To Change Your Marriage, Change Yourself


I met an old high school friend recently, and naturally the conversation turned to husbands, homes, and children, all acquired since our last meeting. I was disturbed by the discouragement Ann showed through comments like “You know Johnny never was very active in the Church,” and, somewhat apologetically, “I’ve taken up drinking coffee now—Johnny does it, so I figure I might as well.”

In a similar experience, a Sunday School teacher recommended a book designed to inspire improved family relations. “What’s the use?” lamented one newly baptized member. “It won’t work unless both of us read it, and my wife won’t read anything I bring home from Church!”

An ideal family model discourages many members of the Church. To some, the mere mention of the celestial family, where father exercises the priesthood and adores his happy and supportive wife, arouses feelings of despair and sometimes hostility. Many people cannot identify with such a picture and usually decide either that their family is doomed to a terrestrial existence or that they must, consciously or not, reject the member of the family who apparently makes celestialization impossible.

Such rejection seems to be a subtle attempt to infringe upon that person’s agency. We have all been given the freedom and responsibility to control only one person—ourselves. We are exhorted against exercising any control over another. Yet at the same time we Church members are encouraged to inspire and influence. It seems, then, that the first step to positive action is to recognize what we can and should do and what would infringe upon the other’s agency.

A marriage becomes stale, even bitter, when one or both partners fall into the paralyzing habit of reacting to an unpleasant situation instead of planning and working to bring about a pleasant one. When this happens, usually the following situations arise:

1. You may use your mate as an excuse for putting forth less than your best efforts. For example, “My wife never appreciates the little things I do for her, so why bother?” or “Jim doesn’t seem to notice whether the house is clean or not, so why should I break my neck keeping house?”

2. You may choose an inefficient way to change things, like criticizing (“This carpet looks like it hasn’t been cleaned for two years!”), complaining (“My husband doesn’t show the least bit of interest in the Church. How I envy you women who have the priesthood in your home!”), rationalizing (“If I only had my wife’s support, I would be an effective father.”), threatening, bargaining, and issuing ultimatums. They may be honest reactions, but they are worthless ways to achieve goals.

If nagging, coercion, hinting, criticizing, complaining, rationalizing, and bargaining won’t help us reach the goals in our homes, what will?

First, we must determine what goals in marriage are worthy ones. A happy home, a Christlike atmosphere, an environment conducive to growth and progress—these are all most acceptable and deserve much time and effort. On the other hand, a goal that involves remaking your mate’s personality to suit your specifications is not in keeping with the Savior’s plan and almost certainly will result in lessening love and mutual respect, two musts in a celestial relationship.

Second, the key to all human relationships, whether parent-child, teacher-student, or husband-wife, is honest respect for the other individual. Honest respect, more than simply respect for the aspects of his or her personality that are pleasing to you, implies respect for a person’s right to be himself, whatever that may be. With our understanding of the divine destiny of man and with our strict gospel standards, though that kind of respect may seem difficult at first, we know it is vital.

Third, we must avoid the “power struggle,” a common stumbling block in the pursuit of good family relationships. Certainly no Latter-day Saint would knowingly become involved in a marital power struggle; we believe that the husband is definitely the head of the home and that the wife is to support him in righteousness. But somehow a part of most of us, without even letting our well-versed minds know what is happening, manages to engage us in a battle to win, to control, to gain power over another. The question of who should be responsible for emptying the trash, a problem of persistent sloppiness, or frequent disagreements over which friends to invite to dinner may be manifestations of the attempt by one partner to control and the equally determined resolve of the other to stand firm.

Once the power struggle climate has been established, the win-lose question becomes much more important than the original problem (emptying trash, neatness, choosing friends). Some couples play the “If You Mention It, It Won’t Get Done” game. The husband will point out (he thinks matter-of-factly, the wife thinks harshly and accusingly) an area of the house that needs attention. First, the battle cry: (“When you get time, you need to clean this closet.”), then the defense, expressed in thought only: (“How dare you question my housekeeping ability! I’ll never clean that closet!”). The wife might find time to paper the living room, take the children to a movie, or polish the silver, but she will never find time to clean the closet. It remains untidy until the husband sullenly cleans it himself—an even greater insult, from the wife’s point of view.

Who wins? No one, and communication becomes more and more strained and tempers become short. Even valuable senses of humor become less functional.

When we played that game, I found an easy way out of our power struggle was for me to look around the house and ask myself what my husband would be most likely to ask me to do next, and then to do it. The first time he started to make a suggestion and then realized the job had already been done, I experienced positive feelings I hadn’t had for years!

In a marriage, the power struggle which shows itself in problems as mundane as cleaning closets and emptying trash may just as easily manifest itself in matters of great import. Just as many wives react negatively to housekeeping suggestions, I have seen husbands and wives who felt the need to retain their freedom to decide whether or when to start attending church regularly, whether or when to stop smoking, or whether or when to listen to the missionaries. Sometimes when the pressure is removed and a feeling of “I respect your ability to decide what’s best for you” replaces the “I know what’s right” attitude, all members of the family can be more receptive to spiritual blessings.

