Read an Excerpt
The Chapman Guide to Negotiating Change With Your Spouse
By GARY D. CHAPMAN
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2006
Gary D. Chapman
All right reserved.
Starting at the Right Place
Invariably, people who want their spouse to
change start at the wrong place. A young man
named Robert was one such person. He came alone
to my office and told me that his wife, Sheila, would
not come with him.
"What seems to be the nature of the problem?"
"For one thing, my wife is so disorganized. She
spends half her life looking for her car keys.
She never knows where to find anything because
she can't remember where she put it. I'm not talking
Alzheimer's-she's only thirty-five. I'm talking
totally disorganized. I've tried to help her. I've
made suggestions, but she's not open to anything
I say. She says I'm controlling her. I'm not trying
to control her. I just want to help make her life
easier. If she would get more organized, it would
certainly make my life easier, too. I waste a lot of
time helping her find things she's lost."
I jotted some notes while Robert was talking,
and when he was done, I asked, "Are there other
"Money. I have a good job. I make enough
that we should be able to live comfortably, but not
the way Sheila spends it. I mean, she makes no attempt
to shop; she paysfull price for everything.
Like her clothes-if she would just buy them at
the right season, they would be half price. We've
gone for financial counseling, but she won't follow
the financial planner's advice. Right now, we owe
$5,000 on our credit card, and yet Sheila won't
I nodded my head as I listened. "Are there other
problem areas, Robert?"
"Well, yes. Sheila is just not interested in sex.
I think she could live without it. If I didn't initiate
it, we would never have sex. Even when I do,
I'm often rejected. I thought sex was an important
part of marriage, but apparently she doesn't feel
As the session continued, Robert shared a few
more of his frustrations about his wife's behavior.
He said he had made every effort to get her to
change, but he had seen few, if any, positive results.
He was frustrated and at the point of hopelessness.
He had come to me because he had read my books
and thought that perhaps if I were to call his wife,
she might talk to me and maybe I could get her to
change. I knew from experience, however, that if
Sheila came to my office, she would tell a different
story than the one I'd heard from Robert. She
would tell me about her problems with him. She
would probably say that instead of being understanding,
Robert is demanding and harsh with her.
She would say, "If Robert would treat me with a
little kindness and be a little romantic, I could be
interested in sex." She would say, "I wish I could
hear one compliment from him about some purchase
I have made, rather than always condemning
me for spending too much money." In essence, her
perspective would be "If Robert would change, then
I would change."
Is there hope for Robert and Sheila? Can they
get the changes they desire in each other? I believe
the answer is yes, but first they must radically
change their approach. They are starting at
the wrong place.
In my counseling practice, I have discovered that
most of the relationship principles that really work
are not new. Many are found in ancient literature,
though they've often been overlooked for years. For
example, the principle of starting at the right place
can be found in a lesson that Jesus taught, commonly
known as the Sermon on the Mount. I will
paraphrase the quote to apply the principle directly
to the marriage relationship: "Husband, why do you
look at the speck of sawdust in your wife's eye and
pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? Or,
wife, how can you say to your husband, 'Let me
take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time
there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite,
first take the plank out of your own eye, and then
you will see clearly to remove the speck from your
The principle is clear: The place to start is getting
the plank out of your own eye. Notice carefully
that Jesus did not say, "There's nothing wrong with
your mate. Leave him or her alone." In fact, he
indicated that there is something wrong with your
mate when he said, "Once you get the plank out
of your own eye, then you can see more clearly to
get the speck out of your spouse's eye."
Everyone needs to change. There are no perfect
spouses-although I did hear once of a pastor who
asked the question, "Does anyone know of a perfect
husband?" One man in the back of the church
raised his hand quickly and said, "My wife's first
husband." My conclusion is that if there were any
perfect husbands, they're all dead. I've never met a
real live husband who didn't need to change. Nor
have I met a perfect wife.
The most common reason people do not get the
changes they desire in their spouse is that they start
at the wrong place. They focus on their spouse's failures
before they give attention to their own shortcomings.
They see that little speck in their spouse's
eye and begin to go after it by tossing out a suggestion.
When that doesn't work, they overtly request a
change. When that approach meets with resistance,
they turn up the heat by demanding that their
spouse change-or else. From there they move on to
intimidation and manipulation. Even if they succeed
in bringing about some change, it comes with deep
resentment on the part of the spouse. This is not the
kind of change that most people desire. Therefore, if
you really want to see your spouse change, you must
start by dealing with your own failures.
