How Can I Get My Partner to Change?

Couple in semi-formal black attire sits at a wooden picnic table. One partner is turned away while other gestures with handsWhen I ask my partner to change a behavior or do something differently, am I asking them to change who they are? This is a question I frequently get from people in couples counseling.

Who are we, anyway? Any parent who has more than one child can testify that each is different in temperament from birth. I am not suggesting that you can change your basic, inherent temperament. I do believe you can learn new behaviors if you are willing to do so. It helps when you and your partner are in agreement to learn and grow together.

Questions to consider:

  1. Are you willing to speak up and express your feelings? Does your partner do this?
  2. Are you willing to be influenced? Is your partner open to being influenced?
  3. Do you have empathy and compassion for what your partner is feeling? Do they for you?
  4. Do you or your partner just want to defend your position and be right?
  5. If your partner is expressing feelings of frustration, do you recognize and attune to them? Do they to you?
  6. Do you care enough to do something about it?
  7. Are you and your partner willing to talk over differences to get to a win-win?

It appears that many think complaining is OK, but that making a request is asking a person to change who they are and is therefore not OK. Taking an inventory of your partner’s faults and pointing them out doesn’t create safety and won’t get you the results you want. It is likely to bring on defensiveness. When either of you gets defensive, your ability to be influenced and change is significantly reduced.

I am an advocate for not complaining or criticizing and not using negative “you” messages, as these create defensiveness. I do believe it’s OK to say what we feel and ask for what we want. This implies talking from the “I” perspective. For example: “I feel ___, and I would like ___.” This is where you talk about yourself, since you are the one who is having the frustrations.

This takes breaking old habits of speaking and establishing new ones. This takes effort, and by that I mean practice and repetition. This is necessary behavior to create a healthy, harmonious relationship.

When you find yourself feeling frustrated, practice saying:

“I like it when ___.”

“I don’t like it when ___.”

“When ___ happens, I think ___.” (What interpretation do you make up?)

“When ___ happens, I feel (sad, mad, frustrated, annoyed, etc.).”

“I tend to react by (fighting, avoiding, yelling, blaming, etc.).”

“I do this because I am afraid of (being abandoned, neglected, ignored, criticized, rejected, etc.).”

“What I really want and desire is (to feel loved, safe, appreciated, etc.).”

“Would you please (listen to me, give me a hug, etc.) so that I can feel (important, loved, appreciated, etc.)?”

There is a more structured exercise we use in Imago therapy. You may use it with your partner if you both choose. After you state your global desire, you then specify three specific behaviors that would meet your need expressed in the global desire. They are stated in the positive. For example: “I would like you to ___” (not “I don’t want you to ___”). After you have made your specific requests, your partner gets to pick one of the three and commits to doing that one for an agreed-upon period of time.

If you are on the receiving end of the above communication from your partner:

  1. How would you hear and receive it?
  2. Wouldn’t it be easier to hear than if you were being blamed and attacked?
  3. Could you hear this as your partner talking about himself/herself and not about you?
  4. Would you be able to reflect back what you heard your partner say without interrupting and being defensive?
  5. Would you be able to validate that it makes sense to have this need and make this request?
  6. Would you be willing to meet the expressed need?

I maintain that the degree of happiness and success of relationships is the degree we are meeting each other’s emotional needs. Relationships are primarily emotional, not rational, and it is important to understand this.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Marian Stansbury, PhD, therapist in Milford, Connecticut

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Sebastian

    Sebastian

    September 4th, 2014 at 2:18 PM

    Truthfully I think that if you seriously have to think of changing this person then this is not the right person for you. That’s just how I feel. If this is the person that you are meant to be with then there won’t be anything that you will feel like you have to change about him or her; somehow it will just all work. I am not saying that there won’t be times when you think that you wish that they would change but it is over nothing that will be a deal breaker. If you are wanting to actually change them then yes, I do think that you want to change who they are and this is probably not going to work out too well for either of you in the long term.

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    September 5th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    You make a good point. Before I met my husband I thought or hoped that what ever the differences in 2 people it wouldn’t be a deal breaker or enough to bother me. The reality was that though there are no deal breakers, there are some things that annoy or trigger me at times. In over 40 years of working with married couples they mostly come to counseling because of the power struggles and each complains about the other’s behavior. In Imago Relationship therapy The Behavior Change Request is an important tool in resolving differences. The skill of successfully negating with a partner to create a win-win is vital.

  • Stacey

    Stacey

    September 5th, 2014 at 11:12 AM

    There are always going to be things about someone that you will love and then there will be other things that can drive you absolutley mad.
    But those are the things that you have to learn to balance out when you are in a relationship with someone, and determine how much you are willing to accept and are the things that you do not like about him going to outweigh the things that you do.
    I think that if you are honest with yourself then the answer can be very clear to you pretty immediately what the best choice for you and your sanity will be.

  • Chris

    Chris

    September 7th, 2014 at 5:05 AM

    Well I always want to know how you end up with this person in the first place if all you are worked up to do now is change him or her? Did you not see these things in them before you took that leap and committed to them? Trying to change them now is like trying to change the rules of the game in the 4th quarter. Does that seem fair to you?

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    September 7th, 2014 at 11:26 AM

    Chris – Relationships have stages in the getting to know someone. In the initial stage of a relationship when we are attracted to someone, we tend to notice only the things we have in common. The second stage of relationship is when we start noticing the differences. It takes a while to really know someone. Most relationships go through these stages. Most couples who come for couples counseling are in the second stage. We are talking here about behavior changes not changing who the person is. Fair is not a word I use much. It isn’t about what’s fair but what is actually happening in people’s emotional patterns.

  • Murray

    Murray

    September 8th, 2014 at 4:00 AM

    One thing to consider is do you want this person to change in the monent RIGHT NOW or is this something that you would like to see change for the long term. There is no quick fix, and I think that if this is something that is important to you then it would be for the best to have a long conversation with this person to determine if change is something that he or she wishes as well. If so then great, that takes one less worry off of you. They will be willing to work toward the goal that the two of you have hopefully established together. If they don’t feel that they need to change or that they want to then it is time for some pretty hard decisions.

  • delilah

    delilah

    September 9th, 2014 at 3:15 PM

    I have learned over the years and via many bad choices that the only thing that will likely change when I try so hard to change someone else is… nothing. Nothing is going to change with someone unless this is a thing that they want to change in their life. Why should all of this be up to me? I might not like that they smoke but how can I make him stop until he is ready? He might not like my shoe habit but that doesn’t mean that he will make me stop that little habit unless I decide that I have enough. Just step back and think of how you will feel if someone tries to make you do something. Sometimes you ahve to say that you are happy with you are and need to be happy with who they are too, little flaws and all. We all have them, not one of us is perfect.

  • jacey

    jacey

    September 10th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    Turn the tables- how will you feel when they ask you to change- are you willing to do that for them>

  • Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    Marian Stansbury, Ph.D.

    September 10th, 2014 at 10:40 AM

    It appears from the comments that I need to explain more about the reason for the Behavior Change Request as used in Imago Relationship Therapy. When both are working toward a cooperative healing relationship, both partners are agreeing to meet each other’s requests to the best of their ability. So, yes I would be willing to do that for my partner and I hope they would be willing to work with me. It’s not a demand but a request and their are choices involved.

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