So you found the ONE!
The person you love to spend your life with. The one that you can grow old with and lean on throughout life's challenges. Congratulations! Now if only you can change them into someone different. Someone who fulfills your needs better, or makes you feel more understood, or remembers to take the trash out.
As a relationship therapist, I often hear clients describe frustrations with partners such as, "I keep telling them what to do differently and they just don't do it" or "if they looked at things from my perspective, they would realize that they were wrong and my way of doing things is the right way." Essentially, people are drawn to someone who is different than them, love these differences, and then once the excitement wears off, we wonder how we can make them more like us.
Often, when these differences create conflict people wonder if they found the right partner. This causes a lot of anxiety. In a reaction to that anxiety a partner might try to change the other partner by nagging, telling them what they can do differently, giving the silent treatment, or use a variety of other behaviors that are targeted towards changing the partner. This is often an unconscious effort to decrease their own anxiety about being vulnerable to someone who is different and to regain a sense of safety and security that most people crave in relationships.
"So now I have a better idea of why I want to change my partner, but I still want to change their behaviors." That's very normal reaction and I did promise solutions, so here are some suggestions:
1. Get curious
Once the inevitable conflict phase of a relationship takes hold, it's very common to disconnect from our partner on some level. Disconnection can look like taking space and avoiding your partner. Disconnection can also involve pushing away behaviors such as becoming clingier, irritable, demanding, testing your partner, and blaming them for issues in the relationship.
When you are so focused on looking at issues through your own perspective, you lose sight of the full picture. Get curious about what your partner's experiences of the relationship are like. Ask questions about how they are feeling, what they are longing for, and what makes them feel most loved. Rather than making a judgment, get curious about what their experience is like. Some of what they say may trigger more fears and anxiety within you. That is okay and is to be expected. Notice your own reactions and get curious about what those reactions mean for you.
Often a therapist, coach, and sometimes a close friend can help us explore the meaning underneath our own reactions. How does this change my partner you ask? When someone feels that they are being tuned into and heard, it is very common for them to drop their defenses, soften, and connect more. Everyone wants to feel understood and appreciated and by getting curious and listening to your partner, you are creating a climate in which they can receive that from you. Often this changes the tone of the dynamic within the relationship, which makes room for growth.
2. Conquer Criticism And Master The Compliment Sandwich
It is very easy to identify what other people could be doing differently. In fact the part of our brain that deals with Safety and Security is constantly scanning its environment for threats. Often, we react to perceived threats that are not actually dangerous and one of these reactions to the threat is criticism. Many times, someone hopes that by criticizing or pointing out with their partner is doing wrong, their partner will see the error of their ways and change. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
Criticism is a connection killer. The person being criticized often feels hurt and misunderstood and may even rebel and continue the frustrating behaviors at an increased level. They may become afraid of losing their sense of self within the relationship and reject what is being said. If you think about a time in your life when you have been criticized, try to remember the emotions that came up. Most likely, they were not pleasant.
Instead of criticizing, what you want to do is use a strategy called the compliment sandwich. The structure of the compliment sandwich is you:
1. Share an appreciation
2. Then share what you would like to change (focusing on your own reactions)
3. Follow it up with something else positive such as an appreciation, validation, or what that change would do for you.
An example of a compliment sandwich looks like this.
1. I know you've been working a lot of hours lately and I really appreciate how hard you work to support our family. One of the things I love about you is what a hard worker you are.
2. I do find that I get very lonely when you're working so many late nights and I find myself missing you. I would love it if one night a week you were able to come home a little earlier so we could spend some quality time together.
3. I understand that you have a lot of work demands and this might be very hard to do, but if you could, it would really mean a lot to me. Something I really value about a relationship is how we can have fun together and I think that time would really give us the chance to enjoy each other a little bit more.
Using the compliment sandwich increases your likelihood that your partner will be able to hear you and perhaps even implement something that you're suggesting. It does not work every time and your partner may not actually be able to do what you're asking, however if they are, this helps to create a safe space where your partner will not be put on the defense and may be able to take in what you're saying.
3. Self Sooth
So here's the tough part. Your partner may not be receptive to making any changes. Or they might change certain behaviors on their own timetable. As long as their behavior is not abusive or dangerous to you, you may be able to work on some patience with the process. People have to take ownership of their own changes so it needs to be on their own terms.
The challenging part is to decrease your own anxiety and soothe yourself to increase patience while waiting for your partner to make changes. Also, soothing yourself can help you gain acceptance if your partner does not plan to make any of your recommended changes. Great ways of soothing yourself involve meditation, reading in fulfilling book, utilizing your support systems, getting a massage, going for a walk, taking in some nature, doing enjoyable activities that feed your soul, finding mind-body activities such as yoga or other forms of exercise to release some of our energy and increase our ability to be calm, etc.
The point is to do things that help you feel centered, so that you do not project your fears onto your partner. The more calm and centered you're able to approach your partner the less fear you will invoke in them. Relationships have chain reactions, and by managing your own reactions, you are in fact impacting your partner's reactions.
It is important to remember that you cannot change someone by criticizing or blaming them but by changing your approach and focusing on your own internal process you can change the tone of your relationship. Every action has a reaction, so the change can always start with you. By waiting for a partner to change it brings up feelings of being out of control, however when the change is within you, you have more control.
Often getting some support for this process can be very beneficial and can help us increase our insight. Support can be couples or individual therapy or can involve utilizing support from friends or family who are a friend of the relationship and support each partner equally. We may not be able to control how our partner reacts, but we can create the conditions for growth.
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Here you will find articles contributed by members of our team. We hope to provide helpful information here to inspire mindful living and general wellness. The information provided here is not a substitue for professional mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need to speak to a professional regarding your mental health, please make an appointment.