Changing Your Spouse: A How-To Guide

We wish we could make this blog post really brief by saying:
How to change your spouse? You can’t and you shouldn’t bother trying.
But alas, that answer is hard to accept. The vast majority of married people try to change their spouse to improve their marriage.

Most people fail in their efforts but blame the lack of any real change on their spouse. Others blame the strategy they used and cruise the internet for more tips or strategies to get their spouse to change. Maybe this is where you are.

Nervous about marriage counseling?
There are two categories of problems in marriages.
The most dangerous is the Triple A’s (or the “hard problems”). These are Affairs, Abuse and Addictions.
The other problems—being late to everything, being irritable, shutting down during conflict, arguing about money or the in-laws, being a workaholic, mismatched sexual desire, not being a good listener, and on and on—all these are what we call “soft problems.” This is where the vast majority of couples struggle, both happy couples and miserable couples. (No one escapes having soft problems.) Soft doesn’t mean easy—you can be in a lot of pain—but your core safety and well-being are not threatened.
It used to be the only way you could get a divorce was from a Hard Problem (affair, abuse, addiction). If you are having a Hard Problem, this is not the blog post for you. Seeking professional help is important.
Assuming then you’re like most married people, but in some ways worse off (or else why are you on the internet reading this), we want to make a few assumptions about you and your desires to see changes in your spouse, and then offer a short-cut on how to get to your goals.

You may hold one or more of the following assumptions about your spouse right now:

  • Assumption #1: Your spouse is being unfair or mean by repeatedly saying or doing something that you’ve said makes you unhappy or worse.
  • Assumption #2: Your spouse is intentionally hurting you or driving you crazy—and this really cuts deep.
  • Assumption #3: If your spouse really wanted, s/he could make the change you want—which means a lack of motivation or character.

You can probably see that these thoughts about your spouse are toxic for your marriage, even if you feel they are justified by years of experience with your spouse.

Now if we were seeing both of you in marriage counseling, we would be able to go deeper into these assumptions.  Marital reality is usually a lot more complex than it seems, and both of you might come to see each other more clearly—and less harshly.

Nervous About Bringing Up Marriage Counseling?

Get a quick confidence boost with our guide designed to help make your conversation go as smoothly as possible.

But since you’re no doubt reading this by yourself, and not with your spouse, we’ll try to imagine your spouse’s reactions so that we can help you see the first end of the thread you need to untangle if you’re going to make changes on your own.

Let’s share your spouse’s possible perspectives to each assumption. Having deeper understanding of your spouse is the key step to getting the change you want.

Assumption #1: Your spouse is being unfair or mean by repeatedly doing something that you’ve said makes you unhappy or worse.

Your spouse’s reactions to assumption #1 may include:

  1. I simply cannot get on board with your desire for me to do or say what you want. I just simply don’t agree with you on what you want.
  2. I’ve done what you wanted and you still accuse me of being mean or unfair so frankly, I gave up and started doing what comes naturally to me since I can’t win no matter what.
  3. It isn’t mean if I’m being honest with you about why I won’t do or say what you want me to. In fact, I don’t get why you would rather have me be fake than honest.
Harsh responses, eh? But it could help you see why no strategy is going to work because there was never an agreement in the first place about change being inherently a way to get “unmean.” Being repeatedly accused of meanness has become a problem to your spouse, and it erodes motivation to make the change you are asking for. People generally don’t make lasting changes when they feel criticized and told they are mean. As justified as you feel, your spouse probably feels justified too. Thus the stalemate.

Assumption #2: Your spouse is intentionally hurting you or driving you crazy — and this really cuts deep

Spouse reactions to assumption #2 may include:

  1. I never set out to hurt you but you misread me and then blame me.
  2. The last thing I want is for you to go crazy, and honestly, I don’t get why this is such a big deal for you. I’m going to keep doing what I do unless I get an argument that makes more sense to me. In the meantime, I hope you get over your belief I want you to be miserable, because it just isn’t true. I’m just sticking up for myself.
  3. Sometimes I admit I do things that that I know will drive you crazy but it’s only because I feel so locked down by you, so child-like, that the only way I can feel like an adult is to do what I want, even if it hurts you.
Hard to read, yes? But there is a good chance that one or more of these ideas are going on in your spouse’s head. Here’s something that might help you accept that possibility, even if it seems unfair or selfish on the part of your spouse: have you ever felt that way in a relationship, say with one of your parents? Stubborn, rebellious, passive-aggressive? It’s not pretty, but it’s human.

Assumption #3: If your spouse really wanted, s/he could make the change you want — which means a lack of motivation or character.

Spouse reactions to assumption #3 may include:

  1. I simply do not see what I do as making me less of a responsible adult than you, and you should chill out and stop being so judgmental.
  2. I am not capable of the change that you think is so easy. When I try to change for you, I so often fail that it’s not even worth trying. Why can’t you just accept me as I am?
  3. It feel like you want me to be a completely different person. Even if I agreed with you, I don’t see the change lasting or ever feeling natural.
Heavy stuff, eh?
Nervous about marriage counseling?
So, how then do you change a spouse?
  1. Understand their perspective to the point you can repeat it in a way they feel you really understand and respect their vantage point—whether you agree or not.
  2. Work to understand the deeper emotional need you have underneath your request for change. Ask yourself if you’re setting your spouse up for failure by creating a crisis where there doesn’t need to be one. (It also helps to realize you likely drive your spouse crazy too.)
  3. See if there is a way you can move “half-way” towards your spouse so they see you don’t want to just be a nag.
If you’re feeling like there is something else getting in the way, you may be right. This could be depression (in you or your spouse), anxiety, an old wound or a traumatic experience that is being replayed in your married life. The goal would not be to label and then weaponize the label (you’re difficult because you’re depressed!) but to seek a deeper understanding of how a possible mental health situation could be impacting your marriage and your perception of your spouse’s motivations.
Here’s some hope that might not feel that way at the moment:
A lot of couples INCREASE in marital satisfaction when they both come to appreciate areas where their spouse will never change—and let the very idea of changing their partner go.
By letting go, long-married couples report their happiness and satisfaction increase as they learn to appreciate who they are married to rather than projecting what they wish their spouse was.
At Modern Commitment, we are firm believers that it only takes one person to help a marriage get unstuck. If you can unhinge from the notion your spouse is bad, wrong, or trying to hurt you, it is likely going to improve your marriage. They’ll feel the shift even if you never say anything. And when they feel the shift, they’ll respond differently to you—and sometimes they change (at least a bit) in the direction you hoped for.
If you don’t want to just accept that your spouse won’t change, then you can try the other approach: listen to what it’s like to be them and see where you can perhaps understand, in a new way, what they’re hearing. You may be surprised by their real answer—and the opportunities that open up for you both to change.

And if you really still struggle and are stuck, we can not recommend marriage counseling strongly enough. These topics are the “meat and potatoes” of couples therapy. We do not judge the “size” of your struggles (often individuals feel their fights are not “big enough” to seek therapy.) We focus instead on the fact you have struggles and want to get unstuck. The techniques and approaches vary among our professionals, but the key is that we see beyond either of your vantage points, which offers us the ability to ignite change that neither of you can necessarily do on your own.

The therapists we have vetted for their passion, values and experience are listed on our marriage counseling directory. Click the banner below and it should automatically send you to your local listing page.

Here’s to the magical, annoying, always fascinating world of married life!
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