How to Make the First Move

by Alisa Bowman on November 13, 2009

handsWhen I started this blog, I promised myself that I would not write “preachy posts.” There are plenty of other people who write those sorts of things. I didn’t want to be one of them.

This post, however, is an exception. Please find it in your heart to forgive me. It’s preachy. I’m not sure precisely why. It just is.

When I started writing it, I did not intend for it to be preachy at all. Then the words flowed out of my fingertips. Soon I’d finished the post and I thought, “Dang, that’s preachy.”

I thought about going back and trying to soften the thing, but then I thought that maybe this is the post that I was supposed to write today. You can let me know if you agree. And, now, here comes the preachy part.

My Preachy Take on Why Marriages Go Bad

Often, when a marriage is bad, both partners start to compete for the Let’s See Who Can Be Nastier to the Other Award. One partner might decide not to put his empty beer bottle in the recycling—where his spouse has repeatedly asked him to put it. He’ll just leave it on the floor because, “she’ll just find something else to complain about anyway.” She decides she’s not going to even think about getting in the mood for sex because, “the house is a mess and he’s not doing anything to help.” This type of a situation can spiral into a regular appearance of the hairy eyeball, lots of loud “I can’t believe I’m married to you” sighs, dirty looks, and frowns. At its worst, any notion of eye contact or a kind gesture-–a smile, a hug, a stroke on the arm, a compliment—is gone. All that is left are two people who occupy the same space and who are doing everything they can to make the other person’s life as miserable as possible.

I know because I’ve been there. I didn’t pull the above examples from the ethers. I lived them.

When you are mired in this type of a cycle, it’s difficult to move your marriage to a better place. You’re both stuck in a protective mode that prevents you from embracing change. Let’s say your partner makes a very reasonable request. Perhaps she would like you to help her put clean sheets on the bed. You resist that change, though, because resisting is part of the game of what has become your bad marriage. Rather than giving love, your marriage has become a game of withholding love instead.

To move the marriage to a better place, the first step is often the hardest. You must allow yourself to become vulnerable again. You have to allow yourself to feel. You have to allow yourself to love that good-for-nothing-excuse-for-a-spouse—that very person you married because—at one time in your life—you loved very deeply.

This isn’t easy to do, because the protective part of your being is going to give you all sorts of very valid-sounding excuses for not doing this. Most of them will start with the phrase, “If I do that, then he/she will…” Others might go more like this, “He/she doesn’t deserve…”

You need to ignore those excuses—because they are not going to get you to a better marriage. If anything, they will only work against you. In place of them, you need to continually tell yourself this:

Someone has to be the big person here. That someone is me.

Sure, it’s not fair. Sure, you deserve better. Sure, it’d be nice if your spouse got hit by lightening and suddenly became the big person instead.

But complaining about how it’s not fair and how you wish things were different hasn’t gotten you anywhere, has it? If someone is going to be big—if someone is going to get you out of this place—it’s going to have to be you.

So Here is My Challenge to You

During the next week, embark on a Big Spouse experiment. By that, I mean this: for the next 7 days, you’ve agreed to be the big person (aka The Big Spouse) in your marriage. You will be the one who hugs your spouse for no reason other than the fact that your spouse needs a hug. You will be the person who compliments your spouse for looking good in whatever shirt he or she is wearing. You will rave about your spouse’s cooking or yard work efforts. You will do little favors—perhaps joining up all of your spouse’s socks or replacing your spouse’s conditioner that is almost empty.

You will stop withholding your love. Whenever you feel that tense feeling—the one that comes when you are trying to protect yourself from pain and hurt—you will overcome it and you will reach down into a reservoir of compassion. Instead of withholding love, you will give it freely.

You will do this because you can. You will do this because there truly is no other option. You will do this because the alternative—protecting yourself and withholding your love—has not been working, so you might as well try Alisa’s crazy idea instead.

And, heck, I’m only asking you to do it for 7 days. After 7 days, if your spouse is still a Good-for-Nothing-Excuse-For-A-Spouse who does not deserve an ounce of your love, you can revert to your previous tactics and you can come back to this blog and leave a comment that says I don’t know a hopping thing about how to save a marriage.

But, I’m guessing that you won’t. I’m guessing that your small acts of love will thaw the ice that has formed around your marriage. And once you make the first move, your spouse might start making other moves, too. And slowly, one compassionate gesture at a time, you will move back to a more loving marriage.


Let me know if you are up for the challenge, and please let me know how it goes.

