Lisa had recently realized that her marriage wasn’t functioning well. She had wrapped her life around Joe, managing the house, the kids, and the schedule to cater to his expectations. Now, several years in, she was becoming aware of some important issues, namely (1) Joe’s “expectations” randomly changed, (2) he did not take her seriously, and (3) he had no real empathy or understanding of her, nor did he seem to want to.
So, Lisa “drew a line in the sand” and they started counseling. Suddenly, Joe was all ears, jumping at every chance to cater to her. He wanted to know everything that she needed to be different, all the ways she needed him to change. He asked for a checklist of behaviors to change and gave her full permission to hold him accountable. He wrote an apology letter that was poetic and humble. On one hand, he was showing the care and attention she had craved all along. On the other hand, it was unnerving and she didn’t trust him.
Lisa was rattled by the counseling process like most of us are. When your relational foundation has toppled, regardless of whether you ever truly had a “solid” foundation, finding your way back to a new, healthy normal can feel chaotic and uncertain. It is likely you are struggling to see clearly or to trust anything; sometimes everything feels like a lie. When you start to feel the sense of hope that comes from getting help, fear can quickly set in, too—fear that you’ll get sucked right back into the same old, ugly cycle. You don’t want to let yourself go back to living that life!
How to Spot Real Change
So, how do you know if there is real change? How can you trust what you think you see from your spouse in the counselor’s office or the apology letter? Is there a way to know for sure?
There are two elements I tell people to watch for:
- Who is initiating or motivating the changes? Does your spouse take responsibility for catching his or her own bad behavior and self-correct that behavior? Do they show internal motivation to change or are they dependent upon you enforcing the change?
- How does your spouse respond when you tell him or her “no”? What do they do when the “changes” they’ve made don’t get them what they want? Do they act entitled to something from you because they’ve changed?
Surface changes come easily when they get the desired result. If your spouse can “check the boxes” in order to move back in, drop the divorce, get in bed with you, or re-establish engaging with you, he or she is going to do it because you’ve drawn the line in the sand telling them they must. But, you didn’t draw that line in the sand to medicate the behavioral symptoms. You want your spouse to have a heart transplant, and a heart transplant will not be swayed by your responses or whether or not you trust, forgive, or let your guard down. True heart change happens because it needs to happen for there to be life in the relationship.
People will deeply, truly change when they want to. They change when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. They change when the root of change comes from their own desire to be free of the strongholds that bind their heart to hiding and self-protection. This is the kind of change that persists even when they have to give up manipulation and control, when they are told no, and when they have to walk through consequences they don’t want to deal with.
What to Do While You’re Waiting for Change
While you are working through issues and watching to see if your spouse will truly change and how things will out, keep these things in mind:
- Pay attention to the signals that will tell you if this is symptom management or root repair.
- Stay grounded, dealing with the day as it happens, and responding to your spouse in the moment, for the moment.
- Always practice using good boundaries to keep you heading the way you want to go.
- Keep walking, one foot in front of the other, toward becoming the kind of person you want to be.
If you’re ready to “draw a line in the sand” with your spouse and would like help figuring out the best way to do that, or if you and your spouse are ready for counseling, we’d love to help! Contact our Client Care Team for more information.