7 Steps for Helping Your Partner Change

When my marriage was struggling, there were a million things I wanted to change about my husband. Everything was his fault.  At least…all the major things wrong were his fault.


I remember those days well. If my husband only could communicate clearly, the marriage would be a lot better. If he only would pay attention to my feelings, we wouldn’t fight so much. If he did not forget so much, I wouldn’t feel alone in the relationship.

Fill in the blanks for your own situation but I bet you can relate.

When things are bad in the relationship, we tend to blame our partner for what’s going wrong. What we don’t do is look deeply enough at what we’re doing to make the situation worse, and how we’re enabling any bad behavior in our partner.

A marriage takes two, and we play a role.

…But it still is his fault.

Sometimes your partner does need to change.

The problem is we can’t make our partner change.

That would be nice. But sorry, not gonna happen.

What we can do is influence our partner. We can learn how to motivate them to want to change.  At the very least, we can make it easier for them to change simply by changing how we respond to them.

Here are seven steps we use with clients who need a change in their partner. This doesn’t replace professional guidance, but it makes a good start.

Step 1: Create a list of what bothers you

The first thing you need to do is clearly identify the behavior that’s causing you distress. Your partner cannot change what they don’t recognize.

This list might include leaving junk around the house, not washing the dishes, giving lip service instead of them speaking their mind, or any number of things.

You may have a list that’s two pages long. What’s really important is that you don’t deal with it all at once. Pick one thing at a time and address it individually.  Don’t pile on a list of complaints.  No one is ready to receive that well.

Step 2: Describe the facts

Get specific and tell your spouse what’s bothering you. But stick with the facts, not an indictment that will make them defensive and close down emotionally.

The wrong way to share:

“I’m sick and tired of you coming home and being a jerk to me and the kids.”

This is exactly how you put your partner on the defensive.  Now they are in fight mode. You’ve picked a battle and it won’t end well.

A better way to share:

“When you came home last week you were yelling at the kids, you were slamming doors, you were throwing your briefcase around and that’s very threatening to me.”

Here, you are making an objective observation of the facts and describing it in a non-threatening way.  This makes it much harder for your partner to get in a disagreement with you on what they did or didn’t do.  Be warned, it is still possible for your spouse to start an argument at this step, but this is your best chance at avoiding one.

Step 3: Share your emotional reaction

Talk about how it makes you feel.  Use feelings words like….angry, hurt, sad or afraid.

Sharing your feelings allows you to come from a vulnerable place instead of a fighting stance.  It encourages your partner to empathize with you and you are avoiding blaming when you talk about how you feel instead of what your partner is doing.

Another thing I like about this step is that it can keep your partner from minimizing or denying the effects of their behavior. I have rarely met a rager who doesn’t come into my office and say “What’s the big deal? Everyone gets mad and says things they don’t mean. When its over, its over.”

The rest of the family is bleeding out emotionally and it takes them days to recover, but what’s the big deal?

So tell your partner how you feel when they act that way.

“I pull away. I can hardly speak to you. I don’t want to be in the same room with you. It makes me want to shut down. I don’t feel safe. I feel so hurt that I cry myself to sleep at night.”

You’re not saying they are a bad person, you’re just saying how their actions make you feel.

This is a subtle nuance that can make a world of difference.

Step 4: Empathize

An important part of helping your partner change is attacking the behavior, not the person. Then they know you are on their side, and you can work on the behavior together.

My husband has ADD, and it is bad. When we were in therapy, I struggled to get him to understand that when he is operating in his ADD cloud, he is very forgetful and that puts a lot of extra stress and pressure on me.  I felt I had to remember everything. That made me feel like I was being the parent while he was let off the hook all the time.

But then I learned more about ADD, and I realized what it must be like to forget everything. How that must make him feel inadequate sometimes. He often feels inept and embarrassed.  Having ADD isn’t easy for him either.  He is used to messing up and feeling like a failure and he comes home and I’m mad, too? That’s a double whammy.

That sucks, right?

So when I was able to realize this wasn’t a picnic for him either, I could approach from a new place.

