Tara, a young lady at the church I was working for at the time, approached me one day after church and asked to speak with me. "You've got to help me. I know in my heart that my attitude is wrong, but—I can't help it. It's how I feel. My marriage is killing me. It's so bad. I just want to give up. I'm tired of fighting. I'm tired of being the only one trying."
Tara wiped tears from her cheeks. I knew Tara likes to be direct and she is a good friend, so I decided to shoot straight with her.
"Tara, can I be real with you?" I asked.
"Yes, please. I'm at the end of my rope. Just tell me anything that will help me," she pleaded.
"Do you really want to make your marriage better?"
"Well, if it can be. I know it's what's best for the kids and I know it's what's right. I know God hates divorce."
"Tara, then here's the key. You have to begin with your attitude. You have to stop thinking that your marriage is over and that it can't be changed. If you keep thinking and saying that it's over, your feelings and actions will follow and your marriage will eventually fail."
Tara's tears flowed unabated.
"Do me a favor," I said. "For one day, stop focusing on your marriage ending and focus on saving your marriage—even if you don't believe it's possible. Can you stop thinking about it being over for at least twenty-four hours? Will you at least consider that your marriage might just work?"
Tara looked surprised; it wasn't what she expected from me. I'm usually more passive and empathetic in my approach.
She sighed. "Well, all I can do is try. I don't know what else to do."
Not only did she try, but she made great strides in turning her heart around. The next day, she called my office. "Well, no miracle has happened yet," she said, "but I do feel better. I did what you told me to do. For a few hours, I stopped obsessing about my marriage ending and started to think about changing my attitude versus trying to change Matt's. I stopped praying that God would end the pain and get me out of it and started praying that God would change my heart and restore my joy. It really made a difference in how I looked at Matt and the future of our marriage."
I was thrilled. "Good, that's the first step," I said. "Now, let me help you with the next."
In a series of meetings, I convinced Tara that if she continued to work on her attitude, then her actions regarding her marriage would open up new possibilities for changes in Matt. Like most people, Tara felt that 99 percent of her marital problems were her spouse's fault. Over time, she had convinced herself that Matt was the reason her marriage was headed south and that her actions and attitudes had nothing to do with it. Though she hadn't seen any valid signs of adultery, Tara even imagined that Matt was cheating. Her thoughts spiraled downward, producing more and more destructive thinking and behavior.
And the more she allowed her thoughts to spin in that rut, the deeper it became.
As Tara made changes in attitude toward Matt, he noticed. He appreciated her increased respect and grace when he made mistakes. She stopped reacting in the same ways as before. Within a few short weeks, Matt came to counseling with Tara. We worked on basic attitude changes, actions, and how they could interact without arguing. Changes slowly occurred in their hearts and even their everyday interactions improved. They're happier than ever now, and it all started with changes in thinking and attitude.
Perhaps you're thinking, This doesn't apply to me. My attitude is stellar. I'm right on track. Fair enough. But do yourself a favor and take this quick checkup. How many of these statements have you recently thought or said to your spouse? Put a check by those that apply.
- "If you disagree with something I said or did, it means you don't love me."
- "If you disappoint me, I'll make your life miserable."
- "It's no use to keep trying to talk through our problems. We always end up fighting."
- "You'll never forgive me for what I did."
- "Because you make the same mistakes over and over, it means you don't care."
- "It's always going to be this way. Nothing will ever change."
- "Our marriage has never been good. You've never really loved me."
- "You shouldn't feel that way."
- "You always treat me the same way."
- "You never show me you love me."
- "It's always about you."
- "You are never wrong."
- "I'm never right."
- "It's your fault I feel this way. You make me act this way."
- "Because our marriage doesn't look like ____________'s marriage, it's not right."
- "I'm not being treated like I should be."
- "I'm not happy . . . so I have the right to treat you the way I do."
- "You're not meeting my needs; I have a right to find someone else who will."
- "I'm not in love with you anymore — so the commitment means nothing to me."
- "This marriage is keeping me from living up to my potential."
- "If you would just change, our marriage would be okay."
- "The kids would be better off without their mom and dad fighting all the time."
Do any words in this list sound vaguely familiar? Could it be that your attitude—or your marriage—has begun a slow drift in an unhelpful, unhappy direction? Now is the best time I can think of to get back on course.