Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Spouses as Change Agents
Two grandmothers giving advice on change in marriage: Grandma 1: "What you see is what you get; don't expect to change your spouse after marriage." Grandma 2: "The choice of a spouse and the whole marriage experience will have a profound influence on the course of your adult life."
Which Grandma is right? They both are. Research on the Big Five Personality Traits shows that while personality tendencies (such as introversion/extroversion) remain fairly consistent throughout our adult lives, we do still change. If you doubt that, just look at your high school yearbook and then look in the mirror. Not only do we change physically but also socially, intellectually, and emotionally. We become happier, wiser, depressed, cynical, etc. in response to events and the choices we make about the course of our lives. If your marriage is a happy one, you will have greater health, wealth, and personal happiness than if you have an unhappy one. As spouses we can be helpmates or hurtmates to each other’s change processes.
Understanding the Process of Change
Couples who understand the laws of behavioral change will be able to utilize the change process to make their marriages better over time. One of the best models of change is that of psychologist, James Prochaska and his associates. Through studying self-changers who were successful at losing weight or quitting smoking, the researchers expanded their understanding of how behavior really changes.
We have adapted Pro-chaska’s model to describe how couples change. While the Action stage is the most exciting, skipping the early stages or ignoring the later ones will sabotage your chances of successful change.
- Pre-contemplation. In this stage, the person has little or no awareness of the problem and does not intend to change behavior. The spouse may have awareness of the problem and would like the person to change.
- Contemplation. During this stage, the person has awareness about the problem and is thinking about what to do about it without a commitment to do anything yet. The spouse is thinking, "if you know you have a problem, why don’t you just change?"
- Preparation. The person intends to change and is beginning to design a behavior change project. May appear to the spouse to still be "contemplating" but has moved beyond to actually planning the steps or techniques.
- Action. During this stage, the person actually modifies thinking, behavior and action. The changes are obvious to the spouse.
- Maintenance. Change must be maintained or relapse will occur. Spousal support continues to be important.
- Integration. We have added this stage because with some changes, new habits become more automatic and reliable after time and repetition.
The Change First Principle
There is one person who always has the power to initiate marital changes – you. While your partner may be unaware of the need to change or not sure what to do to change, you need not wait for magic to happen. You can initiate the magic by applying the stages of change to yourself.
Here are some questions to ask yourself as you are contemplating and preparing for the change:
- What are the pros and cons of the change for you and for your spouse? Be sure to describe the costs of the change such as spending more time together means spending less time with the children.
- How can you describe the change in terms of your behavior instead of your spouse? Example, if you would like fewer arguments, stop arguing back?
- How will you keep track of the changes so you can measure your success? This step is important in order to minimize your brain’s tendency to generalize that your spouse "always or never" does something. Data like hatch marks on a sheet of paper or notes in your Palm Pilot will prevent your brain from this overgeneralizing.
Acceptance: the Most Paradoxical Tool of Marital Change
Researchers Neil Jacobson and Andrew Christensen at the University of Washington found that nagging, cajoling, and arguing were the least effective techniques of marital change. When partners show each other love and acceptance, they respond quicker to each others' changes. You liked what you saw when you picked each other. Why would you spend the rest of your life insulting your mate by saying, "Who you are is unacceptable to me"? Recognize that the traits you thought were cute before marriage like your mate's spontaneity are now aggravating you because you decided you need more planning. Who changed and where is it written that the other spouse has to change in the same direction at the same time?
The Magic of Asking
Sometimes when the readiness is right, all you have to do is ask. This skill can gently help your spouse move from pre-contemplative to contemplative stages of change. Using the formula "I want_______, can you give me________?” may be all that is needed to get your spouse to do something. If your request is simple, your spouse will answer: "Yes", "I can do part of ______, would that be OK?"
If you spouse answers, "Hmm, that may be more complicated", you will need your problem solving skills to negotiate what is realistic. When you both problem solve on a more complicated request, you will still get at least part of what you need.
The Marital Sit-down: A Powerful Tool for Mutual Change
Just as businesses use tools like strategic planning and board meetings to establish goals and follow them, couples in Extraordinary Marriages evolve some sort of process for initiating and tracking change together. The Marital Sit-down is such a system. It is a tool to evaluate the relationship and set goals. It encourages healthy accountability and keeps resentments from building up. It will prevent about 80% of predictable marital conflict by increasing teamwork. Here are the suggested steps. Feel free to adapt to your needs and personalities.
- Schedule a regular meeting.
- Begin by reviewing what is going well. Emphasize the positives. "What I like about you and our relationship..."
- Report and update on ongoing projects. Review the marriage log book that you have used in previous sit-downs to log the decisions and goals.
- Review new things we would like ourselves to work on.
- Review new things we would like the other to work on – use request making skill.
- Set an agenda: (Not all of these)
- What are some changes/problems/goals? When will we talk about these things?
- Plans for fun, celebrations, vacations.
- Parenting issues.
- Relationship enhancement.
- Marriage assessment – how are we doing? (Done at least quarterly like a performance evaluation on your job.)
-Apologies and reconciliations.
- Action planning from the agenda of the sit-down including any resolutions or assignments – wrap-up with thank you's and hugs.
Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers change, problem solving and the sit-down.
- Prochaska, Norcross, and DiClemente. (1995). Changing for Good.
- Christensen & Jacobson. (2000). Reconcilable Differences.
- Weiner-Davis, Michele. (1996). Changing Your Life – and Everyone in It
Copyright 2002 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information: