Doris couldn’t take it any more. Chuck was constantly on her back. He dictated their every move, orchestrated their every action and gave no quarter. Actually, he was frightened that he’d be perceived as less than manly. Emotionally, he felt weakened by his own feelings of love, thus he compensated 180º. But the reasons no longer mattered to Doris. She just wanted a divorce. To her way of thinking, she had accepted far more of Chuck’s abusive behavior than she ever should have. Then one day, Chuck went too far. Forbidding her from going to happy hour with her girl friends from work was the last straw. Why he behaved the way he did no longer mattered. All she wanted was out.
Mike truly couldn’t understand his situation. He thought he had a wonderful marriage. Over the thirteen years he and his wife had been together, they had accumulated considerable capital. In fact, according to his estimates, in seven years they’d be able to retire, live modestly but comfortably and travel to their hearts’ desire. His picture of himself was that of a really good guy. Most things didn’t matter to him. He enjoyed traveling, but only occasionally voiced an opinion about where they might go. They had been to Europe three times, Hawaii twice, and sailed in the Bahamas on numerous occasions. Their partnership was envied by their friends. No wonder he was totally surprised when he returned from a recent business trip to find his house half empty and a note on the table that said “I love you very much. Goodbye. I can’t describe to you how I feel, because I’ve tried in the past and you don’t understand. Just know I care, but I can’t live with you.” Her note made no sense to him.
Several days later, when Mike was able to contact his wife, she cried profusely on the phone, but was still adamant about her decision to leave. In therapy, he recounted their trips together, their financial accomplishments, the beautiful house they had built two years earlier and the fact that she was free to do anything she wanted. He said “I never complained about meals. It didn’t matter whether she cooked or if we ate out. All I really wanted was to share my life with her. In fact, I was probably too easy. I agreed with everything she wanted to do. I never said no. If she said ‘what do you want for dinner?’, I said ‘it really doesn’t matter’. ‘What about changing the couch in the living room?’ ‘It’s okay with me’. ‘How about going out Saturday night?’ ‘Sure’. During our entire marriage, we’ve probably disagreed about five or six things. I don’t know what she is so upset about. She’s right, I don’t understand what she wants. Maybe we should get a divorce”. I suggested that, perhaps, she wanted someone with an opinion, someone who cared whether her hair was long or short, blond or brunette, or the couch was new or old. Maybe what he saw as agreement, she saw as abdicating, not being involved and not caring.
Jackie and Bill argued about everything, constantly. It seemed as though they were never on the same page. He liked modern, she liked Colonial. He wanted to go out and attend concerts, she wanted to stay home, make popcorn and watch t.v. He liked to travel, discover new places and try adventurous things. She wanted to rent a beach house and lie in the sun. He was a workaholic. He saw her as lazy. Eventually, their differences obscured any of their similarities and both of them wanted a divorce.
Three divorces were in the making, but probably none of them needed to occur. All it would have taken was for the three couples to have approached their marriages differently. At one point in time, they all needed to ask the same three questions. “Where did it all go wrong? What could I have done differently? What would it have taken to make my marriage work?” The answers to these questions could fill a book, but, for the purpose of this article, there are three initial steps that each of these couples could have taken to begin to build a healthy marital relationship:
1. RECOGNIZE THAT YOU CAN NEVER CHANGE ANOTHER HUMAN BEING.
Above anything else, it is necessary to accept the fact that, although you can sometimes pressure another human being to bend to your will, you can’t change them. Consider the third-grade teacher who told a child in her class to sit down. After ordering him to sit down for the third time, she gently but firmly maneuvered him into his seat while pressing his shoulders down until he found himself sitting. She then looked at him and said “What do you have to say about that?” His defiant answer was “In my head, I’m still standing”. You cannot change another human being. There is only one person you can change - yourself - and even that is difficult. Anyone who has ever tried to diet, curtail their drinking, stop smoking, minimize their use of prescription drugs, avoid gambling, or curtail their temper knows that it takes a tremendous commitment and energy to alter their own behavior, despite the conscious desire to do so. How in the world, then, do you go about changing another human being? The answer is, you can’t. Therefore, you need to remember not to try.
