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.