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By: Mozelle Forman, Lcsw

Does your spouse need improvement? If you are like most couples, your answer will be a resounding “yes!” Almost universally, after years together, spouses become certain that the other is lacking in some area and take it upon themselves to “fix” them or “teach” them the right way to be. Spouses are often surprised when their efforts are met with resistance, anger, and counter-correction.

I, on the other hand, am never surprised by the spouse’s reaction. Although I truly believe that marriage is the perfect relationship in which self-improvement can take place, and that each of us can have the most profound impact on the other, it is often the method employed to achieve that end that causes the friction.

Let’s look at the following situations:

Arnold comes home complaining to his wife Shirley that his boss was particularly aggravating that day, criticizing him in front of his co-workers for not meeting a deadline. Shirley, very much aware that Arnold has never missed an opportunity to miss a deadline, responds: “Well what do you expect him to do? You know how you are. He’s probably fed up with you.” Arnold responds “Just great!
I had a hard day at the office and I come home to this!” and
storms off. “You really need to get it together,” she suggests.
In session, Shirley explains that she was trying to “help” Arnold improve by reminding him that a lot was at stake.

Jason believes that Rita could be more organized and use her time more efficiently. He watches her struggle to get the kids off to school every morning, offering suggestions about how the morning could go more smoothly if she would just… She claims his overbearing commentary is not helpful. He says she is stubborn.

These two scenarios illustrate how notto be “helpful” to your spouse. Critiquing, micro-managing, pointing out weaknesses, and corroborating the opinion of others will never engender good will or behavior change. We all want acceptance, support, and loyalty from our spouse. We found and married the one who had our backs and believed in us – through thick and thin, right or wrong.

But we’re not blind, most spouses say, and we see the many ways our spouses can improve. Their mistakes not only limit them, but also cause us to have to deal with the consequences. Can we simply ignore the obvious and never offer our opinions or suggestions?

The dilemma: How do we fully accept our spouse for the person they are, while simultaneously encouraging them to be a better version of themselves?

The answer, like so many other things in life, is in the delivery.
The language we use to challenge and encourage is what makes all the difference in how the message will be received. If we challenge a person to “grow” by pointingout all of their faults and the errors of their ways, we destroy their feeling of being loved and accepted.
On the other hand, if we encourage from a place of believing in them and from seeing their intrinsic worth, we create a desire to please and a willingness to consider other points of view.

So how do we apply this principle to the previous scenarios? Shirley could have validated Arnold’s frustration and
embarrassment at being reprimanded in front of his co-workers instead of focusing on what Arnold did to “deserve” the reprimand. Objectively, it is very unprofessional to berate an employee in front of his/her co-workers. By expressing this truth, instead of the other truth (that Arnold does indeed miss deadlines) she would have comforted him. Jason, inaddition to offering Rita a hand with the kids in the morning, could regularly acknowledge how much he appreciates how much she does for him and the children. In that atmosphere of acceptance, she wouldn’t be so “stubborn” when he makes suggestions.

I recently heard a young man making a speech at his engagement party. He praised his fiancé for being the kindest person he has ever met, and hopes that by being around her, he too would learn to become more kind. His mom, thrilled with her prospective daughter-in-law said: “She makes him better.” I imagine that this young woman is not lecturing, advising, and berating her fiancé in an effort to make him better She is simply being her own kind self, and loving him for who he is – smart, funny, and hard working.
And yet she has already influenced him in a major way.

Try to influence your spouse with love and acceptance and watch them improve.