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Can we hope for our spouse’s behavior to change?


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Father Michel Martin-Prével, cb Father Michel Martin-Prével, cb - published on 05/03/21

When you wish your spouse would act differently, try these ideas to find peace living in harmony together.

Too often we think that the only answer to marital difficulties is for our spouse to change his or her behavior.

For example, we might live with an inveterate smoker or a person who puts him or herself in danger by overeating, or a spouse who drives so badly that their passengers feel fear in their stomach from the moment they buckle their seat belt to the moment they arrive at the destination. We may have tried everything to change them, and have come up against a mountain that does not want to move. Perhaps it’s reached the point where it really affects us, especially if it’s been going on for a long time.

Can we—and should we—try to change someone, especially if they put themselves, us, and/or or our marriage in danger? Is changing a spouse’s behavior within our reach? Can the differences that annoy us disappear? Should we really try to change the other person, and with what justification?

It’s natural, and sometimes necessary, to want to bring a stop to an intolerable, or simply unpleasant, situation, especially if it’s a question of wanting what’s good for the other person, which—according to Aristotle—is the purpose of love. And because love by definition seeks the good of the other, we should abandon the idea that they must change to please us. Can marriage give the spouses rights over each other without them sliding into manipulation? 

We often find that we’ve tried everything, and hoped for everything. In fact, we want to change the other person, but we can’t. The other person doesn’t belong to us. Have we thought that we should change ourselves too, and perhaps make that the priority?

Having said that, should we accept behaviors that do no good to anyone? We can encourage someone to make an effort to grow in generosity in their actions, so that over time their personality can become more and more generous, as we do in raising children. How can we do this?

Three prerequisites

First, we should not want to change the other person, but rather their behavior. We must respect the person and focus on their actions. The idea of changing the other person should be reduced to wanting to change their behavior and not their profound personality, at the risk of trying to impose an unjustified totalitarianism.

We must respect their freedom, because marriage doesn’t guarantee that someone will change. What licit means can help lead to a change?

We need to trust the power of time, because every person is capable of evolution. Far from being a contract that fixes everything in a dreary daily cycle, marriage involves dynamic growth, evolution linked to the growth of the human being, to the vicissitudes of life, and to the experiences we accumulate. 

Five attitudes to adopt

1. It’s a well-known principle that we should discern what is primary from what is secondary, the essential from the superficial. Shouldn’t we also prioritize our hopes? Distinguish between minor things and behaviors that really hurt. Perfectionism that expects everything we think is wrong about someone’s behavior to change can resemble a suffocating totalitarianism. 

2. We can try adapting to our spouse rather than only focusing on them adapting to us. It seems that happy couples are those who adapt to each other rather than waiting for the other’s “conversion.” It’s more efficient and faster!

3. We need to evolve. The door to change or conversion can only be opened from within, from the side of the person who has to change! Inaction is fatal. We must continue to change ourselves, to move forward: When we change ourselves, the relationship begins to evolve and thus our marriage has the potential to be transformed. If I change, my spouse is forced to wrestle with that change, and the marriage has a chance to evolve. 

4. Believe in testimony and the power of example. Daily influence is much more powerful than injunction, threat, manipulation, or guilt. Our own actions can induce new behaviors in others and influence those around us. If we act with virtue, positive change is more likely.

5. We need to patiently nourish our marriage with regular and deep conversation so that we can get to know each other better, and understand each other’s intentions. This will help us clear away the clutter of suspicions and prejudices. This should be accompanied by the virtues of perseverance, endurance, and hope, which can stave off pessimism. Is not patience the first virtue of married love, according to St. Paul? He places it first in his famous hymn to love (1 Cor. 13). Mercy, wisdom and benevolence support patience, the first quality of love.

Famous examples

St. Monica worked with rare fervor for the conversion of her prodigal son, Augustine. But it’s a lesser-known fact that she also desired and obtained the conversion of her somewhat fickle husband, Patricius.

St. Clotilde worked for the profound transformation of her barbarian husband, Clovis. He became the promoter of Christianity in France!

Elisabeth Leseur worked to transform her anticlerical husband, Felix, with her recipe: “Charity outside, serenity inside.” He became a Dominican priest after Elizabeth’s death.

Pope Francis sums up the fundamental attitude we should have towards the shortcomings of a spouse:

“Love always has an aspect of deep compassion that leads to accepting the other person as part of this world, even when he or she acts differently than I would like.” (Amoris Laetitia 92).

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