A professional journalist, Alisa Bowman is the author of Project: Happily Ever After, a memoir of how she saved her marriage, and coauthor of Pitch Perfect, a must-read if you've ever had a sense of dread tie up your insides before a speech, presentation, or conversation. If you enjoyed this post, you will no doubt love her updates on Facebook and Twitter.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexandra November 13, 2009 at 11:24 am

Alisa, this did not feel preachy at all. And, I must say, from my own experience, if someone had whispered this advice in my ear during the last months of my first marriage, it might have been saved. Even if things are going well, your suggestions can’t hurt. The only thing you left out is how to behave when there are children, how important it is not to bad-mouth a spouse, and how their psyches register what is going on between parents about to divorce.

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Kathleen November 13, 2009 at 11:27 am

I don’t think this post is preachy at all. I think it’s beautiful. I think that’s what real love is all about: making sacrifices without expecting compensation or reciprocity. Love is a gift you give to someone even if – or especially if – the don’t deserve it. That kind of love is profound and transcendental. Sorry if I sound a little dramatic.

And like you suggest, why not give it a try? You won’t lose anything by trying it. I like the idea of making the first move and being the big person. I’m up for the challenge.

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Kathleen November 13, 2009 at 11:28 am

Oh darn Alexandra posted her comment a second before I finished mine so now mine looks repetitive. I’m glad you agree with me Alexandra.
.-= Kathleen´s last blog ..Word Magic: Turning the Domestic into Art =-.

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Kathy November 13, 2009 at 12:37 pm

You need lessons in preachy. LOL!!! You gave good, sound advice.

Currently, hubby and I are pretty much doing what you suggest. It really helped when I was mad at him over a month ago, that I didn’t act like a spoiled brat child – I was still pleasant, just not “lovey-dovey” and let him know in a normal tone of voice – “I’m still hurt by what you said/did the other night”. By not walking around the house being pissy showed him that I didn’t need to have a child-like tantrum to get my point across – my feelings were hurt.

Our current “bitch” with each other is: you don’t appreciate what I do, but in a fun, joking kind of way. Me to hubby: “you don’t say Thank You that I leave your reading light on for you”. Hubby to Me: “because by morning, I’ve forgotten. But I do appreciate it.” Hubby to Me: “you don’t say Thank You for the money I make, so you don’t have to work”. Me to Hubby: “the bills are paid and I’m not complaining we have no money”.

An older friend taught me a few years ago to just say “I’m sorry”, even when I didn’t want to. I said it sincerely, even tho I didn’t really feel it. But, it made a HUGE difference. Amazing what two little words can do for a relationship. And by “being the bigger person/spouse”, it opened the door for my hubby to apologize too.

Since I paid the bills today – I’ll try to remember to give Hubby an extra long hug and a smoochier kiss when he gets home tonight. LOL!!! So he knows I appreciate him for making all the money.

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Jason November 13, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Do I have to get married first? I suppose I need a significant other to get the ball rolling, huh? Would a dog count, because I’ve been wanting to get another dog…

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Vicki November 13, 2009 at 2:53 pm

This is very good advice, and trust me, it does work. Although I often times fight with my internal selfish side (ie. “I shouldn’t HAVE to do this!” or “Why should I be pleasant and nice – he doesn’t deserve that after the way he’s been behaving!”), when I get passed that and extend a gesture, undoutedly my husband will meet me halfway.
Kindness begets kindness just as ugliness begets ugliness.

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Sarah Liz November 13, 2009 at 3:09 pm

This is so very true, it really is all about the little things; and being the bigger person even when you don’t want to be; it’s rather exhausting sometimes, but the payoff and rewards are tenfold! They equal a happier, more sane household and a more loving marriage! I’ve recognized it’s about tiny small things to make the other persons life just a bit easier–not in a “do everything for them and render them helpless, co-dependent sort of way,” but in a “how can I make their day better today?” way. Thanks for sharing this! As always, wonderful!

Many Blessings,
-Sarah Liz :)

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JANET November 13, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Yea this post is so true.I think this is what saved me and my hubby’s relationship also.We were excatly like that,always fighting and doing things to piss each other off,but now we think of one another and do things for each other. Before he would never wash the dishes for me or take the laundry upstairs. Yes i still ask him to do things but sometimes he does suprise me and does things himself.
I think its very important if you want to save your marriage then you must be the bigger person and let your guard down and make the first step to recovery!
I did it and I am so happy,I never been this happy in my life.
-When I got pregnant at 16 years old my mother told me I was f***in my life up by having a baby and by marrying my boyfriend.But to tell you the truth I am so glad I did get pregnant in a way because if it wasnt for that we would just be boyfriend and girlfriend, but now thanks to our baby we are one happy family!

