Norman (names have been changed) was drifting further and further from his wife. He stayed too late at work, occupied his time at home with numerous projects, and paid little attention to her interests and activities. His wife felt lonely and neglected. She could not understand how the loving, attentive man she married had become a stranger to her. There was very little meaningful communication between them. Neither seemed able to break a behavior pattern that was destroying their relationship.
In another family, Jan, the mother of six, was severely depressed. Later, therapy disclosed that her father had wanted a boy when she was born and had treated her like a son. At age four she went with him to work at his machine shop almost every day. She became his “little helper” and tried to win his love by doing things to please him. He bragged to others about her industriousness but never complimented her personally. From these beginnings, she developed a perfectionistic attitude and lived by an erroneous premise: “I am of worth only when I am working hard. My dad does not love me for who I am—he loves only what I can do.” But no matter what she did, it was not good enough.
When Jan married, she took her mistaken notions with her, assuming that her husband’s expectations would be like her father’s. She could not believe she could be loved simply for herself. She had to be a super housekeeper. Serious difficulties arose when she was unable to relax and enjoy being married. Even after doing her best, she was never happy with her own performance. She felt increased anxiety after doing something well.
As each new baby came into the family, Jan found it more and more impossible to maintain a spotless house. She was driven by a fear that she would not be loved nor be an acceptable mother if she did not keep house perfectly. Her first major illness triggered a long series of depressions because she could not maintain her usual high level of performance. As she lay in bed feeling unable to do anything, she ignored all the great things she had accomplished and thought only of how hopeless and worthless she was.
In a third household, Karen was headed for a promising career in journalism when she met and married Bob. She had received top grades and scholarships, had graduated with honors, and was working at the local newspaper to support herself while earning a higher degree.
Her husband, Bob, was not emotionally ready for marriage or children. He had planned to obtain a doctorate before having any children; he didn’t want to be one of those struggling graduate students with too many mouths to feed. Karen became pregnant with their first child soon after their tightly budgeted honeymoon. She developed severe morning sickness and other physical complications and had to give up her job. Bob almost daily criticized her for being ill so much. He seemed to take every occasion to belittle and condemn her. He would not give up his plan, even temporarily, of having his higher degrees.
Because of the stress she felt in their relationship, Karen was unable to nurse the baby. Thus, one of her most cherished dreams of motherhood was crushed and she felt deeply guilty. Within a few months she became pregnant again and the complications began anew. Bob worked at two jobs and eventually had to drop some classes and take incompletes in others. Both he and Karen were discouraged and emotionally exhausted, but they used a great deal of energy blaming each other rather than using their talents to create or find possible solutions.
Karen was reduced to feeling insecure and totally dependent. When alone, she would sometimes panic and burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Under these conditions, care for two children in diapers was a painful daily chore which she had to endure virtually alone. Bob had made a personal commitment never to change a diaper or wash a dish regardless of his wife’s physical condition. The “men” in his family had maintained this stance for generations and he was not about to break with this respected tradition. As far as he was concerned, the husband had total authority in the marriage.
In their own ways, all of these couples were involved in self-defeating behavior patterns that were injuring their marriages. “Self-defeating behaviors” are immaturities maintained by unresolved problems. Marriage can bring these individual challenges into sharper focus, often turning them into “marriage-defeating behaviors.” Such behaviors prevent a husband or wife from satisfying each other’s basic needs for love, belonging, intimacy, and companionship. They interfere not only with the relationship, but also with the self-esteem of both partners.
A marriage ceremony—even in the temple—does not guarantee that a couple will be happy together. They must also apply basic principles of happiness, which include the ability to adjust to each other and to their changing circumstances. Personal adjustments and a certain degree of flexibility are needed in every marriage to allow these changes to take place.
Adjustments are more difficult to make when we are too proud, too selfish, too immature, or too insecure to change—for change is threatening to us. Resistance is especially strong when changes are encouraged by our own spouse. Thus, the greatest changes occur as we are motivated from within.
Even though a couple may pinpoint a mutual problem, most change comes from recognizing personal defeating behavior patterns and assuming total responsibility for eliminating or managing them. For this reason, each partner in the relationship must take responsibility for his or her own part of the problem. To blame or to direct attention to changing one’s spouse does not solve the problem—indeed, in many instances it is a subtle way of prolonging and maintaining the problem.
