Category Archives: Couples Counseling

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.

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How to Save the Marriage When Your Partner Checks Out

How to Save the Marriage When Your Partner Checks Out

One of the most common issues I see as a marriage counselor is the spouse who comes in feeling completely hopeless because their partner has given up emotionally and is no longer even trying to work on the marriage.

This is a tough one. MindBodyGreen interviewed me recently for a story on the five biggest reasons relationships end, and my answer was emotional abandonment.

Fighting to save your marriage when your partner wants out is the hardest thing you’ll do.

The first step to getting your partner to re-engage is to understand why they dis-engaged.  The question you need to answer is why your partner wants out. When someone comes to me about emotional abandonment, as a therapist I start to look for why that person shut down. But as a partner, if I’m experiencing it, I want to confront it.

If my husband has abandoned me emotionally, I want to share my pain and blame him for it. I want to tell him our marriage is dying and it is all his fault.

This is a trap! Don’t give in to that temptation.

Instead, first understand why he or she has closed down.

What makes leaving better than being here?

Once you get an idea of what alienated your spouse, you stop the damage…whether you agree with the fact that this is damaging or not.  This isn’t the time to argue about intentions or who is right and who is wrong.  You will never get a checked out spouse to re-engage this way.  You have to show them a different behavior.

No one leaves a relationship unless they think there is something better to go towards. What are you doing that’s making it so awful for them to stay?

The answer may be that you want to talk about the relationship all the time.

It may be that your spouse views you as critical and negative.

It may be that you’re not thinking about the relationship enough; you’re too self-absorbed, you’re too into your work or you’re too into other people.

There’s a particular “Save Your Marriage” program out there where it is all about leaving little love notes every day, buying your partner gifts every night. That may work for 25 percent of those I see.

If your partner is turned off and tuned out because you’ve been neglectful, that’s great. But if they feel like you’ve been smothering, and you write notes every day, its over. So you can’t just use a one-size-fits-all approach.

For some clients, this may mean completely backing off. It may mean stop talking about the relationship.  Stop asking your partner how they feel all the time and give them space to breathe. For another client; you may need to get more engaged. You may need to start paying more attention to your partner.  You can’t fix the problem until you understand what your partner is needing so they want to get close again.

That doesn’t mean it is your fault that he or she wants out.

It also doesn’t mean your spouse is the full problem.

Emotional abandonment just means that whatever is going on right now, in that dynamic, is pushing your partner farther away from you. And that is the place you have to start if you want to have a chance at getting to the deeper issues.  The goal is to get your partner checked back in so they will be willing to work on the relationship.

Okay, so how do you address emotional abandonment?

You approach the discovery of the real issue with curiosity and vulnerability, not defensiveness or blame.

Where I see many couples go wrong is some form of the following:

We want to understand what our partner is thinking and feeling, and so we ask.

And our spouse may timidly or forcefully tell us. But the first thing we do is justify, minimize and deny.

Well, I only do that because you…

Or That’s not what I meant.

Or That’s not how I remember it.

Or we say it wasn’t that bad instead of hearing that our partner is in a place of pain.

We asked the question but we’re not open to the answer.

So you’ve got to be vulnerable and have empathy. And cool your jets. You’ve got to be able to just listen to what they are saying without trying to fix it.

You have to listen without trying to make it okay or just brush it off as something they’ve made up.

Remember, until they are ready to work on the relationship, you are not going to be able to change their perception. You’re not going to be able to fix the problem.

But you can make yourself more inviting, more approachable, more understanding. You can draw them in with questions and curiosity.

So if my partner really did believe all those things about me and I did not see it, I’d feel sad that he really experienced that. And that’s what I’d want to share with him.

Honey, I’m so sorry.

After empathy and vulnerability, then it changes.

I’m telling you, more times than not your partner will be open to your perspective when you listen and are not defensive or blaming them.

Spend a significant amount of time hearing them and showing them your remorse about their experience.

Don’t show remorse for something you don’t believe you did, show it for what they’ve experienced. This is painful for them! That’s why they pulled away.

Once you show that empathy, they will soften.

So are you open to a different perspective on that maybe?

 And most times they’re like, Okay, sure.

Now you’ve got some dialogue happening.

And if they don’t listen?

 I’ve had clients where emotional abandonment turns around in one session. It just takes giving that partner hope that something really can change.

But I’ve also seen it take months. It varies widely. If there’s a lot of anger, if there is a lot of defensiveness, it is going to take much longer.

That’s when it helps to get an objective, third-party view on the relationship. It helps you make sure you’re not missing something.

What we do at The Marriage Place is really get in there, do a forensic evaluation, start looking at how the problem began, help make an action plan, and monitor it along the way. If the approach doesn’t work, we try something else until we get the results we want.

Having a partner who has given up is incredibly hard. So if you’re in that situation, get help! Give us a call or contact us online to make an appointment today.

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