Me See

When we get married and begin to live with this other person, the first thing we get to know intimately about them is their flaws. This is how men are often better known for leaving the toilet seat up than for their courage dealing with eight-legged invaders.

It’s tempting to want to change our spouses, because their flaws can annoy us to no end. However, it’s hard for our spouses to grow and change under pressure. Even harder for us to change things we don’t truly have control over.

But we can control our responses, and we can control how we love.

Intimacy is kind of like it sounds: IN-TO-ME-SEE. Seeing someone without their armor, their shields, or their masks that hide their flaws and embracing them and loving them anyway is what creates intimacy.

So what is your role in dealing with your spouse’s issues? None.

The Ball is In Your Court… Half The Time

Marriage is like a game of tennis, only your spouse is not your opponent. The objective is to keep a healthy volly going back and forth and adjust and adapt so that the game continues. As tempting as it may be, you can not jump the net and hit the ball for your spouse while it’s in their court. You can however, talk about what you need in order to make it easier for you to keep the ball on the court. That may not be easy at first, but just like tennis, improvement comes through practice, practice, practice.

Jaimy and Paul had been married for six years when they came to Lieberman Clinical Services. They both agreed that the most challenging aspect to their relationship was Jaimy’s uncontrolled temper that she displayed both publicly and privately. Jaimy recognized that she was quick tempered and was already in individual therapy to work on it. They were at a tipping point and they recognized that their relationship would not withstand many more storms.

Whenever Jaimy got angry Paul would reprimand her and say “Stop it, you're being ridiculous,” or “You’re doing it again.” Jaimy tried to refrain from losing her cool publically, and instead vented to Paul privately. Even so, she was met with scorn and she would end up feeling hurt. Paul also avoided telling Jaimy things that could possibly cause her to become angry. This only served to make Jaimy more angry because she felt that she could not trust Paul.

It is a common phenomenon that once we get married we stop viewing our spouses as separate individuals and start viewing them as a part of ourselves. We see ourselves as a couple rather than two separate people. This has some benefits; it creates a closeness and it allows us to let down our hair and be ourselves. This also has disadvantages. For instance, we begin to take on the responsibility of our spouse’s flaws: Paul was attempting to eradicate Jaimy’s anger by preventing it.

Paul assured me that he loved his wife but he saw his role as a husband to help his wife manage her temper. Jaimy said that the more he tried to manage her the worse about herself she felt, and subsequently the more she became angry. I asked Paul, “If your business partner, or friend got that angry in front of you how would you handle it.” After thinking for a minute he said, “I would probably just say, “Hey you’re really upset.” Or “Wow, that got you pretty riled-up.” There was no judgement involved because Paul did not feel a responsibility for them.

After many discussions Paul asked me “I get that I can't control Jaimy’s anger, but then what do I do when she’s yelling at me?” Together we worked on finding solutions. Paul learned to only talk about himself, “I see that your upset, but I can’t talk to you when you’re screaming.” Jaimy agreed this would be better than the criticism and was willing to accept this gentle reminder to take it down a notch.

The next thing we worked on is what to do when Jaimy vents to him about somebody else. I suggested Instead of assessing what is wrong with your wife, try to assess what she needs at that moment. I knew that our couple was being successful when they came in a few months after concluding their regular sessions and they told me the following story:

Jaimy and Paul had gone out to dinner to a new restaurant. The waiter who was anything but polite also managed to spill someone's order all over Jaimy on his way to another table. Jaimy held it in until they got in the car, but on the way home she had what Paul referred to as a full blown tantrum. Paul just remained silent until the storm blew over. When she stopped he turned to her, smiled warmly, and asked “Hey, you feel better now?” After a moment of silence they burst into laughter. Jaimy reported feeling closer to Paul in that moment then she ever had in the past.

There is a very important equation for happiness in all of our lives. You can only be responsible for something in the exact proportion to the amount of control you have over it. If you take responsibility for that which you don't control you will live a life of frustration. The bad news is that you only own 50 percent of the relationship. You cannot do anything other than accept you spouses 50 percent. The good news is you own 50 percent of the relationship, and without your spouse even getting involved, you can make your relationship 50 percent better.

A Good Volley Starts With a Good Serve

Taking the initiative to improve your relationship is like starting a good volley with a good serve. Even if you can’t control the volley on the other side of the court, you can set the tone for the game. With practice, communication, and patience, you and your partner will surely find your rhythm, and that rhythm will evolve and change to your liking the more you master the game together. And don’t be afraid to elicit some coaching--a third pair of eyes can always help improve your game.

Happy relationshipping!

This blog was adapted from a speech Shlomo Lieberman gave recently. For more information or to book Shlomo directly, click here.

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