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How to Constructively Change a Behavior
Whether itís your husband or wife (or your own), changing a behavior can be tricky. Use these tips to help navigate without placing blame.


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How you approach making a change can have a tremendous impact on the likelihood of success.


Remember, it will not workóespecially with something that you are giving upóif you keep perceiving that you are sacrificing so much without it.”
How should you approach the topic of changing your spouseís behavior? Well, ultimatums do not work! If you are too vague your husband or wife might not understand your intention. Nagging never works! Talking negatively about your spouse's behavior in a joking fashion in front of others is definitely a no no! So what to do?

Be a friend. See it from your spouseís perspective. Have they been doing it for years? Are they as unhappy about the behavior as you are and know they need to change? This is an entirely different scenario than your spouse saying they believe you have the problem and they donít see it as a problem.

If it is unhealthy and damaging to their well-being, you can start with concern, love and sincere worry that you really need them to hear you out because this is very important. If they want to change but donít know how, it is the same approach, you can guide them by offering your support (not nagging) and maybe suggest a visit to your family doctor, or a therapist, or a self-help group.

Another important approach is to ask them first if they really want to change and are they happy in their behavior.

You might say: "I need to talk to you about you, and how important you are to me and how much I love you, but I worry a lot about [blank]. It seems like you are not happy about [blank], but you keep doing it. Do you want to change [blank]? Sometimes I hear you saying you do. Do you?"

If it is a "yes," then ask, "What is it you need from me to help you through this change? What is the number one thing that you need me to do or not do to help you? What is the first thing you are going to do to help yourself? We can work on this together, but you are the one who has to take the steps. Is that what you want?"

Whatever the answer may be, do not accept "I donít know" as an answer. It is not an answer and each of you have got to dig deep.

How to Begin Change Within Yourself

It's real easy. Make it a dialogue, make it collaborative, and make it honest and caring. Here are some tips to follow:

1. You have to clearly identify what it is you want to change.

2. You have to really believe that you can make the change. (Donít second guess yourself).

3. You have to visualize yourself changed, completely free as the "newly changed you" behaving, looking and feeling different and free from that [blank] you use to do!

“You have to really believe that you can make the change. (Donít second guess yourself).”

4. You have to get excited and passionate and motivated that this is the most important thing and the only thing you have to do in life. There is nothing else that takes priority except this desire from within your core to be this newly improved person without that old behavior!

5. You have to change your negative thinking into positive thinking. Stop self-sabotaging yourself saying, "I can do it" but deep inside you are saying, "Fat chance that will ever work, Iíve never made it work before, who am I kidding?" Believe me, if you keep saying that you wonít make it, you won't.

6. Take small, incremental steps. If it is building up to a new behavior that you are trying to insert into your life, then take it gradually, and every 3-5 days do a little more of what you desire to do.

If it is about eliminating a behavior, then it is the same thing in reverse. Every 3-5 days you shave back on the amount, the time, the cost, the effort of what you put into your old behavior by doing it less and less and less. If it is something you eat, or substances, or some activity you do, it is vital that you gradually pull back.

Example: You want a new slimmer and more energetic you. So identify one food that you eat a lot of that is fattening or unhealthy or has a lot of calories. Maybe you notice that you eat a lot of fast food. So instead of thinking I have to stop completely, it might be more prudent to say, "OK, I eat fast food every day." So then, you eat fast food three times a week and begin to buy good food to prepare or that is healthier to eat and have it ready on those days when you do not eat fast food. You do that for one week until you start looking forward to the meals you eat on the off days. Then, you increase more of those non-fast food days, perhaps five days out of seven days are of the healthy variety. Then, all seven days you have stopped fast food and you donít miss it after 10 days or two weeks of only having fast food twice a week. So you make the change, and then you make the adjustment to accepting the decrease, and then you make the next adjustment down.

Keep this up until you have completely changed your behavior over a six-week period. Remember, it will not workóespecially with something that you are giving upóif you keep perceiving that you are sacrificing so much without it. As long as you think like that, you are setting yourself up for failure. If so, go back and do steps 1-5 again and start again. Stop saying, "I will try." "Try" is not a word. It means nothing. It is just a filler for, "I am not sure this will work."

Dr. Margot E. Brown, a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist, has counseled and helped thousands of people improve their relationships and save their marriages over the past two decades.†She has written for The Family Psychologist and The American Journal of Family Therapy.† For the past year and a half she has worked as the director of psychological health for Magellan Health Inc. as a civilian contractor for the United States Army Reserve (63rd RSC).† She is responsible for the mental well-being of 43,000 soldiers in nine states, Guam, Siapan, and American Samoa.† She is a member of American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and Employee Assistance Professional Association.† She resides with her husband and family in the San Francisco Bay area.†For more information, www.72hrrule.com.


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