Couples who have chronic problems or feel their marriage is beyond repair can make it better. While for some this might seem impossible, relationships can change. To fix some unhappy marriages, we may need to change how we behave, how we think about our partner, or what we believe a marriage is supposed to be like, and these are things we can personally control.

It requires a lot of work to establish better patterns in your relationship, yet it isn’t just the work. It’s also important to understand how change actually occurs. Here we are referring to being aware of what’s realistic and possible. When people try to change, they usually keep track of their success by monitoring the behavior or emotion they want to change. For instance, people who want to overcome depression might note how often they feel depressed and whether or not it’s happening less frequently. If their depressive episodes decline, they judge themselves as having made progress. However, if their depression returns, they will think they’ve relapsed. Some may then conclude that they’ve made no progress at all, or worse, that they’ve failed.

This is an example of all or none, or dichotomous thinking. It’s a very unrealistic view of how change actually takes place, and can work against achieving our goal of improvement.  We might think that we’ve failed, and that may lead us to give up trying. We can also come away with a sense of powerlessness, thinking things cannot be changed or that we don’t have what it takes to make changes, and so we are destined to live with the sorry state of our marriage forever.

Instead, it’s much more realistic to think about improvement in your relationship as an up and down process. Real progress is not a steady upward change; it’s more accurately described as a saw tooth curve, that is, some movement upward, then downward, then upward, etc. There will always be some sliding back, which is then followed by improvement. We might even find that as we try to change something, the behavior we’re trying to change actually gets a little worse in the first stages. That’s because we can be resistant to change.

It’s important to remember that habits are hard to break because they have actually provided benefits for you over the years. If you need to lose weight, you probably love food or profit emotionally from eating; if you smoke, you probably do it because it feels good. To combat their persistence, we need to stick with our plan through all of the ups and downs. So we have to keep reminding ourselves to be patient because change comes slowly. Even though we may acknowledge that change won’t happen overnight, we may still be unrealistic as to how long it can actually take. 

When we accept the reality as to how change progresses, we take some of the pressure off of ourselves so we’re less likely to give up trying. We also stop believing in magic, which is best described as action without work. We watch a magician place a blanket over a person, he or she then says a few words and that person disappears. The magician has not expended any effort that we can detect to make the person disappear, it just happened. To expect that change will be instantaneous or won’t require effort over a sustained period of time is tantamount to believing in magic.

This may sound silly, but sometimes we can’t help think, or at least hope, that magic is real. As proof, go to the self-help section in any book store. Check out the books on losing weight, quitting smoking, having a better sex life, and the like. You will notice that the titles suggest changing these patterns is easy. You might come across a title such as, “Eat All You Want and Still Lose All the Weight You Want”. Books like these become best sellers because people want to believe their claims were real.

That brings us to learning how to cope with too-slow success. When things are not moving according to our plan, we can approach our lack of success from two different angles. We can adopt an active strategy, that is, we stick with our plan and give it more time, or try alternative approaches and not become discouraged. In active coping, we do something to deal with the event and/or its circumstances. By confronting the situation head on, we have an opportunity to come up with a solution.

The alternative is to take a passive approach. When we don’t get the results we’re hoping for, we can withdraw or let our emotions lead us to inaction. We might believe we’re either incapable of fixing the problem or that too much effort is required. Or we can react with anger, frustration, and impatience. We’re likely to direct our negative emotions to our partner, because we might see them as the reason for failure. Passive coping is rarely of any value. In fact, it can make us feel worse. We might conclude our marriage is doomed to stay as it is because we can’t figure out how to fix it.

Even if we choose an active coping strategy, we have to make sure we focus on the right things. We can take an emotion-focused approach, where we try to control our anger and frustration that block us from making progress. However, the problem with an emotion-focused strategy is that we don’t get at the heart of what’s causing the emotions. Unless we deal with the underlying causes, these negative emotions will continue to crop up and cause us to feel badly or lead us to think we should just give up.

Alternatively, we can use the more effective situation-focused approach, in which we attack our irrational beliefs. If you are experiencing negative emotions, such as anger or frustration, because you are not further along in reaching your goal, focus on your beliefs and not on your emotions. You might, for example, come to realize that you expected improvement to come more quickly or easily. Such an expectation might be irrational, and can be at the heart of your negative emotions. But by adopting a more rational belief about how fast or easy changes can be achieved, you can reduce your non-adaptive negative emotions. The right coping skills can help you set up more realistic expectations about your goals and make it easier for you to persevere in the face of less than expected success.

If there are a lot of things you want to change about your relationship, don’t try to do it all at once. In fact, you’re better off trying to work on one issue at a time. Your first goal is to prioritize what you’d like to work on. Find the one issue that you feel would have the most impact on your relationship, or the one that may be easiest to fix, and focus your attention on that. Note that of these two options, we recommend first going with the easier-to-fix problem. You will have a better chance for success, and with success you’re more likely to feel confident in dealing with the next problem you take on.

Of course, there are a lot of other factors to consider when we’re trying to improve our marriage. The changes we want to make must be feasible and realistic, and we must have a willing partner, among many others. But knowing what to expect and being realistic about how fast we will progress is just as important to success. That’s what is at the heart of staying motivated to pursue our goal.

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