2. NEVER ATTEMPT TO STAND UP TO YOUR PARTNER.
Standing up to a partner would seem to be a positive step. In fact, most marital counselors would suggest that you should have sufficient backbone to stand up to a spouse and to set limits and boundaries beyond which you will not allow another human being to tread. But, if you seriously think about it, when you stand up to another human being, all that happens is that you create an adversarial or conflictual relationship between yourself and that individual. One in which you usually wind up telling them what they should and should not do. The initial reaction is for the hair on the back of their neck to stand up. If it’s a case of “you drink too much”, then you can bet their first thought will be “The next one will be a double”. If it’s “don’t smoke”, even when they intellectually agree, it’s more likely the behavior will continue. It’s no different with any number of other behaviors. In an adversarial/conflictual relationship, you can hardly help but create a power struggle, one in which your actions imply to the other person “I want to change you mind, convince you of my position and prove, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I’m right.” In every instance, the end result is that one individual thinks they win and another knows they lose. The sad truth is that, in the long run, both persons lose.
3. YOU MUST LEARN HOW TO STAND UP FOR YOURSELF.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that the difference between “standing up to” and standing up for yourself’ is only a semantic one. Standing up for yourself implies that you have sufficient belief in your own values, thoughts and feelings to express what you feel, think and desire. It means that you can verbalize what you want, despite any fears of rejection or abandonment. Standing up for yourself also implies that you don’t need to compensate and/or control someone else. It says that you recognize, first and foremost, that you can’t change another individual (step 1), That you don’t want to engage in a power struggle (step 2), but that you will not prostitute your own being or sell yourself short (step 3). It is a testimony to your respect for yourself and your partner, as worthwhile individuals who love, care and want to interact together, but who needn’t be connected to each other at the hip. These steps work well for any relationship, be it romantic, friendly or professional.
Standing up for yourself, but not to someone further says “ I’m not trying to change you. I’m not trying to force you to do my bidding, or to think what I think. But I am asking you to consider and value what I have to say, what I feel and what I believe. Being able to stand up for yourself can only occur when you have a backbone and a regard for yourself as well as for your partner. For example, your wife may want to go to the ballet, but she recognizes that you don’t necessarily have to accompany her. She can go with a friend. You may wish that your wife would attend a sporting event, but at the same time, recognize that she isn’t obligated to attend. However, if she agrees to go, she may be there to please you, but her interest might not be in the game, it may be in the fashions and the dress of the other women. You don’t have the right to be angry because she doesn’t share your interest in sports. Loving one another does not mean you have to share the same tastes or political beliefs. Nor does this approach suggest that individuals should live together and go their own ways. Instead, when love and respect for self reside together, there is a willingness to please, along with an awareness that “I am agreeing out of my desire to make my partner happy, not because I fear him or lack the freedom to say ‘no’.” There is a world of difference between a “yes” stemming from fear of rejection, confrontation or criticism and a “yes” given by an individual who is not afraid to say “no”. The latter involves being able to verbalize “I love you. I don’t want to fight with you. But I don’t want to go to the opera with you. I abhor it. Please go with a friend. If I go, I’ll only be doing it to please you. In the process, I will hate me and resent you, then sometime in the future, you will surely pay for my inability to stand up for me.
These three steps are the initial part of the process by which healthy people go about creating healthy marriages, or, for that matter, any king of relationship. Essentially, it requires that you 1) set limits and boundaries for yourself 2) ask for what you desire and 3) have expectations of others. All the while, you need to realize that you will not always get what you expect or ask for. When that occurs, you must be prepared to compromise, or draw a line in the sand beyond which you cannot emotionally afford to bend. At that point in time, the ball will be in your partner’s court. There are, of course, numerous other steps that need to be taken to guide you toward the marriage you’ve always wanted. But, if you begin with these three, you will be off to a wonderful start and the others will come naturally and easily.