This is the twelfth post in a seventeen part series on “Marriage with a Chronically Self-Centered Spouse.” In the posts ten through thirteen we will examine guidelines for how to live at peace with a self-centered spouse “as far as it depends on you ” (Rom. 12:18). These are not prescriptions with the promise of a better marriage, but wisdom principles that will allow you to inject as much peace  into a situation as your spouse will allow.

Focus Your Requests for Change

With a chronically self-centered spouse, it is easy to become a nag. Even the “nice” moments begin to only feel like leverage that will be used against you later. Then there is the barrage of neglect and/or dishonor that could be confronted. You begin to feel like communication is a choice between attack or condone; nag or ignore.

Many people in this situation give into cynicism with intermittent bouts of rage. Sarcasm or doubt becomes the response to anything good (marital or otherwise) until a moment when he/she just wants someone (spouse, child, friend, co-worker, etc…) to “get it.” When this explosion is on someone other than their spouse and its clear the response is disproportionate, the abused/neglected spouse begins to wonder if he/she “really is crazy.”

This scenario requires an intentional plan for how to address the marital situation. If you try to address the “issue of the day” then you will get drawn into a trap where your spouse says, “I’ll never be able to please you. You want to change everything about me,” and you’ll wonder if you really are being too demanding.

Until you get a consistent acknowledgement of the over-arching problem, don’t try to debate the details.

Don’t get drawn into a temporal discussion when there is a chronic problem. If asked, “What’s wrong now?” Don’t allow the word “now” to frame the conversation as if this moment were unique from the general marital pattern.

Acknowledgement of the over-arching problem often sounds like this:

  • I am a selfish person who manipulates you and the kids to get my way.
  • I force situations and conversations to fit in molds I am comfortable with.
  • I pursue my pleasure in a way that puts our family in difficult situations.
  • I intimidate or threaten to leave when I don’t get my way and use fear as a weapon.

When asked “What’s wrong?” or a situation requires confronting, you should tie your confrontation to one of these themes (or one similar that is more relevant). Until this is acknowledged, the two of you will never agree on any of the other details.

Don’t try to have this conversation when your spouse is highly upset or has been drinking. Volatile moments are notoriously ineffective for producing lasting change and often result in great emotional (sometimes physical) harm.

Most chronically self-centered spouses (even the most narcissistic) will have moments when they will acknowledge this reality. When this happens, it is appropriate to affirm this mark of humility. In the next section we will look at what to ask / look for as evidence that this acknowledgement is a step towards lasting change.

However, until this acknowledgement is made your request for change should be (a) highly repetitive and (b) therefore only made during moments when there is reason to believe they will be most receivable.

Repetitive: This does not need to mean “scripted” (the exact same words). But it should be clear that you are not asking for a dozen things. You are asking for one primary change that, if made, will have dozens of implications. But the implications without the core change will be fleeting.

Receivable Moments: The moments when you speak should be marked by one or more of the following qualities (1) there is a clear tie to the pattern of chronic selfishness, (2) you have emotional self-control, (3) substance impairment or social shame are not complicating factors, and (4) your spouse is listening and not stone-walling or asking rhetorical questions. This is not a “recipe for success” – meaning if you do it this way your spouse will respond. But the absence of these factors does mean that your core message will begin to get lost or damaged by the context in which it is raised.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Abusive Relationships” post which address other facets of this subject.