GETTING THE PLANK OUT
OF YOUR OWN EYE
Dealing with our own failures first is not the way
most of us have been trained to think. We're more
likely to say, "If my spouse weren't like that, then
I wouldn't be like this." "If my spouse didn't do
that, then I wouldn't do this." "If my spouse would
change, then I would change." Entire marriages have
been built on this approach. One wife said, "If my
husband would treat me with respect, then I would
be able to be affectionate; but when he acts like I'm
his slave, I want to run away and hope he'll never
find me." To be honest, I empathize greatly with this
wife; however, "waiting for my spouse to change"
has led thousands of couples to an emotional state of
hopelessness, which often ends in divorce when one
or both spouses conclude, "He (or she) will never
change; therefore, I'm getting out."
If we're honest with ourselves, we have to admit
that waiting and hoping has not worked. We have
seen little change unless it has been the result of
manipulation-external pressure, either emotional
or physical, that was designed to make a spouse
uncomfortable enough to want to change. Unfortunately,
manipulation creates resentment, and the
marriage ends up worse after the change than it was
before. If this has been your experience, as it was
in the early years of my own marriage, then I hope
you will be open to a different approach, one that
works without creating resentment.
Learning to deal first with your own failures
will not come easy. If I were to give you a sheet
of paper, as I often do to those who come to me
for counseling, and ask you to take fifteen minutes
to make a list of the things you would like
to see changed in your spouse, chances are you
could make a rather formidable list. However, if
I gave you another sheet of paper and asked you
to take fifteen minutes to make a list of your own
failures-things that you know need to be changed
in the way you treat your spouse-my guess is that
your list would be very short.
The typical husband's lists will have twenty-seven
things wrong with his wife and only four
things wrong with him. The wives' lists are not
much different. One wife came back with a list
of seventeen things that she wanted her husband
to change, but the page of her own shortcomings
was blank. She said, "I know you are not going to
believe this, but I honestly can't think of a single
thing I'm doing wrong."
I have to confess I was speechless. I had never
met a perfect woman before. I thought about calling
my secretary to bring in the camera: "Let's get
a picture of this lady."
After about thirty seconds of silence, she said,
"Well, I know what he would say."
"What's that?" I asked.
"He'd say that I am failing in the sexual area,
but that's all I can think of."
I didn't say it, but the thought did run through
my mind: That's pretty major, even if it's the only thing
you can think of.
It's not easy to get the plank out of your own
eye, but let me give you three steps that will help
you do it:
STEP 1: ASK FOR OUTSIDE HELP
Most people will not be able to identify their own
flaws without some outside help. We are so accustomed
to our own ways of thinking and acting that
we fail to recognize when they are dysfunctional
and negative. Let me suggest some sources of help
in identifying the plank in your own eye:
Talk to God
For some people, this might be uncomfortable, but
I suggest you ask God's advice if you want some
good insight. Your prayer might go something like
this: "God, what is wrong with me? Where am I
failing my spouse? What am I doing and saying
that I shouldn't? What am I failing to do or say
that I should? Please show me my failures." This
simple prayer (or one like it) has been prayed and
answered for thousands of years. Take a look at this
prayer from the Hebrew Psalms, written in approximately
1000 BC by King David, Israel's second
king: "Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out
anything in me that offends you, and lead me along
the path of everlasting life." We can be certain that
when we pray a prayer like this, God will answer.
If you're ready, take fifteen minutes to ask God
to show you your failures in your marriage, then list
whatever he brings to your mind. These may not be
major moral failures, but could be words and actions
that have not been loving and kind. Whatever
things come to mind that have been detrimental to
your marriage, write them down.
Here are the lists that one couple compiled after
praying this prayer. (I suggest you complete your
own list before looking at these.)
I watch too much TV.
I need to be more helpful with things around
I don't use my time wisely.
I don't listen to her like I should.
I don't act kindly to her at times.
I don't talk things out with her.
I don't listen to her ideas.
Our time of sharing is sparse.
I have made her afraid to voice her views.
We don't pray together like we should.
I fail to encourage him.
I put myself and my needs above his needs.
I put him down at times.
I am not affectionate enough.
