Can My Spouse Really Change?
by Dr. David B. Hawkins
“I’ve been praying and praying for change, believing that God can do anything. But my husband seems to become more stubborn and angry every year. I’m not sure he will ever change.”
Such was the latest email I received, the same as many I receive about men—and women—from well-meaning people.
“Can people really change?” people ask sincerely. I can hear the doubt in their voice. They’ve been told by many professionals and friends that people don’t really change. They’ve been told that once you are narcissistic/ borderline/ depressed, you will always have those traits. “The past is the best predictor of the future,” they’ve been told.
This counsel is, sadly, short-sighted and in many cases, wrong. While it certainly has elements of truth, it is negative, pessimistic and fails to fully incorporate what we know about the change process. It also fails to fully appropriate the changing power of the Lord in our lives.
Recently an influential and powerful man called me. He had run his marriage like he ran his business—with directness, firmness and determination. He had ignored all the warning signs that his wife of twenty-five years was not his employee and had reached her limit of feeling voiceless. She had been divorcing him one day at a time for the past five years. Finally, the day arrived when she “suddenly” left, leaving him bewildered, anxious and incredibly threatened. All efforts at talking her into coming back failed. He had resisted change for too long and she was fed up.
He reached out to me for help.
“What can I do to win her back?” he pleaded. We embarked on a process of change that has, as of this date, slowly begun to melt the ice built up around her heart. They remain separated, but he can see glimmers of hope that are encouraging to him. We began with understanding some truths about change.
Consider the following:
1. Most people resist change in their lives;
2. Most change happens after a significant event causes us to shift our view of our world—“it takes a breakdown to have a breakthrough”;
3. Most change brings with it a time of ambiguity and subsequent fear;
4. Most change leads to a time of temporary chaos—our lives are turned upside down;
5. Most change is foist upon us, not sought after;
6. Most change leads to a positive outcome.
Think about this. Do you agree with what I’ve said? Can you look into your own life and notice times when you have clung to the familiar, even if it was painful? We prefer the struggles we know to the struggles we don’t know.
“But what about someone with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?” a worried wife asks. “What about a Borderline Personality woman?” a distraught man asks. “Aren’t these impossible to change?”
To say that these people cannot change is far too simplistic of an answer. Change really IS possible, but it will not likely happen simply, and perhaps not quickly. If you are facing these situations in your life, consider these steps of action.
I recommended the following to help cultivate an atmosphere and environment for change in your life:
First, it begins with you. While we desperately want our mate to change, we must step back and ask if we have created an environment for change to occur. Have you reached your bottom? Have you experienced enough of a crisis in your life that you are ready to walk across ‘the swinging bridge of change?’ Are you crystal clear about what change you expect or must have in your life?
Second, have you stopped enabling ‘the status quo?’ When you insist on change, you must let go of ‘the status quo.’ You must look at every way you enable change NOT to happen. How do you tolerate the way things are? How do you accept the situation just the way it is? How do you make it easy for him/ her NOT to change?
Third, prepare for ambiguity and chaos. When you insist on change, you will face ambiguity. Having reached your ‘bottom,’ you are ready to face uncertainty. This may involve emotional, spiritual and even financial uncertainty. To face change means you have faced the likelihood that your lifestyle, as you know it, will temporarily change. Are you ready for this?
Fourth, prepare for resistance. Few people readily embrace change. Most cling tenaciously to the way things are, even if they are painful. When you face your mate with the challenge of change, it is very unlikely that they will greet you with a smile and a big ‘Thank you.’ Rather, they will twist your words, shift blame and throw down roadblocks as to why they cannot go to counseling, give up drinking or go to an Anger Management program.
Fifth, create a crisis. Unfortunately, change comes when someone does something to disrupt the status quo. You must make it clear that you will no longer do things the way they’ve been done, hoping for change. Change comes as a response to someone putting a stick in the spokes of the tires, causing us to look at our lives from a different perspective.
Finally, insist on specific change and trust the outcome to God. Seeking professional help, you consider how to set boundaries in your life that insist on specific change. You cannot force anyone to change, but you can make it clear that you intend to live life differently. Confident and convicted, you make it clear that the change you seek is for the welfare of both you, your mate and your marriage. Reinforcing your love for your mate, you set out the path of change for your mate to consider. You then take the leap—stepping onto ‘the swinging bridge of change,’ inviting your mate to join you when they are ready.
Remember that amidst this significant change process, God is by your side. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
I thought this was a GREAT article! I’ve always felt that PA Man CAN change…IF he lets God work on his hardened heart….BUT it’s up to him…I can’t make PA Man do anything….trust me, I’ve tried!