The more precise a spouse’s reasons for ending a marriage, the more genuine they tend to be. His anger or drinking problem, her drug use or emotional neglect land much nearer the truth than that tired excuse, ‘We’ve grown apart’. Which seems code for, ‘I’m sleeping, or want to sleep, with someone else’.
I’ve spoken with many men who were at various points of marital crisis. Some were on the precipice of a marriage soon to go over the cliff. They stood looking bewilderingly into an abyss waiting to swallow them. Others were already in freefall. Their marriages were plummeting uncontrollably into the unknown. Then a few were already lying amid the remains of a marriage that had hit rock bottom and in the midst of decay.
Yet regardless of where they were at, each man shared one emotion – the urgency for immediate and noticeable change. Faced with a daunting and unclear future, they now realized, perhaps vainly, that to reverse course, or put what’s left back together, things – or more precisely he – would need to change.
Flexibility is necessary for any marriage to be fulfilling and last. Matrimony is never static, and often, though sometimes unfairly, it’s the husband who must be most pliable. As I’ve written before, and is commonly accepted, a wife is more sensitive to tremors in a relationship and spot warning signs earlier than a husband. How often is it that upon learning of his wife’s marital dissatisfaction or her desire for a divorce the husband responds, ‘I didn’t know anything was even wrong!’ And as frustrating as that may be for many wives, I believe this contrast is part of God’s intent for marriage, which includes it serving as a mirror reflecting back to a husband his real character. If he’s paying attention, his wife will show a man who he really is, or who he really isn’t.
Because of this heightened sensitivity, at the first sign of a problem the wife usually begins hinting, dropping innuendos hoping her husband will listen and get the message. When that doesn’t work and the status quo holds she may more forcefully point them out, men often call this ‘nagging.’ Yet if nothing changes, many women, but not nearly enough I would argue, will resort to dropping the hammer as a last ditch effort. This usually means her threatening divorce. To grab their attention, men often need anvils landing on their heads.
Having his world suddenly ripped from under him, namely his wife’s desire for a divorce, a man will usually fall into a desperate panic. His mind begins racing towards every worse case scenario. A first response is always self-preservation, which often takes the form of overreaching. The husband who for years has neglected his wife suddenly becomes smothering. The workaholic turns as predictable as a toaster. The thoughtless turns caring to the point of nausea. The harsh husband becomes docile. He may eagerly agree to visit a therapist or take ballroom dancing lessons. As if flipping a switch, he turns impatient to do whatever his wife wants or needs from him.
Isn’t this well and good? On the surface it is, but there is more to it and as so often happens, after he begins this transformation he starts expecting things to get better. He’s searching for the payoff from all his effort, her anger subsiding, calling off the attorney, things going back to the way they were. But when she still remains distant, cold, and indifferent he grows angry and frustrated at her lack of response to all his ‘change’. If he doesn’t quickly begin to see the fruits he starts wondering if the labor is worth it.
Some time back I had a conversation with a husband whose marriage was in freefall. Little red flags before the marriage grew bigger and brighter after the honeymoon. A low point was reached one evening and both were suddenly questioning if the marriage would survive. She wanted change or wanted him gone. She had reached the tipping point regarding his indifference and inattention. Realizing the worst outcome was before him, overnight he became someone entirely different, someone she didn’t recognize, someone who immediately began doing all the things she complained was lacking. It now was a matter of life or death that he meet her every wish and desire.
If that’s where it ended, this would make for a short essay, yet almost as quickly, his attitude changed again. His sincerity yesterday turned sour today. Anger began welling up as the levers and pulleys he was using wasn’t moving her or their marriage in a better direction. She remained hurt, distant, and continued questioning their future. Within days, he began to ask, ‘what’s the point if she doesn’t change also?’
As he and I talked more, one point stood out because I had seen the same thing with other men, including myself – a belief that change alone can save a marriage.
There’s a problem with that thinking because it completely misses a universal principle – change will never save a marriage if the reason for that change isn’t the right one. What I’ve noticed time and again is when a husband, faced with the option of change or divorce, decides to change he routinely does it for the wrong reasons. My friend was motivated to change through external forces, namely his wife’s threat of divorce. He was changing in hopes of saving his marriage and making his wife happy. Now most men would ask, ‘so what’s the problem?’ It’s this. Changing for someone or something almost never lasts.
My friend wasn’t changing because he desired to become the husband he needed to be. He wasn’t changing to be a better man and father. He still didn’t appreciate his wife’s craving for attention or try to understand why it’s so important to her. His reasons for change were mostly self-serving and biased. He wanted to avert a crisis, stave off a divorce, and get things back to normal. How do I know this? Because he quickly grew agitated after she didn’t respond to his attempts. I knew his sincerity wasn’t genuine when he asked, ‘is it worth it?’
Change by itself will never save a marriage unless that change comes from within. A husband has to want to change, not for his wife or to save his relationship, but because he despises what he now sees in the mirror and what that monster has destroyed. His change must grow from the seeds of his own shortcomings. Real change doesn’t come with contingencies; it doesn’t depend on whether a wife’s scorn is quenched or their marriage saved. A real and lasting change, driven by a man’s need to be better for himself, is the kind of change that will ultimately save a marriage. Anything else is thin as gossamer and fleeting as a summer rain.
Change that’s motivated from the outside will not last. Change that is merely a means to an end will vanish as soon as that end is accomplished. I suggested to my friend that the type of change that will save his marriage is change that happens regardless if his marriage is saved. His wife’s happiness and their harmony take a back seat to that of becoming a better man, father, and person. It’s the kind of change that isn’t conditional on an outcome. And the secret, I told him, is that’s the type change his wife will enthusiastically respond to and heartily embrace. It’s the kind of change that, in the waning years of long happy marriage, will fondly be looked back on as one of the most blessed moments of their life together.