Mate Makeovers
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Mate Makeovers

It's tempting to change what you hate in your mate. But can you? And should you?

Better or Worse

It seems paradoxical. You fell in love with this guy, and now you want to change him? When someone asks us women to change, we're well-trained to say, "I just want to be myself!" Yet we get flooded with righteous, Queer Eye joy when we toss out those ratty boxer shorts and pack away his collection of wrestling figurines. When is it okay to change a nasty habit, and when should we exercise tolerance and patience, remembering our vow of "for better or worse?"

Every couple's got gripes. "I hate the way he clams up around my friends," says Celine, 30, from San Francisco, due to be married in May. "If he doesn't like them, he can't step up to the plate and make small talk. It's so rude. What if I did the same to all his boring friends?"

Some issues hit the home front harder. "My guy lets loose with the gas and then just goes on with his activities, as if I have selective deafness and didn't just hear that percussive blast," says Nina, 34, from Cincinnati, just married to Mark. "And if I make a fuss, he just laughs. I don't want this level of comfort."

"I don't know where he picked up this hillbilly habit, but my husband chews tobacco," says Carrie, 36, from Morristown, New Jersey, wedded to Michael for almost 10 years. "We each agreed to give up one bad habit at the other's request, and that was the one I chose. The other day, I walked into his office and caught him, mid-spit. Then again, I'd just sneaked a cigarette, so I had to be at least a little understanding."

So when do you accept your husband's foibles, and when should you step up and make a fuss? "There are two factors that indicate a real problem: intensity and longevity," says Tim Ursiny, PhD, author of The Coward's Guide to Conflict (Sourcebooks, 2003). "Does it only bother you on a bad day? Does it really only bug you a little? If either of those is true, there's no need to discuss it. But if your annoyance has a shelf-life, it may be a block to your intimacy."

In other words, if there's something you can't bring up -- or that causes a fight when you do bring it up -- it's a symptom of a larger problem in the relationship. The way you approach minor irritants usually mirrors the way you'd approach major ones. "If you can't get through an 'I-need-this' talk without fighting, folding, or fleeing, it's a sign you've got major relationship issues," says JacLynn Morris, coauthor (with Paul Fair, PhD) of I'm Right. You're Wrong. Now What? (Sourcebooks, 2004). "The trick is to approach the situation in a way that'll bring results -- to get what you really need, rather than just insisting you're right."

A Little Finesse

So how do you harness that trick -- pulling out of a hat the magic words and attitude that'll help you confront your guy's most harrowing habits with style and grace? Here are some sample scenarios to get you started. If your problem isn't on this list, you can just use the strategies and apply them to your situation. Unless it's that gas-passing one. That just seems to be hard-wired in the male gene.

Relationship Rut #1: He's Fat and Hates the Stairmaster

"I couldn't believe my comfy bear of a husband had turned into Jabba the Big-Butt," says Catherine, 43, a wife and mom in Los Angeles. "He just seemed to get bigger with each of my pregnancies, and ballooned up into a libido-crushing super-size. His dad died of heart failure; why can't I get him to see how he's endangering all of our happiness?"

Catherine figured out that her husband was depressed, and overeating was a symptom. He sought counseling and together they revamped their kitchen cabinets so his default foods were healthier choices. It was still a struggle to rein in his eating, though, with the result that their two little girls have a strange obsession with eating that makes Catherine feel like she's passed on food-neurosis to the next generation.

Still, Catherine's approach gets the thumbs-up from Ursiny. "The first thing you want to do is understand the person's perspective," he says. "Get in his mind-set by saying, 'I want to understand. You say you don't care about this weight-gain. What's going on?' It might be a test to see if you'll still love him when he's chubby. He might be afraid he can't lose the weight. Somewhere in the explanation, you must find out if there's a part that wants to change." Let your hubby know you've heard his concerns, and then, in true coaching style, use his reasons to convince him. "A good coach brings the desire out of the player, so he's self-motivated." Guys like to think it's THEIR idea to change; that way, they're the boss, not you.

Relationship Rut #2: He Dominates Your Social Interactions

"I've been with Robert for 20 years, and he always develops some sort of obsession," says Sarah, 44, a producer at a children's television program in Atlanta. "It used to be rockabilly music, but lately it's become right-wing politics. Since he works nights, he watches Fox News all day, and he's so well-informed that he can pick a fight and steamroll over any opponent if he wants to. And believe me, he wants to. It's to the point where I don't want to leave the house with him in tow."

In fact, Sarah has stopped going places with Robert. If she can't attend without him, she doesn't attend. The result? Their social life has suffered, but their pets are very, very well cared-for.

