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Iron Sharpen Iron | Helping Your Partner Change
by Cal Henze
Wouldn’t it be nice if every marriage started with both partners first achieving complete emotional, mental and spiritual health so "as iron sharpens iron" wasn't necessary? If they each spent time learning the skills to be a gentle, nurturing and kind person and mastered the ability to deeply love and connect with each other and with children?
It’s a heart-warming fantasy — but sadly, none of us would ever get married if the bar were set that high…
The truth is that God puts us in marriage to change us and to have iron sharpen iron. He wants us to become more like Him and He often uses our partner to help us do so. Once you receive repeated feedback from your partner on a growth area and once you feel personally convicted that it’s something you need to change, it’s time to commit to making the change. However, making a lasting change can be quite complex and difficult. Therefore, the rest of this article will give you some tools on how to make the change if you’re the one with the growth area and it will also include tips on how to help your partner change if they are the one with the growth area.
Part 1: How people change
For most of us, change is a mystery, but it doesn’t need to be. If we are going to become God’s hands and feet of growth and change for our partners, we first need to understand it.
In their 1994 study of how people give up smoking, James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed a ‘stages of change’ model that maps how you get from where you are to where you want to be.
Let’s look at those steps and how you can support your partner through them:
The first stage of change starts before we are even thinking about it. We are comfortable and ignorance is bliss — except for our partner dropping those annoying little hints… Even though it seems like nothing is happening, new ideas are being planted that will eventually take root and grow. While this stage often takes some time, very few people actually get stuck at this level.
How you can help?
Affirming your partner's right and ability to choose and exploring reasons to change together is usually all that is needed to help with this step.
The second step of change starts when we start to actively weigh the pros and cons of change. Often, as the idea is tossed back and forth, we end up arguing with our partner though, in truth, we’re really arguing with ourselves. That internal debate is almost never an attempt to stay stuck.
How you can help?
Stay calm and don’t be baited into the argument. Most people simply need someone to talk through the pros and cons of the decision and want someone to help them envision a better life. Instead, dream with your partner.
The third step starts once we have made the decision and begun to plan for change. We are searching for ideas of where to start and are beginning to try small initial steps. This is where fear starts to grow. We begin to question if we have the skills to change and often get stuck in emotions. If we will get stuck on the path of change, this is almost certainly where it will occur.
How you can help?
Usually, the most important question being asked is, "Will you be there to support me if I take this step?” Just believe in your partner and encourage even the smallest steps he or she takes!
(The second half of this article will give you specific tools so that you not only can be there, but, together, can also conquer any barriers to change.)
We would all like to see change as a one-off event but this step is usually a three to six month journey of both success and failure. While those around us may be focused on what is being gained, often this stage is more marked by our grief over a sense of loss of what was and frustration over the failures.
How you can help?
Believing in your partner, believing in the change and being a loving, supportive friend makes all the difference in the world. Hold your partner and grant the permission to grieve — even if you think that grief is irrational.
This stage can often last as long as five years before the change becomes the new normal. It is usually more about adjusting the rest of life to fit the change and those adjustments are often surprisingly difficult.
How you can help?
Ongoing support from loved ones is so important. Internal struggle usually continues much longer then you may imagine and, unless regular check-ins occur, your partner may feel abandoned and at risk of a relapse that no one wants to see occur.
It’s so easy to feel both impatient and powerless as you watch your partner change. But, you really are incredibly powerful! Understanding your partner’s struggles, exploring together, firmly believing in and having the courage to wrap your arms around and cry with your partner is the most powerful therapy ever invented. It’s the power of love.
And, in the next section, we will learn how to pair that love with strategic action to help your partner succeed at change, even when you run into the inevitable roadblocks.
Part 2: Overcoming barriers to change.
In the last section, we discovered how change happens — and learned some steps we can take to support our partners through such. It’s a great model, but real life isn’t always that neat and tidy.
The road of change is often cluttered with roadblocks and rarely a smooth journey. In this section we will learn how to take key steps to conquer those roadblocks so you can succeed together!
For many relationships, the Stages of Change model really looks more like this:
Our partner becomes aware of change, thinks it over, commits and prepares for it and then... Nothing. He or she has hit a wall.
We suddenly see our hopes and dreams senselessly dashed and start to turn on our partner. In frustration, we begin to use shame, guilt or threats to try to motivate. Distrust begins to grow, hearts pull away from each other and it all comes crashing to a halt. However, it doesn't need to be that way. We can help our partner climb that wall — if we just, together, take six simple steps:
Sit down together and write two lists:
The first step is simply to help your partner make two lists:
- a list of reasons to no longer stay where he or she is.
- a list of reasons to change.
Then, together, meditate on them!
Note: If there already is a list of reasons not to change, it can be helpful to ask your partner to say them out loud — otherwise, ignore them.
It's rarely the struggles we are expecting that cause relapse. Being aware of difficulty you both may face is the first step towards making a plan to cope with it. Simply talking through potential struggles in advance can do so much to ease feelings of hopelessness and create a sense of, "Team."
Make a concrete plan:
The old saying that, "Those who fail to plan, plan to fail," is so true here. The plan can't just be about where you want to go. It must include practical strategies to take on the struggle you know you will face. Often, scheduling an appointment with a Christian Counselor to discuss your plan can provide options and strategies you may never have considered.
Get prepared for pain and discomfort:
Growth almost always follows a path that looks something like this:
Change is work. It starts out with passion and excitement — but, once you take action, you discover how hard it can be. Unless you and your partner are ready for the hardships that come while slogging through what some have called, “The pit of despair,” you risk giving up just before you start to succeed.
Enlist the support of others:
We were made for community and we don’t function well without it. Connect with a church cell group or join a support group for the issues you are seeking to change. You can never have too many people believing in you, loving you and helping you navigate through the rough patches.
Change the +20/-80 ratio:
Most of us devote 80% of our mental energy to worrying about the risks of change and 20% focusing on the positive aspects and benefits of change. Practice devoting at least 80% of your thoughts towards the up-side of change: What you will gain, how you will feel, what good will come of it and the satisfaction you anticipate.
Change may be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a mystery and it definitely does not have to be a place of powerlessness or confusion. The next time you see your partner encountering a roadblock, don’t panic and resort to guilt, shame or threats. Instead, gently come along side your partner and together walk through these steps, secure in the confidence that you know how to help each other through the process and can, together, succeed at creating change!
Cal H. MA, a Christian Marriage Counselor, and co-owner of Henze-Associates.com. He’s passionate about transforming marriages and giving people back the choices they never thought they had.
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