Question: When we got engaged, I thought my spouse could do no wrong. Now that we’re married, I’ve become aware that the person of my dreams actually has some very annoying habits. How do I deal with this situation? Is it possible to change your mate?

Answer:

It’s normal to be annoyed with your spouse’s habits. It’s also fairly common to discover that the two of you have conflicting personalities. What you need to remember is that you willingly chose to marry this person, not just because you shared some similarities, but also for the differences. You felt the need to be completed by another person who is unlike you in some significant ways. The key is to work together to change the habits that can be changed and learn to accept those that can’t.

Don't be manipulative

In an effort to coax constructive change in a spouse, some people resort to manipulative measures. They leave pamphlets or books around in the hope that their partner will get the hint. Don’t take that route. Instead, if you have a concern, assume ownership of your feelings. Voice them honestly and respectfully. Sometimes expressing them in a note can reduce defensiveness and cut through communication difficulties.

You should also ask yourself why you want your spouse to change. Is it merely to please yourself or make your mate more like you? Would this change make things easier for you while causing your spouse to feel imprisoned? Or is it calculated to eliminate behaviors that are actually preventing your partner from growing emotionally and spiritually? In other words, is your goal to liberate your spouse or to restrict his or her freedom?

Guidelines to keep in mind

Ultimately, nobody can change another person. The only person you can change is yourself. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there are no limits to what’s appropriate in a marriage: you don’t need to accept abusive behavior, and physical aggression is not to be tolerated for a moment. Still, in the case of smaller, less pernicious habits, it may be worth addressing the issue if you think the alteration would truly benefit both of you and put your relationship on a stronger footing. If you choose to follow this course of action, be sure to keep the following guidelines in mind:

  1. Tackle the problem honestly. Don’t beat around the bush. Instead, say something like, "Honey, it bothers me when you burp at the table. It teaches the kids a bad habit, and it’s rude and offensive to guests."
  2. Explain the benefit of the change. For example, "Meals will be more pleasant for all of us, and you’ll be a good example to our guests."
  3. Don’t demand change. Instead, request it. Your spouse will respond more favorably.
  4. Don’t attack your mate. When you attack your spouse, you crush his or her spirit. Confront the problem; don’t belittle the person.
  5. Discuss ways to bring about the desired change. Change is hard for all of us. Let your spouse know that you’re on his or her side. Help him or her find ways to alter bad habits.
  6. Encourage your spouse’s growth. Acknowledge progress in the desired direction, and offer praise and expressions of appreciation for your mate’s efforts.
  7. Recognize that change takes time. Be patient, and let your spouse know that you’re in this together for the long haul.
  8. Focus on your spouse’s good habits, not just the irritating ones. Look for the good in your mate. Remember Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:8: "Whatever is honorable, pure, just, lovely . . . think on these things."
  9. Pray for your spouse. God is ultimately the one who makes change possible. So pray for your mate’s efforts. And since some behaviors may never change, ask God to give you grace to accept the differences between you.
  10. Seek to change the habit, not the person. If you’re trying to alter your spouse’s personality or temperament, you’ll be fighting a losing battle that will end in frustration for both of you.

If you need help implementing these suggestions, we’d highly recommend that you seek professional counselling. Our staff would be happy to provide you with referrals to qualified counsellors in your area who specialize in marriage and family therapy. They’d also consider it a privilege to discuss your situation with you over the phone. You can call our counsellors here at Focus on the Family Canada Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Pacific time at 1.800.661.9800.

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to the First Five Years of Marriage, a Focus on the Family book published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 2006, Focus on the Family.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources below.

Our recommended resources

Free advice on marriage, parenting and Christian living delivered straight to your inbox

View comments ()