A self-defeating behavior that affects the marriage relationship is usually maintained by identifiable repeated patterns. How? The doer of the self-defeating behavior first decides to do it; second, he minimizes the consequences of doing it; third, he disowns responsibility for doing it; and fourth, he does it. Underlying these behaviors and giving them energy and motivation is fear—the fear of change. This fear keeps the individual from seeing problems as they truly are and from creating effective ways to solve them. It seems much easier to rely on the old familiar but nonproductive ways than to risk creating new ways to cope with recurring problem situations.
However, since self-defeating behaviors are learned in the process of maturing before and after marriage, they can be unlearned and changed.
Let us consider six important ideas that can help to change or eliminate them:
1. Turn to Heavenly Father for help and support.
Prayer is essential in recognizing our weakness in the first place. “If men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness,” the Lord has said. And he is the one who can strengthen us as we struggle and heal us as we humble ourselves. “My grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me,” he said; “for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27.) This is very important as we move on to the next steps, for Heavenly Father is not likely to help us until he knows we are willing to follow his guidance.
2. You must recognize what you are doing.
That includes when and how you do it. You will change things only when you recognize them as problems. (See Ether 12:37.) At this point, don’t worry about why you do your self-defeating behavior. Simply observe yourself for a week or more, discovering and listing how, when, and what you do to get it done.
Norman, who found it difficult to be with his wife, wrote on his “how” list, along with many other statements, the following:
“I tell myself that I must finish all the last-minute things at the office.”
“I never seem to have enough time at home to do things I want to do, so I stay away longer than I need to.”
“I tell myself, ‘My wife will wait; this work needs to be done now!’”
Jan’s list describing her depressed feelings was a long one. It included such statements as:
“I lie in bed most of the day, too weary to move.”
“I feel overwhelmed with all the housework that is piling up. My laundry room must be a disaster area by now.”
“My kids deserve a better mother than this.”
“I’m a hopeless, worthless nothing.”
3. Discover how you disown responsibility for your self-defeating behavior.
Make a list of who or what you blame as a way to justify doing it. This will help you assume more responsibility for what you are doing so that change can more easily take place. Expecting your partner to change first does not bring about change—all it does is allow you to disown your part in the problem. Assuming personal responsibility is the key to change.
Norman blamed circumstances, time, his work, too many interests, and his wife.
Jan blamed all the little things not clean or not right in the house, including the yard, neighbors, kids, dogs, PTA, and the Church. Each one of her children and her husband were also on her list. But mostly she blamed herself, her past, and her father. All of these things “made” her depressed.
Karen’s blame list included: “Bob always puts me down and makes me feel inferior.”
“Being alone frightens me.”
“My feelings make me think that I cannot cope with new situations.”
4. Consider the cost to you and your spouse.
Your self-defeating behavior is like a credit card—it can be used any time of the day or night, anywhere on earth. But for every time you use it, a bill will come later. There are no free self-defeating behaviors, and there are no affordable ones. No one can do any self-defeating or marriage-defeating behavior and get away with it; it is impossible to escape the law of consequences.
When you list the adverse consequences that you suffer or cause others to suffer because of your behavior, you will get a good idea of the cost to you for maintaining it. Until you make such a list and face it squarely, you may still have more reason to keep the defeating behavior pattern than to give it up. Make this list as long as you can. Since you are the only one on earth who can truly convince yourself that change is needed, this list will help you become convinced,
Norman’s, Jan’s, and Karen’s lists were very similar. They included such things as lack of self-esteem, fears of failing, inability to enjoy life, not getting along with his/her spouse, depression, lack of happiness, ulcers, guilt, feeling condemned, and many other damaging and hurting consequences. When you can see clearly the relationship between these results and the behavior that produces them, you are at the threshold of change.
5. Discover and list the choices you must make to do the self-defeating behavior and then discover and list their alternatives.
You were given the gift of agency, or the ability to choose. (See Moses 7:32.) There will always be more than one way to behave in a given circumstance. Unless you are severely mentally impaired and not in control of your choices, you end up where you do because of a series of small choices. When you choose the self-defeating way, the known adverse consequences await you. When you choose the self- and marriage-enhancing way, blessings await you. By obeying natural laws that bring blessings, you will get blessings. (See D&C 130:20–21.)