But what about the responsibility we have to cry repentance? We know that a priesthood holder should govern the family; the scriptures say that the husband is the head of the wife, even as Jesus Christ is the head of the Church. (Eph. 5:23.) Latter-day scripture, however, indicates that a priesthood holder should use extreme caution in the way he exercises his authority; he must avoid coercion or constraint in any form. (See D&C 121:37–39.) Women in the Church have often been admonished to “provoke” their husbands to good works. And even a superficial review of the scriptures and Church history indicates that we have every right and responsibility to remind and exhort. Yet Joseph Smith admonished the women of the Nauvoo Relief Society against nagging:

“You need not be teasing your husbands because of their deeds, but let … your innocence, kindness, and affection be felt. … Not war, not jangle, not contradiction, or dispute, but meekness, love, purity—these are the things that should magnify you in the eyes of all good men.” (Documentary History of the Church, 4:605.)

Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants promises that the Holy Ghost will help worthy priesthood holders know how best to use the power of God in their dealings with others. (See D&C 121:43.) Nephi tells us that this privilege is not reserved for priesthood holders alone, but that the Holy Ghost “is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him.” (1 Ne. 10:17.) And what a priceless gift this is, of especial need to those of us who have strong prejudices and lifelong habits to overcome.

I learned an important fourth principle of achieving goals in the home at a recent prospective elders’ function. There we listened to the testimony of a man who two or three years ago would have been a tough contender in the “Least Likely to Become Interested in the Church” category. As he stood up I recalled the afternoons I had spent listening to his wife, Nancy, tell of his lack of consideration for her and of his bitterness and cynicism toward the Church.

This warm, likable young man standing in front of us bore no resemblance to the person Nancy had once described. He told us how, several years earlier, their relationship had come to a stage that he described as “barely tolerable.”

“It was really bad,” he said. “I don’t suppose we would have divorced—we both knew that would be a horrible thing to do to the kids—but I know we weren’t doing them a lot of good together, either. Nancy used to bug me about joining the Church, setting an example for the children, and, oh, a lot of things; eventually she just got distant and sort of acted like I wasn’t there. Although she did complain sometimes I think she was just as relieved as I was when I’d find reasons to work late or take the kids somewhere, just to get out of the house.

“For some reason Nancy changed one day. All of a sudden she started acting as if she really cared about me, like doing little things for me the way she’d done when we were going together. At first I was suspicious—she’d had these spurts before, after she’d read an article or a book or something, but they didn’t last. This time she seemed pretty serious about it, and the really astonishing thing was that she didn’t want any favors in return!”

We were impressed by his account of how things went from good to better and how his attitude had changed as a result of Nancy’s behavior. He said something about its being a miracle, and I said a silent amen.

Nancy had told me about the change in her. She said she realized one day how serious the situation had become, and she had done what she had learned to do when things appeared hopeless. In spite of the spiritual low she had reached in her personal attitude, she decided to share her problem with the Lord.

“I had read somewhere,” she said, “that a vocal prayer was often more effective, and I needed all the advantages I could get. I prayed aloud, that afternoon locked in my room, more fervently and humbly than I had ever prayed before. I confessed that I knew the Lord was not pleased with our home and made known my desire to improve it. I pleaded with my Heavenly Father to help Stan to be more considerate and to help him understand about the gospel.

“Well, I’m not claiming to have heard a voice, or seen a vision, or anything, just a thought popping into my troubled mind. I believed at first my mind had wandered, and I was ashamed of my lack of concentration. But the thought, I’m sure now, wasn’t mine. It had to be my answer, although goodness knows it was not at all the one I wanted! The idea was clear and powerful: “When you’re perfect then we can start worrying about him!”

“As hard as it was to do, I felt compelled to make an all-out effort to be a better wife. I at least had to try! Then a second manifestation came one evening several months later as I sat in sacrament meeting. Something was said that focused my attention on a couple in the ward I had often admired, even envied, for their close and spiritual relationship. I was suddenly engulfed with a peaceful, nearly ecstatic feeling, and I knew I had the power within myself to make our home a holy and heavenly place.

“A sensation much, I suppose, like the burning that comes when someone is converted to the gospel told me that the Lord was watching, helping, working with Stan, and that he was pleased with Stan’s efforts at work and in the community toward helping his fellowman. I understood, really understood that day, that my Heavenly Father had a tremendous love for my husband, and I felt so ashamed for the hostility I had felt.”

Self-direction, respect for and acceptance of others, staying out of power struggles, openness to suggestion from the Holy Spirit. Simple? Very. I have used hundreds of words to say what the Savior said in eight: “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (John 15:12.) Easy? Unfortunately not, but tasks that have such tremendous rewards seldom are. In accepting the challenge of a do-it-yourself marriage you surrender all rights to convenient cop-outs and fifty-fifty relationships. There will be lonely times at first, and times when only your Father in heaven can help you to determine when to compromise and when to stand firm. It would be unfair for me to promise a positive change in your partner as a result of your efforts because, remember, that’s not what you’re striving for; but laws have a way of fulfilling themselves, and don’t be surprised at some pretty exciting results from all directions!

[illustrations] Illustrated by Parry Merkley

Afton Jensen Day, a homemaker, serves as a counselor in the Primary presidency of Wakefield Ward, Fairfax Virginia Stake.