There is no more rewarding place to be our best self than in our marriage and family life. At the same time, it can be a challenging place to find and maintain the self-control which helps us to be our best. Some know how to monitor and control their self-talk so that they control their responses, but a lot of us can look within and easily recall ways and times that we reacted less well than we wish we had.
The key to becoming the spouse or parent we would like to be is based upon our ability to recognize what we are thinking in that stream of constant thought, in our self-talk or internal monologue, and taking control of those thoughts by replacing the negative thoughts with the positive opposites. This is true whether we are the victim of someone who is controlling, critical, contemptuous or trying to change us, or if we are the bully treating others with control, criticism, contempt or efforts to change them. Becoming our best self involves taking responsibility for how we relate to others and changing our inner thought life to support being the kind of person we want to be who relates to others in the way we want to relate, to treat others the way we would like them to treat us. Let's see what this can look like.
So you have a spouse who uses one or more of the marriage-destroying tactics of control, contempt, criticism, or attempts to change you. A common line of thought in such a situation reverts to self-pity as the victim, "I can't stand the way I'm being treated. I'm getting out of here." That is the negative, defeatist thinking that ends in divorce. Or you may think, "I will not allow my spouses attitude and actions to pull me down into similar tit-for-tat behaviour." That's more hopeful, but lacks direction or a goal. More positive and useful is, "As long as I feel safe in our home, I will consider this situation to be a challenge to help me recognize how I can become a better person. I will learn to recognize my thoughts so that instead of reacting in ways which simply escalate the problem, I will maintain my self-control and respond in the ways in which I would like to be treated. As I model right attitudes and behaviour, my spouse will have the opportunity to respond more appropriately to the positive changes in me." There is no guarantee that a spouse will respond well to a changed you, but the fact is that many have. When one marriage partner refuses to contribute to the escalation of the problems and does what is right to do, there is hope for a change to a better quality of relationship. If your spouse is simply casually annoying but not using control, criticism, contempt or trying to change you, then becoming your best self will probably result in a really good relationship.
On the other hand, if you're reading this and recognize that you are the one trying to change your spouse, that you are the one that is being controlling, and/or critical, and/or contemptuous, there is tremendous hope for your marriage if you are willing to take control of your own thought patterns and replace your drive to control with a determination to have an attitude of trust and act upon it; to replace your criticism with words of affirmation for all that your spouse does right; to show respect instead of contempt, to accept your spouse instead of trying to demand change.
In researching material for this series of columns, I hunted up materials I had used in the mid-1970s in a similarly oriented women's group. I found that I had broken love down into a number of component parts, which are not emotions but attitudes and acts of the will. These included respect, acceptance, affirmation and trust as well as appreciation and basic caring concern. A couple of times since then, I have encountered discussions of the four negative practices of control, contempt, criticism, and trying to change the spouse as being particularly destructive to marriage relationships. What I found neat was that the way I had defined love included the opposites of these most destructive practices. Control involves an element of grasping for power, but it also expresses lack of trust. Criticism is the opposite of affirmation, of recognizing and appreciating good qualities and actions. Contempt is the opposite of respect. Trying to change someone is the opposite of acceptance.
I think that it is special to realize that real love, not as merely a fuzzy, feel-good emotion, but as a choice and a group of attitudes and acts of the will, is the positive which rationally counteracts the attitudes and actions which are most destructive of marriage relationships. This real love can be part of self-control and part of your best self, which combined can be powerful aspects of enhancing and preserving marriage.