“We need to talk.” These are four words we often dread hearing from our spouse. We immediately feel like we are being called into the principal’s office. The tension is building before he or she has said a word.

Let me give you a typical scenario of what happens next. I will speak from a man’s perspective since I am a man, but after more than 35 years of marriage counseling, I have found that a woman often responds in much the same way.

My spouse informs me that something about my behavior is frustrating her, irritating her, or hurting her. I feel like I am being criticized or put down and immediately become defensive. Why can’t she just accept me as I am? Why is she trying to change me? I may even become angry and go on the offensive by telling her what frustrates me about her behavior! At this point we both either shut down and nurse our wounds or else we get into a huge argument, depending on our normal fight/flight response. Does all of this sound familiar? Wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t have to be this way? Guess what, it doesn’t. But we do have to change our thinking and even our vocabulary.

First of all, the truth is, I don’t want to do anything that is frustrating, irritating, or hurtful to my spouse. I love her. Why then do I get so defensive? Because I am misinterpreting the whole situation. She is not criticizing me or telling me I am a bad husband; she is just giving me some feedback about my behavior. For you see, I am very aware of how my spouse’s behavior is affecting me because I am experiencing her behavior. But I do not experience my own behavior; I just behave, and much of that behavior is habitual.

Yes, some of those bad habits I most likely established as a child. The only way I can know how my behavior is affecting my spouse is if she tells me. Since in my heart of hearts, I don’t want to frustrate or hurt my spouse, then I want to be open to that feedback.

Let me tell you another secret — you can change. Yes, I know change is hard, but if you set some goals and practice, you can change any bad habit into a better habit. Don’t give up if you mess up a few times, just keep practicing the new behavior over and over again. You will change! Plus, the best way to change is if you only work on one thing at a time.

So the next time your spouse comes up and says, “We need to talk,” take a deep relaxing breath, have a seat and say, “Yes dear. What would you like to talk about?” Then, hear what she is saying and think about it rather than reacting. Remind yourself, she is just giving me feedback about how my behavior is affecting her. Make sure you understand what she is saying.

You might respond by saying, “Thank you for that feedback. Let me try to rephrase that in my own words to make sure I understand what you are saying?” If she confirms that you have heard her correctly, you can then say, “I am going set some goals and practice doing what you have asked. I may forget at times because change is not easy, so I would appreciate it if you could let me know when I am getting it right. That will encourage me to keep going until I do it naturally.”

When she gets over her initial shock that you not only were willing to listen but were actually going to work on making a change, she may well respond by saying, “Is there anything you would like me to work on?”

It is always nice when we can both be making a change for each other to improve our relationship. For you see, a relationship grows the best as we make regular changes for each other as we get to know each other.

If those changes come one at a time throughout our relationship, we will adapt to each other and our relationship will continue to improve.

This will produce an ever-deepening love in your marriage because change is a sacrifice, and sacrificial love is the best love of all. That truth was best demonstrated when God sacrificed His own Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross that we might be reconciled to Him in love.

(David Nofziger has been director and lead counselor at Hope Alive Counseling Services in Defiance since 1989 and author of “Brain Washed, Transforming Your Self-Image through the Amazing Love of God.” He and his wife, Sue, attend Family Christian Center in Defiance where they head up the church’s mission program.)

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