SWM 133 – Loving your spouse where they are

I often give beginner homework to my coaching clients. A few of them will likely read this and think, “He was talking about me.” You’re not wrong, but you’re also not alone. 

I give it out frequently because it helps combat some fundamental problems I see in many marriages: resentment, unmet expectations, and continued disappointment. Whatever caused the resentment doesn’t matter. If you want to improve the marriage, you must get rid of that attitude first. Resentment leads to contempt, and once you hit that point, the marriage is on life support, and it becomes challenging to resurrect.

Some come to coaching and realize that they have this issue.  They recognize that resentment is an attitude, and attitudes can be changed.  They know they can fix it; they just don’t know how or need some support, some accountability, or encouragement to keep up the hard work of changing that mindset.

And it is hard work. Reversing that mindset takes time, effort, and consistently following the plan we co-create. There are ups and downs, backslides, and sidetracks. But if they put in the work, then it does happen. Then the fun begins because now we can make some real progress.

Others come to coaching convinced their spouse is the issue and work hard to rationalize and justify their attitude toward them.  They want me to change their spouse so that they can be happy.  Sometimes, they have one foot out the door already, and this is the last-ditch effort to “save the marriage,” by which they mean that if I don’t fix their spouse, they will divorce them.

Whatever type they are, they get the same homework. It’s not only the first step to reversing the mindset but also a test to see if they’re coachable.  

The homework is simply this: write down something you appreciate about your spouse every day.  It can be something you’re attracted to, like a body part, their smile, their laugh.  It can be something they did that you thought they did well at.  It could be a behaviour you notice as improved.  It can be something that makes your life easier.  It can be something they do every day that you generally don’t see. The bar is pretty low in the first week.  Find something, anything, and write it down.  Often, I have them input it into our coaching portal so we have a record.

Some get to the end of the week and haven’t found anything.  They’re not coachable. Some are so far gone into resentment and contempt that they can’t find anything positive about their spouse.  Some think the exercise is stupid and gimmicky and refuse to do it.  Others just can’t be bothered to put in the effort.  

Whatever the reason, in my experience, they are unlikely to succeed if they can’t do that simple task.  Most quit right after that first week.  Some last a little longer, but when I make them repeat the exercise, and they realize they aren’t going to escape by simply not doing it, then they lose interest.

And the reward for doing the homework?  Next week, we do it again, but this time, you tell your spouse what you appreciate each day.  Oh, and no repeats.  

We train their brain to look for things to appreciate.  We use neuroplasticity as a tool to rewire their perceptions and habits.  They’ve been training it to look for negative stuff for so long that it can take a while, but generally, after a month or so, they start realizing that maybe their spouse isn’t so bad, and if they didn’t already know it, perhaps they have some work they could do themselves.

This is the only way I can tackle this because no alternatives have worked.

Because if you’ve trained yourself to be resentful, to see the negative, to hold up a standard against your spouse that perhaps they can never meet, or if they did, they wouldn’t be them anymore, then no amount of work we can do on them is going to make you happy.

We can change their mindsets, help them get healthier, and change their habits, but it won’t matter because it won’t be seen.

We must first love and accept them as they are before we can appreciate any growth they might make.

This is the example we see in Christ as well.

But God demonstrates his love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

Christ didn’t wait for us to be sinless.  

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Ephesians 1:4

He didn’t even wait for us to know who He was or for us to exist. 

He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time.

2 Timothy 1:9

He didn’t even wait for creation – He chose to die for us while we were still an idea. 

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.

Ephesians 2:8-9

And not because of anything we had done or would ever do.  The only thing we can ever do that is correct is to accept that we can do nothing.

This is the love we should show our spouses: to love them as they are, for who they are. Not because we think they’ll be better, not because they have potential, not because of what they give to us, but simply because we chose to love them.

Ironically, that is how you have the highest chance of seeing them be a better spouse.  

We love because he first loved us.

1 John 4:19

Just as we Christians should love out of gratitude to God for loving us, we should feel that same gratitude to our spouse for loving us as we are. Of course, that means we should love our spouse just as they are.

I think that’s how you inspire someone to change: by loving them as they are and being content with who they are. It’s good to hope for more for them, but our primary message should be to constantly show them that we love them regardless of whether they change.

And the only way to do that is to truly love them – not because you think it will work out for you in the end, but because you love them – for no other reason.  

Because that’s when we feel comfortable stretching and growing—when we know our vulnerable attempts will not only be accepted but appreciated, even if we fail. That way, we can try larger stretches, knowing that if we fall, we’ll be caught. If we have a setback, we will still be loved as much as before.

Alternatively, if we are in a marriage where we know our spouse isn’t happy with us, every attempt to grow becomes scary.  If we fail, we’ll be a disappointment.  If we backslide, it will mean they love us less.  Even if we grow, it won’t be enough, and it just sets a new bar that we must constantly reach to maintain the status quo. We still won’t have met their expectations, so it starts all over again.

Ultimately, the resentment of them not growing to match your desires just sets up a system that makes it even harder for them to meet your expectations.

The other part is that we don’t know what’s going on with our spouse.  We may have some insight, maybe even more than most, but we don’t know what it’s like to be them.  What may come easily or naturally to us might be difficult for them to attain.

We tend to judge our spouses by the standard of what we think we’d do in their shoes, but ultimately, we can never be in their shoes because it’s not as simple as just input and output.  A lifetime of programming goes into every one of us, not to mention that we all don’t have the same resources available to us.  Each of us has strengths and weaknesses that need to also be considered.  Ultimately, the entire process is so complex that none of us should have the hubris to believe we know what it’s like to be in anyone else’s shoes.

Love your spouse where they are, not where you think they should be

At best, we can understand that some things are harder for our spouse than they are for us, even if we don’t understand what that feels like. We should have grace for them when they struggle to do things that are easy for us, and they should have grace for us when the situation is reversed.

For example, I like fabrication. I like building things, which involves cutting things. Metal, in particular, is fun, as I do some welding and blacksmithing, so I’m quite comfortable with an angle grinder, whether I’m cutting, grinding, or whatever.

Christina, on the other hand, doesn’t like it.  It scares her, so she asks me to cut things for her.  But yesterday, she cut some hardware cloth herself with it, and I was so proud of her.  It might seem like a small thing for me, but that was a big step for her.

Learn to appreciate what’s a big step for your spouse and then praise them.  And don’t let them downplay it because it’s not a big step for you.  Everyone is different, and the effort it takes for one person to do something doesn’t translate into another person.  So, celebrate wins based on how big a win it is for them, not for someone else.  And never judge them by a standard that doesn’t suit them.  As you can’t know what suits them – it’s better not to judge.

This is how you avoid resentment and live a life of appreciation and gratitude.

So, if you struggle with that, I invite you to try my homework for a week.  If you can stomach it, go for the month.  See what changes.  If you need help, let me know.

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What should we run a survey about next?

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