As I sit here, gazing at a picture of my handsome husband, I am asking myself the question, “Should I talk to him about it? It has been bugging me for a few days… Oh, I know! I’ll just shoot him a text message and hint at it – that’ll work out well!”
I think the age-old question of “Should I bring it up with my spouse or just let it go?” needs some good wisdom thrown at it.
To start with, I want to quote Caleb who says, “Marriage is a crucible for character formation – but only if we’re willing to act as a catalyst of change for the benefit of our spouse.”
Our spouses see the ugly side of ourselves the most and the neat thing about marriage is they can point out the uglies (in a nice way, obviously!) in the secure bond of a loving relationship, and it gives us the chance to change and grow. If they never pointed anything out (were never our catalyst for change) we wouldn’t have that opportunity to improve!
This brings me to the topic of ideals. [Hear me out for a bit as I’m going in all different directions. I will pull it all together, really! :)]
Ideals… Idealism scares Caleb and I. We always thought that ideals were this level of perfectionism that we could never achieve. Then, all the research he looked at about ‘confronting or letting go’ centered on ideals!
We were thankful to learn though that the research also says not to have unrealistic high standards. In other words, don’t set your ideals so high that they are difficult or impossible to live up to. Ideals should be realistic and achievable standards.
So, what can we do to bring about change in our marriage, and not set ourselves up with unrealistic ideals? Here’s a hint, sitting back with your arms crossed and mouth shut and expecting your spouse to achieve your ideals doesn’t work… Here are two things to work on: all based on communication.
1. Quantity of Communication.
This is simple. More is better.
The research shows that couples are happier with their marriage when they think their relationship matches their ideal standards. Sounds obvious enough!
Given that a marriage does not start with all our ideals aligned, how do we align those ideals and make the marriage more satisfying? Or, What if we get them aligned and then move into a different phase of life where things have to change, again?
That’s where quantity matters! Spouse’s ideals align best when they are communicating more about them. By talking about them, the ideals can align, and because of that, each spouse becomes more satisfied with their marriage.
One thing we hear a lot when talking to people that are struggling in their marriage is language around misalignment. “She’s just not interested in working on this part of our marriage,” or “We just can’t see eye to eye on this particular issue.”
Our answer to that is to communicate about it! Seriously, if you want to get your ideals lined up because you believe this leads to relationship satisfaction – talk about it. Talking allows you to influence each other’s viewpoints, which influences how you experience reality. The biggest influence on connecting ideals to satisfaction is communication. You have to be talking this stuff through!
2. How You Communicate
Not only is the quantity important, but you also need to be strategic about HOW you communicate your ideals!
The first step is to do some thinking yourself! Be clear on your own ideals and ask yourself if they are realistic. Here is an example of an unrealistic ideal versus realistic:
Comparing your wife to models in magazines, or, worse yet, women in pornography, is NOT a realistic ideal. It’s VERY unhealthy and wrong, actually. Expecting your husband to match the ideals in your romance and harlequin novels is equally wrong.
It IS realistic to hold an ideal that BOTH of you try to bring a healthy – not perfect – body to your marriages, in so much as you are able to control. It IS realistic to expect both of you to act romantically, and get your sexy on with each other.
See the difference there?
Now that we’ve thought it through and have a realistic ideal, how do we go about communicating this to our spouse?
Here are some ideas of what does NOT work (from Overall et all, 2006, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology):
- Repeated and unsuccessful attempts to change your spouse can be damaging to the relationship. When an attempt is unsuccessful, we add more powder to the cannon, which make us more unreasonable, which makes the chance of our attempt more unsuccessful – and we’ve got a pretty crazy cycle going nowhere good.
- Pursuing change and trying to ‘manage’ your spouse towards your ideal communicates a lack of acceptance and negative views. Another word for this is nagging. Nagging at your spouse just leads to them feeling unaccepted, and leads to less satisfaction in the relationship.
Remember, whether or not you bring something up with your spouse is LESS important than HOW you decide to bring it up. The topic doesn’t matter. The WAY you talk about that topic does. Which leads me to the next point…
3. Pull the Bandaid Off Fast!
Some people ask for a change in their spouse, it happens, and the marriage is happier. What do they do that makes them more successful?
Let’s go to the research to answer this. Overall et all conducted another study on 61 couples. They videotaped the couple discussing an area of change they would like to see in their spouse. They measured marital satisfaction before the discussion, immediately following the discussion, and then followed up with the couple every three months for a while.
The results? If a couple was direct in the discussion about the change they wanted to see, the rating of marital satisfaction immediately following the discussion went down and the couple believed they were not very successful in promoting change. If they were indirect, immediately following the conversation both spouses felt better.
What was interesting to me was the results over the following year: The researchers found that over the year, things went opposite on them! Direct strategies led to greater change and indirect strategies led to less change. So while pulling off the bandaid slowly felt better in the short term, ripping it off fast produced a more positive outcome in the marriage over the longer term!
Indirect communication is tactful and patient. It uses positive affect (being warm and loving) to soften the conflict but usually fails to motivate.
Direct communication, on the other hand, is open and frank, forthright and direct. It makes the problem clear and points out the consequences of the spouse’s behavior. Note that it does NOT include attacking, blaming, name-calling, etc.
But when you are forthright and direct, you are clearly communicating the severity of the problem and as a result, the nature and degree of change needed is vividly conveyed.
[I want to bring up defensiveness here. If you’re anything like me, it’s easier to get defensive and throw blame back at your spouse rather than make changes in your own life. This is where the response of “You might be right” can be a huge help. (Read more about defensiveness here)]
Now, to bring all this together (I told you I’d get here eventually!), it is good to bring issues up with your spouse and get them sorted out. First, make sure your ideals or standards are realistic before you approach your spouse, then talk about them…a lot. Not only your ideals or wishes but your spouse’s too! And when talking, use direct communication. Tell your spouse what you need. Be firm but fair, and don’t keep nagging them – that doesn’t work.
Rip that bandaid off fast – while there will be more discomfort right at the start, healing and change will be more effective.