Which of us has not felt at some point that our quality of life absolutely depended on getting our spouse, child, partner, girlfriend or boyfriend to change?
And how successful were we at getting them to change? Usually not very, huh.
This is Part I in a 2013 series on creating happier relationships with whoever we spend a lot of time with, not just spouses. If you care about degrees, I have a master’s in counseling psychology. If you don’t, well, I have a happy marriage due to practicing the principle I’m sharing in this post.
I won’t be telling you how to coerce or control another person. I don’t believe in doing that, except in cases of evacuating burning-down houses or when a child needs to learn to not run into the street. In most of life, we can influence each other, but not control each other. The control we can wield is generally over ourselves. But that is a lot. Stepping into that control is surprisingly powerful. This post is about my learning to control my angry outbursts, and the fact that my husband Thor changed as a result of that.
I had been making angry outbursts, all of them (I believed) caused by the irritating or profoundly provocative things my husband was saying and doing. I was actually acting in the fiery way my father had acted toward irritating things when I was a child. But my outbursts were much less loud and long than my dad’s had been. So I was really doing fine (I thought). Except that Thor couldn’t stand my angry behavior. He found it hurtful and upsetting, and told me the situation had to change.
I wanted both of us to work to change our behavior. No, he said. It was on me, he said.
So I yielded, and took an online course on anger management. It was really helpful. I used the techniques, and I stopped acting out in anger. This made Thor happy and relaxed . . . and much less irritating and provocative. We came into harmony, and the trust and intimacy that that makes possible. About a year later, we ran into some stresses, and Thor complained I was slipping back into angry outbursts. We decided together to revive a good but lapsed habit we’d used to have of ringing The Bell whenever we started to go into the old cycle of provocation and anger. Either one of us can ring it, and once it’s rung, we both stay quiet and take deep breaths for as long as the sound stays in the air. The anger, and the fight, generally dissolve.
The bottom line is that I changed – and then Thor changed. He did it in almost a mirror image of the way I changed. He stopped doing those irritating things that had angered me so much, after I stopped acting out in anger. It wasn’t because I created a scorecard on a dry-erase board, like “I’ll be nice to you every day that you don’t leave a mess in the kitchen”. Rather, I broke the dance of conflict by no longer doing my old steps.
Often, the more intensely we want someone else to change, the more out of touch we are with our own free will to make changes, ourselves. The truth was that I had a choice to not make angry outbursts – even when Thor behaved badly. Free will, it turns out, is not a mythical creature, like a mermaid, but a reality, like a sea cow. Except that free will is more beautiful than a sea cow, because when we practice it, i.e. consciously choose our own behavior instead of making knee-jerk responses, we can behave in kind ways. Our kindness can be a transformative force. I believe this because I have seen it happen many times, not just between me and my husband.
Caveat: if you are in a situation with a violent person, I don’t expect this advice to quell the violence. Violent behavior is dangerous, often addictive, and does not necessarily improve in response to other people’s positive changes. If you’re in a violent relationship, please reach out to a crisis line, a counselor, a domestic violence shelter, or anyone you trust for help.
How do you get your spouse or other person in your life to change? I suggest that you change your own worst habit that impacts him or her. The more control we exert over ourselves, the more positive influence we’ll generally have over those around us.
What’s the greatest change you’ve ever accomplished in your own life? Did it improve any of your relationships with others? Comments here.