One of the common questions we hear from frustrated spouses is “How can I get my husband (or wife) to change his behavior?”

This question frequently comes from partners who come to us in a last-ditch effort to stop divorce from rocking their sense of security and stability.

And certainly in the case of addictions such as compulsive drinking or taking drugs, gambling or porn, the difficult job of changing these types of behavior is best addressed with the help of experienced professional counselors trained in addictions.

But what about less extreme examples, such as a spouse who habitually leaves clothes on the floor?

What to Do When Nagging Doesn’t Work

NaggingDo you feel like you’re “beating your head against a wall”? Has your constant campaign to get your spouse to change or do things differently helped push him or her toward marriage separation?

An interesting remark by psychologist Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., states that “When partners are no longer pressed to change, research shows, one-third finally do.”

Sometimes you can push too hard and trigger resistance in your spouse. Then, it’s wiser to back off and give your partner some space. When the pressure is relieved, he (or she) may decide on his own to change.

This reminds us of the saying, “Less is more,” and we’ve seen this dynamic acted out numerous times in the relationships of couples, family members and friends. So stay creative. And if what you’re doing isn’t working, ease up. Over time, you can try something else.

This is true in every aspect of your life—marriage, career, raising children, and your personal life. There are usually many more options than you see at first glance.

Try This Instead

Instead of nagging, try giving your spouse praise for what he or she does right. What would this look like in practice?

Let’s say for example that you want your husband to do more chores around the house, when he’s otherwise accustomed to watching television. If you see him do something minor, like picking up a sock from the bedroom floor, reward him by thanking, praising or complimenting him.

If he enjoys the reward, then he may not mind picking up two socks next time.

If you consistently reward him with pleasurable attention and a smile when he does something you like, he may gradually be inclined to do more of it.

Will your spouse feel manipulated if you try this method? Not likely. A person feels manipulated if he is forced to do something against his will. But if you make sure the rewards you give are pleasing, then your spouse will be inclined to be agreeable.

Using this method, you can help gradually turn a marital crisis into a satisfying relationship. And what had been a problem in the marriage becomes a unifying bond of shared responsibility.

–By Nancy Wasson, Ph.D. and Lee Hefner