Greek legend tells of a great sculpture, Pygmalion, who spent years carving an ivory statue of a woman of perfect beauty.
He succeeded. But it was so perfect that no real woman could compare and, finding no comparison, he fell in love with his own creation, fawning over it day and night.
The goddess Aphrodite took mercy on him and brought the statue to life. The story has a Hollywood ending, which explains why it's a myth: Pygmalion and his perfect woman lived happily ever after, with never a disagreement or misunderstanding.
Unfortunately, many of us try to play Pygmalion in our own marriages. We want to mold and polish our spouse until they're “perfect,” at least in our own eyes.
However, relationship Coach David Steele explains in “All-in-One Marriage Prep” that starting a marital “Pygmalion Project” is bound to end in both you and your spouse being unhappy, even if you think you're succeeding.
The Pygmalion role in marriage involves constant criticism, dwelling on the negative, making endless demands and setting impossibly-high standards. Women tend to nag, men tend to lecture, but the result is the same and just as destructive.
Expert Emerson Eggerichs notes that women need to be unconditionally loved and men need to be unconditionally respected. We all enter marriage wanting acceptance from our spouse. The more we succeed in forcing a change, the more we risk undermining our relationship.
“Real love accepts that your partner is a fallible, imperfect human, just as you are,” marriage counselor Sheryl Paul explains. It's only when “you learn to accept and fully love each other as you are” that your relationship can develop into a mature, lasting love.
This doesn't mean that spouses shouldn't influence each other or that neither should change. Expert John Gottman says successful marriages are marked by the willingness of both spouses to allow the other to influence them and to change based on that influence. But those are changes we're influenced to make, not forced to make. Allowing your spouse to influence you sends the message that you value their opinions and feelings.
There are also times when behavior is simply unacceptable. This includes addictions (drugs, alcohol and gambling), abusiveness (both physical and emotional) and marital infidelity. These behaviors undermine healthy relationships and change is necessary.
However, marital failure can often be traced to one spouse forcing change on the other for behaviors that are little more than minor irritations or not “perfect” enough for the “ideal mate.”
Every marriage goes through hard times. Healthy marriages allow couples to deal with the problems as a team, with each member bringing different skill sets to the team. Unfortunately, the Pygmalion spouse is intent on changing the other into their fantasy spouse, not the spouse they need for teamwork.
If you're trying to change your spouse into someone they're not, you're missing out on the most valuable thing your marriage can give you – love.
©2012, All Rights Reserved. James Sheridan's website is www.marriagedoneright.com. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.