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Wendy November 13, 2009 at 8:11 pm

This is my first time posting on your blog. I’ve been reading it for about 4 months now. I think you give awesome adivce. I enjoy reading it. I just want to say the from experience that your suggestions really work. About a year and half ago we went through a very rough patch when I was about 7 months pregnant. I didn’t know if our marriage would make it. I didn’t know how I was going to pull myself together, but I decided to focus on changing ME and just show my spouse unconditional love. This went on for about 6 months. I would leave notes in his car, buy him Starbucks gift cards for surprises, and do extra chores around the house, etc…to show him that I loved him. Then he wrote me a card apologizing for being such a jerk and that I taught him about loving unconditionally and he thanked me for loving him thru his rough time in his life. I learned that by focusing on changing “me”, that my marriage is the best it ever has been and we have now been married for 10 years! He even planned a surprise 10 year anniversary trip for us!

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Lor November 13, 2009 at 8:55 pm

How do you approach this if your are dealing with a husband who left you for someone else and said he loves you but is not in love with you – came back because the other person didn’t leave their spouse for him and now he says he can’t promise you anything??!! We have 17 years together. It is a mid-life crisis for him, more than just the other woman although he let the though of her consume him. He is taking baby steps to be back in this but how do I convince him to continue to take the steps without pushing him away?

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OneHotTamale25 November 14, 2009 at 2:45 am

This blog entry reads like a concise version of a section of a text entitled “Love and Respect” by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. I began doing some of the things you after reading that text and continue to do them because I want to continue to have a healthy, loving marriage. You are 100% correct in your assessment. One cannot continue to be cold and unloving when the ice is broken. Or at least, that has been my experience with my husband.

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OneHotTamale25 November 14, 2009 at 2:50 am

I have a typo in my comment that should read, “I began doing some of the things you suggest above after reading that text…” :)

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Linda November 14, 2009 at 8:25 am

I have been the bigger person soooo many times. I rarely see him do it. Seems like when I am the bigger person, he is getting away with whatever he has said or done. This builds resentment. If I ask him about it, he doesn’t know what I’m talking about. Basically, whatever comes out of my mouth, because I am his wife, he chooses to argue about. “I want to control things or want my own way”. When I ask him then, how he would deal with the particular situation, he has no ideas. There is no thought being given to our relationship from his end.

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Judy November 14, 2009 at 11:15 am

My husband and I have been married for 19 1/2 years. We had drifted apart the last couple of years…resentment, poor communication, turning away instead of turning towards each other, job issues, aging issues, etc. We have always loved each other, but we had a very COLD season. We were so mean to each other! I was a pursuer and he was a withdrawer. Neither of us realized this was happening as it happened. A wake up call was when my husband became very interested in a young woman at work. (emotional affair) He talked to me about it. I helped him realize that he was having an emotional affair after I reasearched it. I was devastated. I went straight to counseling. I bought every book on the subject. Since then we have come a long way. We learned a valuable lesson. Alisa, you are 100% right. No one should let their ego get in the way of preserving their marriage.

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Lor November 14, 2009 at 11:37 am

Judy, that sounds very much like my situation. The affair is very much emotional. He can’t have her yet he continues to be consumed and obsessed by her to the point of making himself very ill. He has since stated that he is going to stop contact unless she contacts him!! Arghh! So frustrating. Any resources you can offer would be great. I really don’t know what to say to him or how to buoy him up and get him interested in us again. It is very awkward. I am in counselling. His doctor has recommended counselling for him but there is a month waiting list and I fear he won’t go in a month. I fear where he’ll be in a month. He can’t overcome this obsession on his own. I am trying to think appreciation, adoration, admiration but it is hard to do those things without it seeming ingenuine at this point.

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Courtney November 14, 2009 at 11:17 pm

Well I am definitely up for the challenge…what do I have to lose?? I’m tired of being mean to my husband…I wouldn’t treat most of the people in my life the way I treat him; it’s horrible, but it comes right back. I’ve resented the fact that I’m always the bigger spouse and I resent that my husband NEVER apologizes for ANYTHING. *sigh* I don’t doubt this will be hard; I have to get over my hardened heart and feel open to give and receive love. I hope this works! Catch ya on the flip side!

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Write From Karen November 16, 2009 at 9:16 am

I think you’re awesome. Honesty and humility goes a looooooong way in a relationship.

Thank you for writing what we’re all thinking.

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akemi0 November 17, 2009 at 10:01 am

The only comment written here so far that I could relate to was Linda’s. I rack my brain trying to figure out another way to resolve my marital problems all the time and have been to counseling (alone), just to keep my sanity and continue to be the bigger person (or is it really the more mature person?). I don’t want to end my marriage and I know I am very sad (I wake from sad dreams with real tears in my eyes, probably because I rarely let him see me cry, afraid he’ll think I have an agenda). But day in and day out, I continue to be the bigger person even though… Do I sound like a martyr or a vicitim? I do wonder about that sometimes. I am an actress who can smile and be courteous, polite and charming even. My truth is IF we make love, I am an actress then, too (he has erection problems and expects me to not only initiate sex but to get him worked up enough to hold an erection…his words). If I fail at being 100% successful in my role as the bigger person, it’s in the initiation of a sex act that I really don’t want to play in, but never refuse should he approach me! If I give him a hug, reach for his hand or any sign of affection, he thinks I want to have sex. If I try to explain, he gets mad and leaves. I’m in trouble here, aren’t I? Please, if you have any suggestions, please tell me? We are in our 60′s and married 4 years, and it’s been this way for the last 2 and half years. My motto: I am in this for the long haul!

