Is it fair to say to your spouse, “This is just the way I am” when it comes to a negative character trait?
Is there a way to change negative character traits in ourselves–and even in those around us? I’m not talking about personality differences, where we may clash on different things. I’m talking about negative character traits where we tend to show selfishness, immaturity, or something else that makes life difficult for those around us.
As we’re talking about growth in marriage this month, and specifically this week about how to talk to your spouse if something is bugging you, I thought we’d continue with this theme with an extra post looking at how to change negative character traits. Really, that’s just a fancy way of talking about another concept: GROWTH. Changing a negative character trait is simply growing as a Christian and a human being.
Life is supposed to be characterized by growth–not stagnation with a bad character trait.
We’re supposed to get increasing victory over sin. We’re supposed to get more mature. We’re supposed to gain greater insight, greater patience, greater wisdom.
Unfortunately, often we use the language of love in marriage to make it sound like wanting your spouse to grow, or wanting you to grow, means that you don’t really love them. “If you loved me, you’d accept me, and this is part of who I am!”
But I think of it in a different way. If I love Keith, I want him to be the best that he can be. I want him to live out God’s purpose for his life. I want him to thrive, to excel, to do the things that God has planned for him. And that means that I want him to grow!
And I also know that part of loving Keith means that I need to grow as well. I need to become more loving, more patient, more kind. I need to be the best that I can be, and run after Jesus as much as possible, because that’s part of my wedding vow. I promised that I would love and cherish and honour him, and the way that I do that is by treating him as well as I can. And the only way to treat him well is to deal with my own negative character traits.
Saying “this is just who I am” is a cop out, pure and simple.
Being a person means that you are someone dynamic. The mark of our lives is that we change. And so let’s take care that we change in the right direction.
1. Know who you’re supposed to be.
What is it that God wants from us?
First, He wants us to look more and more like Christ:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”
He wants us to demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…
That’s the point. So learn to recognize those things. Hang out with people who can spur you on to love and good deeds–who really do demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Pray together for these things in your lives. Be part of a community where you see Jesus and you start to want more of Him. You can’t change a negative character trait until you learn to recognize the good.
Okay, sounds good so far. But how do we make growth into those good character traits happen? Let’s look at a few strategies.
2. Call out the opposite–The flipside of a negative character trait is often a personality strength
Let me tell you a story about my daughters when they were younger. They were truly wonderful as kids. I know every mother says that, but they were. They were kind, they were loving, they were helpful, they had an extremely high moral framework for themselves, and they were a joy to parent. They still are, even as adults!
But they each also had their own areas of weakness–their own negative character traits. I’ve always felt that your greatest weaknesses are tied to your strengths. Rebecca, for instance, had a high demand of holiness in herself, which is great. She would never lie. She would never be mean to anyone. She wanted to be GOOD.
That’s the good part. But then she would often flip that onto others. She would demand the same of them, and she would be hurt and angry if they didn’t follow through. And as a firstborn child, she was often very bossy of her younger sister. But her bossiness, her demands that Katie listen to me, do her chores, do the right thing, were the flipside of the high standards she set for herself.
The good–she wants to do the right thing. The bad–she demands it in others.
I pride myself on being a strong worker, being able to get a lot of things done. The flipside of that, however, is that I can be so focused that I can’t relax, and I can be very grumpy with others when I’m in the middle of a project. It’s hard to turn it off.
The good–I work hard. The bad–I make others suffer for it.
One of the long-standing discussions that Katie and I would have is that she can be a real people pleaser. She wants others to like her, and she really values her friendships. The flipside of that, though, is that she doesn’t know how to say no, and often finds herself far too busy and overburdened with other people’s problems.
The good–she honestly cares. The bad–she exhausts herself for it.
Do you see what I mean? The character traits that tend to be our strengths often also become our weaknesses.
Sensitive people who care deeply about others tend to also not be able handle criticism or difficult conversations. People who can respond well under a crisis and who are highly responsible can sometimes come off as uncaring because they’re so logical.
So what do you do? Call out the good first, and validate the good, before trying to address the bad.
“Katie–you care so much for people, and that’s wonderful. But sometimes you don’t care enough for yourself. And you can’t help others if you’re always exhausted. It’s wonderful that you have such a big heart; let’s talk about how to protect you and draw boundaries.”
Or Keith has had to say to me:
“Sheila, I’m in awe at how much you can get done. But you also need some time to rejuvenate and relax. Let’s start planning more of that into your schedule.”
When you notice your spouse doing something good that is the flipside of the negative character trait, call it out. Reinforce it. But then bring it back to the right balance.
3. Remind yourself and your spouse who you are and what your aiming for
Every couple should have a vision for where they’re going–what you want your life and your marriage and your parenting to look like in the future. What is God doing in your life right now? Where are you going? When we have a vision, and a direction, then you have something to measure against when you fall.
Let me give a super practical example. A woman wrote was commenting on the blog a while ago that her husband played video games non-stop after coming home from work. She was scared, because she was pregnant, and she didn’t know what this would look like once the baby came. So they talked about how much was reasonable for him to play video games, and they decided that they should each have an hour a night to do with as they want, and two hours on weekend days. But other than that, they’d spend time together.
Now, when he’s on video games for longer, she can go to him and say, “remember? You said this isn’t what you wanted for yourself. You said that you wanted to do more with your evenings than play video games.” Because they’ve already had that talk and decided what they want life to look like, she can go and remind him.
4. Praise the things that are good, both in yourself and in your spouse
This general rule is a good one as well: If you’re trying to change negative character traits, always call out the good, too, even the ones unrelated to the bad. One of my friends had a husband who was fighting a porn addiction, which hurt her heart so much. But in those months as they were going through counseling and trying to put it behind them, she made it a point of thanking him for two things a day. The fact that she had to look for two things to thank him for meant that she was training herself to notice the good. That’s a key point in my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, which can change the dynamic when we’re going through rough patches.
When the good is reinforced, people tend to want to repeat it. So praise helps everyone!
Character traits that tend to be our strengths often also become our weaknesses.
5. Have grace for slipups when a negative character trait come to the forefront
Growth is very rarely a straight, upwards progression. It usually has times of tremendous progress, and then a few steps back, and then some slow progress before sliding back down again. Over the course of a year or two you may notice real change, but over a week, or a day, not so much. People slip up.
Take a spouse who is trying to get help for anxiety and depression. Maybe they’ve made some progress, and they’re eating better, taking medication, going for therapy, and sleeping better. But then, maybe over a weekend, they stay in bed and everything seems to go to pot. The temptation in that moment is to assume that you’re back at square one, and that they’ll never be better again. But none of us can be perfect. It’s better, again, to remind them of where they are, where they’ve come, and the goal:
You’ve had a really good two months. You’ve done really well. This is a set back. But don’t let it hamper you from moving forward. I’m proud of you for where you’ve come. You’ll get there again. What can I do to help?
6. Get help for the big character trait problems.
And then, if it’s something that just isn’t getting better, get some help.
For instance, I have people asking me, “shouldn’t he get better from his porn addiction? It’s been two years since I discovered it, and he keeps being fine for a month, but then sliding back into it. How long do I have to put up with this for?”
Yes, he should be getting better. It’s one thing to have occasional slip ups; it’s quite another to have those repeatedly, without showing commitment to get better. So if something big keeps happening, then seek out some licensed counseling for him, and also for you as you learn how to draw good boundaries (again, my book 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage deals with this in detail).