Norman discovered he could make wiser choices. He found that he could choose to spend more time with his wife, and by doing so, make his being home a more pleasant experience for them both. He chose not to use his work as an excuse.
When making her list, Jan discovered she could choose not to feel upset and depressed over the dripping faucet in the kitchen or the neighbor’s dogs, or the many other things she was using to make herself feel depressed. She could choose to accept herself as a good but imperfect person who is trying to improve.
Karen found that she could choose to stop building up anxiety and guilt in herself by choosing more positive ways to think of herself. She chose to allow Bob’s problems to be his, and she decided not to blame herself for his feelings of discouragement. She felt she could accept the circumstances as being temporary and surmountable.
We all need practice over a period of time to make better choices in those crucial moments. It is a good idea to imagine beforehand how you are going to handle a situation when it arises. Such mental practice can be most valuable in coping with temptations or trying circumstances before they come up. Many problems in a relationship can be avoided or solved before they even arise by looking ahead and anticipating how you will behave in positive and enhancing ways.
6. Face what fears you may have of giving up the old defeating pattern.
List them by asking yourself such questions as, “What will happen to me when I give this up?” or “What will I find out about myself when I drop this defeating behavior?”
Norman’s fear list looked like this: “My wife will expect far too much of me if I try to meet her needs.” “I’ll lose my identity and be swallowed up in her demands.” “She will take all my time and I will not be able to even go to work.” “She will dominate me and I will not be myself anymore.”
Jan’s list revealed some interesting ideas: “I will feel foolish for all the time I wasted being depressed.” “Others in the family will not know how to react to me.” “I am afraid I’ll relapse and be worse off if I give it up.” “My husband will not pay attention to me anymore.” “Others will expect too much of me.” “I will not be able to cope with life.”
Karen wrote: “I am fearful of making changes only to discover that my husband will not change. Then where will I be?” “If I give up my overdependence, I will have no place to put all my frustrations, guilt, and stored-up anger.” “If I forgive Bob for the way he has treated me, it would be like saying he was right in doing so.” “I have felt this way for so long I don’t think I can be the real me without this crutch.”
Now go back over your listed fears and check them against the following criteria: Is this feared idea LEAST or MOST likely to occur when I am being my best self and doing enhancing things in my marriage? You will find, as did the couples mentioned above and hundreds of others, that each listed fear is least likely to occur. The reason is that you created these fears to further justify doing the defeating pattern. But when you face your fears in this way, new insights will enter into your thinking and allow more change to take place. Then you will discover you can live happily in marriage without self-defeating behaviors.
What happened to Norman, Jan, Karen, and their spouses? Norman overcame his fear of committing himself to his marriage and his wife. He then understood where this fear came from—he had seen his mother dominate his father. But he now realized that since she was not his mother he could trust his wife with his time and with himself. This opened up the way for some long overdue communication between them.
Jan came out of her depression of several years by the time she completed the list of adverse consequences. She learned she could live very comfortably without having to prove she could do everything better than others or do them perfectly. Her endless rat race was over when she discovered she was lovable for who she was, not for what she could do.
Karen was able to change her outlook so much that Bob decided to enter into the same therapy to try to become as happy as she was.
To overcome a self-defeating behavior that may be injuring your own marriage, write down your own answers to the following six questions. Observe your actions for a week before answering each one so that your lists are as complete and accurate as possible:
1. Am I including Heavenly Father in my struggle to overcome my self-defeating behavior?
2. How do I do my self-defeating behavior?
3. How do I disown responsibility for it?
4. What does it cost me to maintain it?
5. What choices must I make to do it? What are their alternatives?
6. What fears must I face to be free of it? Are these fears least or most likely to occur when I am being my best self?
By these simple means, we may become more flexible, more able to cope with life, and more loving and understanding of ourselves and of each other. In marriage, the greatest power for change lies in the simplest things. You, too, may discover that change is easier than you thought.
Jonathan M. Chamberlain, a psychologist and marriage and family therapist at Brigham Young University, is bishop of the BYU 102nd Ward and the father of five children.