Fair wishes Sarah had used what he calls "the chunk-down theory." "If there are five things going on," he says, "you can't hit him with all of them. Pick one -- Is it his tone? Is it that he talks with his hands? -- and address that first." Once you've decided on the just-one-thing to change, you've got to offer up a suggestion for how to change. Saying "stop doing that" is only half the battle; you must follow it up with " doing this."

If that doesn't work, Fair recommends a backup plan "that doesn't require your partner to change, but leaves it open to the possibility that he might." Come up with a consequence: "If you start an argument the next time we're out, I'll nudge you with my knee. If you don't pick up on it, I'm going to ask you to lower your voice in front of our friends." Let him know, ahead of time, what each consequence will be, so that your not doing it is a reward, rather then your doing it being a punishment. "You want to alter his behavior without it being punishment," says Fair. "Once he sees you're serious, he should be able to participate not just in what the consequences should be, but in responding to your cues."

More Annoying Habits

Relationship Rut #3: He Won't Pick Up After Himself

"Jason's such a sensitive soul, but he's as sloppy as Oscar Madison," complains Dina, 38, married for five years and living in Austin, Texas. "It's a big blind spot for him: I make a nice home a priority, and he's too distracted by the computer-code in his head to notice where his socks go. I know he doesn't mean to drive me up the wall. But he does." Dina handled the problem by giving Jason his own "sloppy room." If he can keep his mess contained, she'll give him a place to be piggy and pick up the rest of the house.

While this solution keeps this couple relatively harmonious, not everyone has a free room just for clutter. And it does leave Dina in charge of the cleaning duties, which she could resent down the road if rugrats are also making a mess.

Some experts would advise you to leave his socks on the floor rather than enabling him by picking up after him, but in Dina's case, Jason really never would notice. Instead, Morris says, "Change the environment so that it's almost more difficult not to put things away." A hamper shaped like a basketball hoop is almost irresistible to men -- and many women, even if it does clash with the eclectic country decor. A sign reminding him to tidy up, posted in his closet, does the work without you ever having to open your mouth. Best of all, ask him how you can help him help you. If you admit that you like things 100 percent clean, and he says he likes things 20 percent clean, you should be able to come up with a mid-range level of clean that you can both live with and work towards. "If you enroll the other person in the solution, you're halfway there," says Morris.

Relationship Rut #4: He Watches (or Plays) Too Much Sporty Stuff

"Okay, it was the World Cup," admits Lisa, 36, a publishing employee with three kids in Maplewood, New Jersey. "But the day Dave started at nine in the morning and watched three games in a row, I thought, we really have a serious problem here. It was a beautiful day out, and I wanted to enjoy one of our few days together -- and it was as if I wasn't there." Lisa never has come up with a solution; TV sports are not just Dave's pastime; he sells TV ads during big games, and his office is saturated with sports talk. To miss a game, to him, seems criminally negligent. So Lisa just grits her teeth and broods, becoming increasingly allergic to the sound of televised cheering fans.

Not dealing with it, says Ursiny, is the worst thing to do. "Every time I hide something from my partner, it's like I put up a little tiny force field between us. If it's not a big deal, there's enough relationship to make up for that. But if it's really something big, it'll get in the way of intimacy between you." The secret, he says, is to bring it up before it builds up into an explosion. Lose your cool, and you lose the strength of your position. And probably your partner's attention.

Instead, he says, "use the laws of attraction: Be a magnet to make him want to spend time with you rather than in front of the plasma screen." Come up with specific plans: not "Let's spend time together," but "Let's go to the Renaissance Faire." (Better yet, maybe he'd like a trip to Cooperstown!) Another strategy, he says, is to take Dina's approach to Jason: "Give him some 'sacred space.' Find out when the games are on, and build your activities around them. That way, neither of you is wrong -- you just both have desires, and you honor that by respecting each other's time to indulge them."

Relationship Rut #5: He Complains About His Job -- but Won't Take Action

"My husband has a boss who's very threatened by him, and gives him a hard time," says Grace, a mother of two and part-time bookstore clerk in New York City. "I completely empathize with him, but the complaining is getting a little intense. A past experience with a bad boss has scarred him, so he gets panicked every time there's a problem -- and brings it home rather than taking steps to fix it."

To deal with it, Grace invoked a new rule: Three weeks and forget it. "He's allowed to complain about any problem he has for exactly three weeks. In that time, he has to either solve the latest problem, or move on emotionally -- it can't be brought up again."

Grace's approach may seem extreme, but it gets high marks from Fair. "She's setting a limit," he says. "If he just needs to blow off steam, then they have to have a sit-down about this, and come up with an amount of steam-blowing that she can tolerate, and that lets him feel some relief." The key is to show respect for his position without giving in to his conversation-dominance every time.