The advise blog was well written, not preachy at all and will absolutely work for that couple who are both willing to work at resolving their problems as they obviously still love each other very much. I highly recommend it for most couples. Good job, Alisa!

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Alisa Bowman November 17, 2009 at 10:30 am

Akemi, Linda and others: Being the bigger person is only one part of the happy marriage package. Speaking up for yourself and being transparent (crying in front of him, saying you are frustrated when you are, being YOU) is another huge part of it. Thank you for your comments here because they’ve given me inspiration and ideas for posts to write!
.-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..The Best Marriage Advice You Ever Got =-.

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Linda November 18, 2009 at 8:56 am

Akemi, speaking up fpr yourself and showing your feelings to him at least lets him know where you stand. He can’t say you didn’t tell him, even if he refuse to acknowledge them. You’ve only been together 4 years. Go to your counselor for strength. I was married previously and this is the only way I was able to see my way clear to getting out. Your guy’s ideas about whose job it is to keep him up during sex is antiquated. I heard my grandmother say the exact same thing; that a man will blame the woman if he can’t perform (she was born in 1902). Obviously, he isn’t happy either. Please see your counselor on your own.
I am married 26 1/2 years to present hubby. He will be my last if anything happens to end it (death or divorce) I will never again try so hard to please any one person to the extent that I practically lose myself in the process. I too refuse to divorce. I am not sure where the downturn started and have thought intensely about it. He was a breath of fresh air when I met him. Not at all like he is now!
We counseled many times by different ones. Sometimes we did better during, but after being discharged everything reverted back. I am a talker. I ask questions. I have read self-help books and watched Dr. Phil and Oprah. He says we could write a book on marriage or whatever, but it doesn’t mean we’re experts, so why should we go by any one book to “help” us out of our problems. He will talk about anything but our relationship. His biggest problem, he says, is me asking questions, trying to get us to goal set and wanting to organize the way things are done. His plan is a none plan. He thinks it, then does it. Except his biggest want ever, to retire to the south of our state, hasn’t materialized yet, because he refuses to brainstorm about it. We are not working together on any of it. I don’t feel a part of anything. We are basically living like roommates with privileges.
For the early years, I didn’t feel like a mother figure and now I do at times. Or the martyred wife. Having to ask for every little thing that I want done then having to wait for him to do it in his own time is very annoying. It must be that man/woman thing. He worked 3-midnight for so many years that I had to develop my own ways of going about things. I dealt with stuff and did my things around the house a certain way. They work for me. He retired last year and its a whole new ballgame. I thought we would work together on getting projects done so we could go south and build a new life there. Its nothing like that. I’m fearful that I will get too old to create the home I want where we end up especially with there being no necessity for me in the family where we are. My life depends on our relationship looking and moving forward.
We are just going day to day in what we do. There’s no carrot dangling in front of us. He says he doesn’t need a carrot. I do. How can it be a marriage if the two people move in such different ways and directions?

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Linda November 18, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I’ve been giving my husband a bad rap. You usually hear just the bad stuff we go through. I want to give him kudos today for coming off a pissing match we had last night at bedtime (my fault) and calling me to invite me out to lunch. He had to come over 20 miles to pick me up and return to the same area because his mind was set on a restaurant out there. I said I would leave it up to him as to whether it was worth it to do that. He said he thought so.
I told him I thought he was improving. It got silent. I reassured him it was not sarcasm. It just shows that I am not supposed to acknowledge his difference in behavior or did I say it wrong?
George (from another post) was right about the male ego being fragile! Since hubby’s E.T.A. will be a few minutes, I have time to calm down. Sometimes no good deed goes unpunished. I hate that statement, yet it seems to apply.
I want to be optomistic, so I will say…Better times are coming!

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Renee May 5, 2012 at 8:35 am

I read your article and I am going to give it a try, I am often the bigger person, ending arguments, taking the higher road but since last Decemeber when my husband asked for a divorce, he has since saw the changes I have made for myself to be a better person and not argue with him, our intimacy has not come back. we are stagnate. He doesnt want to make a move because he thinks I dont want it, and vice versus. I am going to try this for 7 days although it wont be easy as I have had to be the agressor in the intimacy department for most of our relationship. But something has to be done to bring back what we once had. Thank you for your article.

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