Honey, I know this isn’t fun. But we’ve got to find a different way to handle this.  NOW, we are working together as a team to beat a problem.  Not fighting each other!

Step 5: Offer help

I had a therapist mentor who once told me something that I thought sounded a little harsh and crass at the time, but he was absolutely right.

“Marriage boils down to one thing: What can I give you so I can get what I need from you?”

Do you want something from your spouse? What can you give them to help make it possible?

Barter for change.

With my ADD husband, we agreed that I would keep a family calendar online that would help him reference schedules and appointments for everyone in the family. He agreed to be responsible for checking this calendar every morning and he agreed that when he did forget something or double book something, he would take whatever steps were necessary to fix the problem.  I didn’t have to reschedule drs. appointments or clean up his messes.  Even if he had to take time off work to fix his mistake, it was his responsibility.

Offering help in the form of barter also comes with the added bonus that you’re working together on the problem.

Step 6: Ask if they are willing to make the change

Is your partner willing to make the change you want?

Success in helping your partner change often comes down to making it a wish, not a demand. Let them say no. Let them voice their concerns. Let them make an honest agreement, not one done under pressure.

This is the tough part. You have to let your spouse say no to partnering with you on your request.

Forcing your partner to change rarely works. You need buy-in.

Step 7: Learn their motivation

The last step is understanding why they said yes or no to change.

Knowing their motivation will help you understand them better and encourage them along the way. So if they say yes, find out why they’re working with you.

And if your partner says no, again, find out why.

Very rarely do I see a person who doesn’t like pleasing their partner. Occasionally it happens, but most of the time there’s a concern or an issue keeping our partner from fulfilling our request.

When the answer is no, dig deeper. There’s more to the story, and often this is information you can use for tackling the behavior in a different way.

When Things Get Hard

Relationships are tough stuff! Don’t get discouraged if you try this and your partner still doesn’t change.

If this were easy, we’d all have the perfect marriage. But none of us do.

Help is only a call away, though. Schedule an appointment with us online or by phone and we’ll help guide you through the process. We’ll help you figure out what’s got you stuck.

You can’t change your partner. But you can show them why change is needed and help them with the process.

Learn More

8 Questions to Ask Before Divorce

8 Questions to Ask Before Divorce

Nobody wants divorce. What we want is relief. We want an end to the pain.

As a therapist, I’ve seen a lot of couples on the brink of divorce over the years. What I’ve found is that our problem-solving ability gets very limited when we are unhappy in our marriage, especially if that unhappiness is prolonged over months or years.

We become convinced that our spouse is the reason for our unhappiness. And of course we all know that we can’t change someone else, so we feel hopeless and our misery increases.

We feel trapped.

There is nothing like feeling trapped. It creates an intense desire for escape, and I often see marriages ending because the person is almost desperate to leave behind the pain.

They’re like a racehorse straining to bolt at the starting gate. They just want release from their perceived captivity. They think divorce will free them from the pain.

The problem with this mindset is that divorce rarely provides an end to pain.

I often tell couples thinking about divorce that they are going to have a hard year no matter which decision they make. You can get a divorce or rebuild your marriage. Neither provides an easy or quick solution.

And I’ve been doing this long enough that I see these same people come back later and regret their decision to divorce. But I can’t remember one person who regretted the decision to work on the marriage.

I work with a lot of struggling marriages. It is shocking how little prepared many are for the reality of divorce.

So if you’re like a horse ready to bolt, first realize what you’re getting yourself into. Here are some questions you should ask yourself before contacting a divorce attorney.

1. Have I really done everything I can to fix this marriage?

I wish I had a dollar for every time a person came into my office and told me they had tried everything to save the marriage and nothing worked.

Did you really try everything?

When I ask what exactly they have tried, the usual answer is a blank stare. Then they tell me they’ve talked with a friend, read a book, told their partner they are unhappy. Twice. Over two years.

If you haven’t tried marriage counseling with a seasoned professional who specializes in relationships, you haven’t tried everything. And if you haven’t found the right one, try again. I tried four before I found one who helped me save my marriage.