I expect him to do things the way I would.
I am sometimes rude and harsh in my speech.
I spend too much time on the computer.
I am not sensitive to my husband's love language.
I don't like to admit when I'm wrong.
I don't spend enough time with God.
I focus more time and energy on our son than
on our marriage.
I hold on to wrongs from the past and use them
I need to stop looking at his faults and look
Talk to Your Friends
In addition to talking with God, I suggest that you
talk with a couple of friends who know you well
and who have observed you and your marriage. Tell
them that you are trying to improve your marriage
and you want them to be completely honest with
you. Tell them you are focusing on areas in which
you need to improve in your own life. Ask them
to give you honest feedback on whatever they have
observed in your life, particularly the ways you respond
to your spouse. Tell them that you will still
be friends after they give you the truth-in fact,
it's because of your friendship that you know you
can trust them to be truthful with you. Don't argue
with your friends. Simply write down whatever they
One friend said to a wife who had asked for
input, "Do you really want me to be honest?"
When the wife said yes, the friend said, "You are
critical of your husband in front of other people. I
have often felt sorry for your husband. I know it's
embarrassing for him." The truth may be hard to
hear (in some cases, it will be very hard), but if you
don't hear it, you'll never take the necessary steps
to change and you won't accomplish your goal of
a better marriage.
A friend said to a husband who had asked for
feedback, "My observation is that you often try to
control your wife. I remember that just last week she
was standing in the lobby of the church talking with
another lady, and you walked up and said, 'We've
got to go.' It was like you were her father telling her
what she needed to do." Friends will often give you
perceptions of yourself you have never imagined.
Talk to Your Parents and In-laws
If you are really courageous, and if your parents and
your in-laws have had a chance to observe you and
your marriage, you might ask them the same questions
you asked your friends. Begin the conversation
by telling them that you are trying to improve your
marriage and you are focusing on the things that you
need to change. Again, please don't argue with their
comments. Simply write them down and express
your appreciation for their honesty.
Talk to Your Spouse
Now, if you really want to get serious, ask your
spouse for the same information. You might say,
"Honey, I really want to make our marriage better.
I know that I have not been a perfect spouse,
but I want to get better in the areas that are most
important to you. So I want you to make a list of
the things I've done, or failed to do, that have hurt
you the most. Or perhaps it's things I've said or
failed to say. I want to deal with my failures and
try to make things different in the future." Don't
argue with your spouse's list or rebuff the comments
you are given. Simply receive them as information
and thank your spouse for helping you become a
STEP 2: REFLECT ON THE INFORMATION
YOU HAVE GATHERED
When you have collected all the lists, what you will
have in your hands is valuable information-about
yourself and the way you relate to your spouse, from
God's perspective and from the perspective of the
people who are closest to you. Now it's time for
you to come to grips with this information. This is
not a time to develop rationalized defenses to the
comments you've received. It is a time to accept
the possibility that there is some truth in all these
perspectives. From the lists you have received, make
your own list of things that you agree are wrong in
the way you treat your spouse.
I suggest that you personalize each sentence,
starting with the word I, so that you are honestly
reporting your own awareness of the flaws in your
behavior. For example, "I recognize that I often lose
my temper and say hurtful words to my spouse."
Starting your sentences with I will help you keep it
personal. Include statements about things that you
should be doing but aren't, as well as things you are
doing that you shouldn't. For example, in addition
to the statement above about losing your temper
and saying hurtful things to your spouse, you might
also say, "I do not give my spouse enough positive,
In this time of reflection, be as honest as possible
with yourself. You might even ask God to help you
honestly evaluate your failures. Trying to justify yourself
or excuse your behavior based on your spouse's
behavior is a futile attempt at rationalization. Don't
do it. You will never get the plank out of your own
eye as long as you are excusing your failures.
STEP 3: CONFESSION
We have long known the emotional and spiritual
power of confession. Confessing the things we've
done wrong liberates us from the bondage of past
failures and opens us up to the possibility for
changed behavior in the future. I suggest that you
begin by confessing your failures to God. Here is
King David's confession, written after God showed
David his failures. Your own confessions may not be
expressed as poetically as David's, but you may find
that his words of confession will help you express
Excerpted from Home Improvements
by GARY D. CHAPMAN
Copyright © 2006 by Gary D. Chapman.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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