Think You Can Change Your Spouse, Boyfriend, or Partner’s Behavior? Think Again!
Why concentrating on changing your partner’s behavior rarely works … and how to change course.
-Dr. Anne K. Gross
When it comes to our love relationships, it’s natural to harbor wishes that our partner will change, believing that if he does, we will finally be able to achieve a sense of marital/relationship bliss that has eluded us in the past. Whether it’s cleaning up after himself, coming home when he says he will, or spending more time with the kids, it’s easy to fall into the trap of channeling all our energy into making him a better partner.
Initially, we might start down the path by nagging or cajoling, leading our partner to promise that next time he will be different. But when the desired change doesn’t materialize, we often ramp up the stakes, our nagging morphing into anger. Glued to our belief that we are right (and he is wrong!), we fail to make note of the fact that the more we push him to change, the more he digs in his heels. The situation confronts us with perhaps one of the most difficult challenges in negotiating a relationship: when our behavior is getting us nowhere, rather than intensifying our efforts, we need to change course. This is not only true with our spouse, but in all of our relationships, be it with our parents, kids, boss, etc.
So short of asking your partner to change, what is one supposed to do? Read on for my three tips:
1. Switch your focus from changing him to thinking about the problem from your perspective.
Except in instances of emotional or physical abuse (in which you need to take measures to protect yourself), the first step is to retreat from the position that your way of thinking is the best and only way. Who’s to say, for example, that a neat room is better than a messy room? Although we may live in a society that defines neatness on a higher ground than messiness, that doesn’t mean it is better for you or your spouse. Instead, think of it as each having a different level of tolerance for messiness. Although clothes on the floor might bother you, it clearly doesn’t bother him.
2. Change how you talk to him.
Now that you’ve re-conceptualized the problem as to how it makes you feel, you need to think about expressing your concerns in a manner that he can hear you. The best way to do this is to use what’s called “I” statements. “I” statements refer to how you feel, so that you might say something like this, “I’m tired after a day of work, and I know you are too. I feel resentful when I have to do more of the housework than you. I’m wondering if together, we can work out a system that works for both of us.”
A lot of people think that they are using “I” statements when in fact they are just tacking on an I in front of a critical and blaming sentence, such as “I feel you’re inconsiderate.” Instead, say something that ties into a specific behavior, like “When you say you’re going to be home at 6 and don’t come home for another hour, it disrupts my whole schedule.” Again, notice how you are talking about it from your perspective, rather than blaming or criticizing him.
And now to my final piece of advice, which is perhaps the most difficult to follow:
3. Let go of your anger.
No matter how justified you may feel, and how his behavior makes you crazy, your partner is more likely to listen to you if you tamp down your anger. I know myself, when people are angry at me, I shut down and totally block out what they are saying. Before talking to your spouse, try to control your emotions by taking a deep breath or heading out to the gym and exercising your frustrations away. Better yet, practice role-playing on how you’re going to talk to your partner without losing your temper with a good friend.
Ironically, by adopting these three tips, you may find that your partner does change after all, for respecting and accommodating to each other’s differences is the trademark of a good relationship. But be patient, for you may need to have this conversation several times before you can reach a compromise that works for both of you.
Anne K. Gross, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist who writes regularly for BettyConfidential on personal growth and relationships. You can learn more about her by visiting her website.