If You Think it Takes Two to Tango, Think Again

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to.

— Rosalynn Carter

In the business world, people call it leadership. They talk about being innovators. Forward thinkers. Doers. Why, then, when I introduce the idea that one partner can be the front-runner for change in a marriage, do people tell me, “No way. That can’t possibly work”?

The party line about marriage—what many therapists think and most books espouse—is that it takes two. Marriage is a two-way street, people say. A fifty-fifty proposition. Successful couples are those who are willing to meet each other halfway. We’re told that couples need to have shared goals and a shared commitment to growth. For good things to happen, both partners must be willing to put both feet into the process.

“If your partner won’t join you in changing your marriage, change it yourself.”

If it takes two people to fix things, what happens when one partner is deeply discouraged or has one foot out the door? Or when one partner is desperately longing for a more vibrant, loving relationship, and the other digs in her heels or thinks things are fine as they are?

Does that mean the more optimistic partner should just call it quits?

Like the countless other mismatches, we face as couples (sex twice a week/sex once in a blue moon, squirrel away every penny/ live while you can), frequently one partner is more committed, more hopeful, more open to change, or more determined to save the marriage than the other.

Sometimes there’s no way to sell “improvement” to a spouse who thinks things are good enough as they are, or believes he’s an innocent bystander in the marriage’s troubles, or behaves outrageously and feels entitled to be loved “as is.”

Rather than live miserably, give up, or drive yourself nuts, consider this alternative: If your partner won’t join you in changing your marriage, change it yourself.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re wasting your time unless both of you try. You’re already doing more than your fair share, and now you’re being asked to do even more! You’ve compromised, begged, and bitten your tongue. You’ve been assertive and accommodating and gone well past halfway.

Besides, you’re not the person who’s been such a jerk.

I hear it all the time from readers and clients, and even from colleagues who still subscribe to the “two to tango” philosophy: “Why should one person do all the hard work while the other just sits on her duff?”

Why? Because waiting around is keeping you stuck.

That’s one of the biggest problems with the “it takes two” paradigm: it advocates passivity when action is needed, leaving you with options that only make matters worse.

Say your partner refuses to carry his or her weight. Will things really be better if you also do nothing, just to make it fairer?

You might try lowering your standards and resigning yourself to live life as it miserably is. Or you can try, yet again, to get that difficult, hunkered-down spouse of yours to be enthused about change. Chances are, you’ll end up back at square one: worn out, discouraged, and one step closer to thinking the only way out of your difficult marriage is divorce.

The Alternative

Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Take the lead. Doing so is empowering and effective.

You might, for example, no longer be willing to remain silent when your spouse is berating the children—or you. You may decide that ignoring your mounting debt is more frightening than beginning to talk about it. The same goes for talks about sex, your in-laws’ upcoming visit, texting while driving, driving while buzzed. You might choose to speak up—come what may—prepared to stay calm even if your partner blows up, rolls her eyes or refuses to talk.

Taking the lead is about taking the first steps toward change—because some aspect of your relationship life is no longer acceptable, because you have a vision for change that will make your good marriage better, because the terms of engagement you set early on in your marriage need a radical update.

Maybe you want to move to the country, have a third kid, get rid of the television. Maybe you want to have sex with the lights on, or in the kitchen—and not just on Sunday. Maybe you rant like a tyrant when you don’t get your way and you’re ready to stop strong-arming the people you love to make them give in.

Change in a couple doesn’t arise spontaneously, and rarely does the inspiration for change strike both partners simultaneously. More often, it’s a matter of one partner who has a vision for change and is willing to go out on a limb to attempt to make that change happen. One partner who is willing to risk, to raise his or her standards, refusing to cave in. One partner who tolerates the anxiety of entering new territory. When one partner changes how he or she operates in the marital system, it will inevitably change the system as a whole.

Here’s what it takes:

1. You have to let go of the “it takes two” paradigm.

That means setting aside your beliefs about fairness and parity and working as a team. Never mind all the stuff about 50-50 and meeting halfway. Take a chance and go it alone. Nothing will change unless you’re willing to do this.

2. Give up all hope of changing your spouse. Focus, instead, on changing yourself.

Chances are, you already know that trying to change your partner is a fruitless endeavor. And quite likely, that hasn’t stopped you from trying it anyway. Most of us have tried everything we can think of to get our partner to shape up—endlessly, repetitively, and in ways we wouldn’t dare to admit publicly. Quit wasting your time. If the conditions are untenable, go ahead and leave the relationship. But if you’re going to stay, put your energy into controlling the only thing you can control: yourself.

3. Become an expert on your own part in your difficulties in order to know what you really need to change.

Most of us could write a long list of what our partner should change. But when we look at ourselves, we’re not nearly as clear about the unproductive things that we do to keep our relationship stuck. Maybe you’re stubborn or nit-picking or you take everything personally. Maybe you clam up and say everything’s fine when it’s not. Or, you stockpile your upsets until you explode. As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.” Take his advice.

4. Pick one thing to change. One behavior to master.

This is the formula: Instead of x. I want to do y. Instead of blowing up when I’m angry, I want to calm down. Instead of shutting down, I want to speak up. Change happens in small steps and by trial and error, and not overnight.

In my thirty-plus years as a couples therapist, I’ve made the “change one thing” suggestion many hundreds of times. And though not every client has marched out of my office and thrown body and soul into changing the thing that they chose, those who put in an earnest effort are surprised to discover the positive impact that their one change has made.

Remember, one of you has to go first. Apologize first. Be vulnerable first. Yield first. Forgive first.

Why not let that person be you?

Join and crush a stereotype or two

Photo: Getty Images