2. Have I made any changes to my own behavior?

You can’t change other people, and you might be living with someone who is really difficult.

But you can change how you respond to them. That can make a huge difference.

Most of the time, we enable people to continue their bad behavior because we don’t set proper limits and boundaries. Or we are in the habit of reacting strongly to something instead of calming ourselves down and responding in a constructive way.

So you can’t change your partner, but you can change the situation by changing how you act and respond. How can you make the situation better by changing your own behavior? And have you done it?

3. Have I truly communicated why I’m unhappy and specifically asked my spouse to change anything?

I just had a conversation with a man who is frustrated with his wife’s 80 lb. weight gain. Her weight has caused sexual issues for the couple, and he isn’t even trying to share how he feels any longer because he said she always gets mad.

So he has resigned himself to a sexless marriage.

This is crazy to me. Do not assume your spouse knows how unhappy you are because you tried telling them once or twice.

Raise the flags.

Get his or her attention!

We have a whole system at The Marriage Place for teaching clients how to set limits and get what they need from their partner. The first step is asking for what you want.

4. Have I really considered what life will be like once I’m divorced?

Divorce may sound like the easiest solution when you feel trapped, but things get complicated quickly.

Especially if you have kids.

Think your spouse is controlling right now? Wait until you have to negotiate visitation schedules and holidays. Wait until you have very little say when the kids are in your spouse’s care. This includes medical decisions and vacations.

Adding step-parents creates a whole other issue, too. It is painful to watch your kids interact as a family while you are excluded.

Many people also get a rude wake-up call when they realize the day-to-day chores their spouse used to do now rest entirely on them alone.

5. Am I prepared for the financial changes?

I once had a financial advisor tell me that the most important thing to do for building wealth is never getting divorced.

It’s very difficult to recover from losing 50 percent of all your assets. Not to mention the cost of divorce itself: attorney fees, lost work time, unexpected expenses as a result of splitting time with kids. The list goes on.

Divorce may require you to work an extra job or take on longer hours. And it still may be impossible to live the same lifestyle even with those extra hours.

Are you ready for that?

6. How will divorce affect my kids?

Divorce isn’t fun for anyone, but it really unravels your children’s world. There are all kinds of studies and research that show divorce is childhood trauma.

All childhood trauma has lasting effects.

It lowers their life expectancy.

It increases their risk for addiction, depression and anxiety.

It creates physical health problems, such as an increased risk for heart disease.

This is not to make you feel horribly guilty if you do get a divorce. But you should go into divorce knowing it will be hell for your kids.

7. Is there anything my spouse can do/say/change that would make me feel better about being in this marriage?

Sometimes there is a single event that has been dogging a couple for years or decades. Just as often, there is an accumulation of hurts, disappointments and unmet expectations.

If you have a list of things, then it is not about the things anymore. It is about the process.

I’m not feeling heard.

Or I’m not being heard.

Or I’m not valued in this relationship the way I want to be.

Is there anything your partner could do or say that would make you want to stay with them?

I often tell clients to quit the marriage but not the partner. If your marriage isn’t working, don’t walk away from the person. Walk away from the marriage and build a new marriage with your partner.

8. Are your expectations for marriage reasonable?

Marriages don’t end because people fall out of love. They end because expectations aren’t met.

But some of us have unreasonable expectations.

I have worked with many clients over the years who think marriage shouldn’t be hard.

Sorry. Fighting, compromising and negotiating are all part of living with another person.

If you are unhappy in your marriage because you feel things should be easier or “better,” you could be falling victim to the myth that marriage should be easy.

Before you start something that’s going to cause you and your family lots of pain and suffering, take a hard look at your expectations and see if you’re looking for the Easy Button when it doesn’t exist.

Divorce is one answer to marital problems, but it often is not the best answer. So if you’re feeling hopeless about your marriage, contact us online or make an appointment today for a consultation before you call that divorce attorney.

Fixing a marriage can be hard, but divorce almost always is much harder.

Learn More