Telling Him What Needs to Change: Part 1

Mary is a typical client. She has spent years looking for ways to better connect with her husband, Joe. She’s read numerous books and articles. She subscribes to relationship blogs and Facebook pages. She’s counseled with her pastor and consulted with her closest friends. She’s begged Joe to talk, to understand, to make her a priority and then behave like it. She’s prayed for hope and for God to change him. She has cried countless tears. And she is exhausted from trying to make the relationship different.

Joe finally agrees to counseling, probably the result of a precipitating event in which she made it clear she’s done with the way things are. Usually, he comes saying he’ll do whatever it takes to work on the marriage. He seems very amenable, and agreeable, and ready to “work”…except for one thing: he puts it on HER to decide what needs to be fixed.

The Pressure of Listing the Issues

Mary gets to bear the pressure of identifying the checklist of issues to work on. She becomes responsible to name what has been so damaging and then to explain what to do instead. It seems intuitive to let the one who initiated the counseling also be the one to decide what needs to be worked on, so the counselor lets her. It can seem to make sense to lean into all the reading and “answers” she’s found in her quest for relating better, especially since Joe wasn’t bothered by his behavior enough to make the effort. He doesn’t see the problem; it’s been working for him. He thought everything was fine.

But that is exactly what’s been wrong. She’s here, sitting in my office numb and done. She’s beyond exasperation, beyond exhaustion. beyond the ability to carry his responsibilities anymore, one of them being owning the impact of his own behavior. She has not lived in an environment in which it has been safe to share her concerns, and to do so in a counseling office with someone who still acts oblivious to the depth of harm and fear he’s cultivated in her can be crushing. Her experience with Joe has proved repeatedly that 1) her ideas are readily dismissed and hold no potential for long-term change, and 2) if Joe can’t figure out how he’s being destructive, there isn’t much hope that he’ll see stop it.

It is true that she’ll need to identify the non-negotiables required to stay engaged in the relationship. What must be different for her to stay? What is it she is no longer willing to go along with or tolerate? Joe can’t read her mind, so it is important for her to share her concerns. Essentially, this will be the answer to why she sought counseling. But Joe also has to do his own thinking, because he’s the one who controls his behavior. When Mary brings up her concerns, she needs Joe to actively participate in seeking a resolution that will end the harm and build the opportunity for connection.

Pay attention to your feelings

When it is all up to her to define the needed changes, there are a myriad of emotions and messages she is left to navigate. She feels (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Confused and exasperated—”There is too much dissonance between his seeming willingness to “change” and his lack of identification and implementation of better relational habits.”
  • Crazy—”I’m the one with the problem because I’m the one complaining.”
  • Parental—”Must I really have to teach him the proper way to treat people? Where are his manners and common sense?
  • Alone—”I’m the only one who sees the problem.”
  • Unloved—”My disconnection and pain do not move him. He seems fine to continue treating me as he has.”
  • Insignificant—”He doesn’t seem to even care how our relationship is.”
  • Unheard—”I’ve been telling him for YEARS!”
  • Helpless and unprotected—”It’s all up to me. Still. Again. Always.”
  • Angry—”Why do I have to do all the work? Why am I letting him treat me this way? Why doesn’t anyone else stand up for me?
  • Vulnerable—”I’ve exposed my pain. How will I handle it when he ignores my pain and makes it about his pain instead? His pain wasn’t what brought us to this place! He had been fine with the status quo!”
  • Pressured—”If I don’t come up with the list, he can say I gave him nothing to work on. He’s still waiting to know what he needs to do. And when nothing changes, the blame rests on me for not telling him what needs to be done.”
  • Exhausted—”I’ve been striving for years, whether it looked like submission or confrontation.”

Make it his responsibility

The list she ultimately gives him will work best when it is one in which he must do his own thinking, take his own self-evaluation, and identify where he’s negatively affecting his marriage. She needs to see if and how he identifies where he’s been destructive and careless with her heart, and she needs to hear him describe exactly what he plans to do to change.

List of what she needs from him:

  1. Take a fierce self-inventory—Identify where he’s gone wrong and what he is currently doing that is breaking/keeping broken the connection of the relationship.
  2. Tell her his plan for fixing what he broke—Specify how he’ll rectify the destructive patterns with constructive, relationship-building ones.

The healing process will become clearer, mostly because it will be more obvious whether or not he is owning his stuff and implementing the changes he said he’d make. She’ll be more emotionally free to handle her own work and healing.