Change First Is Still Good Advice

Published April 15, 1988. Perhaps it was coincidental. Perhaps not. Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the Change First Principle, suggesting that if a person wanted to change a relationship he or she must be willing to change first. Most people want the other half of a relationship to initiate the change and they become astute in pointing out how and when the other person might make constructive changes. In the process we sometimes become oblivious to the ways we ourselves might change to improve a relationship.

The coincidence came last week when I received a phone call from a woman who lives in another state. Two years ago, she was in attendance when I spoke to a large group about marriage.

I remember her well. I don’t remember anyone every becoming so angry at something I had said in a lecture or speech.

After I finished speaking that night she asked if we might talk for a few minutes after everyone left. We ended up talking for almost an hour. She was annoyed at what I had said in describing the Change First Principle. Her husband, she said, was an alcoholic. In fact, he was so drunk that evening that he couldn’t tend their children while she came to the marriage seminar. He had been an alcoholic almost all their married life. But somehow their marriage had survived.

In very emotional terms she told me how unhappy she was in her marriage. She felt she was a victim of her husband’s problem with alcohol. “And you had the nerve,” she went on, “to suggest tonight that I had to be the one to change first.” She really was angry.

I thought it over for a few minutes. It did sound like pretty strong language. And perhaps theoretical at that. Should the wife of an alcoholic ‘change first’ to improve the marriage? After some contemplation I still decided it was a true principle and suggested she be the one to instigate the change.

She became more upset. She had thought I would join her in commiserating about her bad relationship with her husband. She even produced a large notebook in which she had kept a careful record of the things her husband had done each day to upset her and make her life miserable.

I quickly made several suggestions for her. First, I advised her to burn her notebook. She was letting her husband control her life with his problem with alcohol. I told her to take control of her own life and let no one, including her husband or children, determine her happiness or her future. It was true she was a victim, but she had chosen to become one. Now she could also choose not to be a victim.

Another suggestion was to go to a Christian bookstore and buy a copy of “Love Must Be Tough” by Dr. James Dobson. The book has helped many people who are in the process of losing a spouse through infidelity, alcohol, or many related causes.

As we left the building that night I shared one more suggestion.  It was that she start the Change First process by going home, awakening her husband, and telling him that she cared for him. In addition, she could tell him she wanted a better relationship and what she was willing to do to make some immediate changes.

Her phone call last week was brief and to the point. She thanked me for the insight two years ago on changing first. She said she had purchased “Love Must Be Tough” and that her marriage and her life were improving. Her husband had sought help with his alcohol and is making great progress.

And she said it all began that night when she decided to change first.

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