How to Help Your Partner Change
First, never forget that the decision to change is theirs alone.
If there's something you wish your partner would change, think carefully about why it's important to you.
Rather than complaining to your partner, let them know what your experience is.
Challenge yourself to see the situation through their lens, so you have conversations that honor them.
As a therapist, I tend to focus on self-empowerment. I want my clients to succeed, and by far the easiest way to succeed is to make sure your aspirational goals are 100% within your own power. That’s why I encourage my clients to quickly let go of pseudo-goals. By that, I mean goals that are actually about their partner changing. Pseudo-goals sound like “I want my partner to go to the gym, so I’ll be more attracted to them” or “I want my partner to want to have sex more often.” Goals like those aren’t goals at all; they are wishes for something outside of yourself to change, which, of course, is not within your control. Goals that are outside of your locus of control are a near-guaranteed ticket to frustration and disappointment—and a great way to irritate your partner as well.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have wishes or desires that may involve hoping your partner will change in some manner. It’s perfectly natural to have these feelings and thoughts! Nonetheless, for the sake of avoiding frustration and disappointment, it is very important to realize those are wishes, not actually something you can control.
So what options do you have when there is something you wish your partner would change? First, think carefully about why the change is important to you. Getting clear about this will help you initiate a meaningful conversation with them in which you honestly express what you miss, wish for, or desire.
Let’s imagine, for example, you notice that they spend a lot of time getting sucked into their screens. Do you miss their undivided attention? Prefer no devices at mealtime so you can experience a tech break? Or something else entirely? Think it over until you have gotten clear about what this means to you on a deeper level than merely a complaint. Plan to focus on your feelings, preferences, and desires, and then also make time and space to get curious about what they think, feel, and want about the same issue. Plan to really put yourself in their shoes and understand it from their perspective as well as express yourself to them.
When you are ready, initiate a conversation. Rather than complaining about their behavior, let them know what your experience is, and why the issue feels important to you. I highly recommend being direct and non-judgmental. I also suggest focusing on what you want, rather than what you don’t want. Compare these examples:
“I really miss having meals with you where we talk with one another about our days, and generally have a break from screens and devices; it gives me a really lovely feeling of connection with you, and also creates a nice still-point in my otherwise busy day.”
“You know I hate it when you are on your phone during dinner; it’s so disrespectful. Why do you keep on doing that even though you know I hate it? How hard is it to just put down your phone?”
These are two ways of expressing the same wish, but you can probably imagine that they’re likely to land very differently. The first frames the issue in positive terms, focusing on what the speaker really wants, and reaches out to the loving, compassionate part of the listener that really wants to connect with their partner — whereas the second version is likely to put the listener on the defensive right off the bat. The next part of the conversation involves asking what their experience of this issue is:
What do they think, feel, prefer, or want?
What is important to them about it?
What do they want you to understand about their perspective?
Really challenge yourself to see the situation through their lens, so ultimately you have had conversations that honor both of your perspectives equally.
These phases of the conversation are for the purpose of getting to know one another (and yourselves) better with regard to the issue. That’s not the same as problem-solving, so slow down a bit and don’t worry about finding a solution right away. Focus on gaining an understanding of what this is all about for each of you. For instance, maybe you’ll learn that they’ve been feeling much more stressed than usual at work, and find themselves reaching reflexively for their phone as a quick and easy way to self-soothe — and then, when they start to feel your irritation that they’re looking at their phone instead of at you, it makes them feel even more stressed, and then even more likely to get sucked into the screen. Taking your time to truly understand the dynamics at play in the situation can help disarm some of the negative feelings you may both be having, and when your partner feels heard, they’re much more likely to be open to trying something different. There may even be something you want to do differently yourself.
If you want to move to a problem-solving phase, I suggest you do that in a separate conversation. You might ask if they are interested in working with you to come up with a solution that works for both of you. I recommend asking before diving in because if your partner feels cornered or pressured, they are unlikely to be flexible or creative in the problem-solving process. That’s just human nature; to stretch and grow, we need to feel safe enough to get curious about possibilities that are outside of our comfort zone. Nobody does that well when they’re feeling guarded, judged, or attacked. Getting stuck in a battle of wills will most likely lead your partner to double down on the behavior you’re talking about. Here’s an idea of how you might go about having this conversation with your partner:
Let go of the expectation that you will be able to control your partner’s actions. No matter how you express your request, it’s possible that your partner will just say “no.” Make your peace with that possibility; they have just as much of a right to make choices as you do.
Get clear on what you’re asking. If all you can think of is a complaint, go deeper and see what’s underneath it for you. This topic is important to you for a good reason; figure out what is most important to you about it before you start talking about it with your partner.
Frame it in positive terms. Talking about what you want to experience is a much better motivator for change than complaining about what pisses you off.
Be open to hearing their perspective, including learning why they don’t want the same thing you do. If it turns out you have a big difference of opinion, don’t get in a fight or dig in; instead get curious. Ask questions. Learn more about what’s going on for them. Feeling heard will put your partner at ease, and you might learn that there are aspects of the issue that you hadn’t considered. You might also discover that there are ways you can help that you hadn’t realized before–and the process of thinking through the issue might give your partner a chance to reflect on what is and isn’t working for them.
Release the actual decision-making to the person making the change. Remember, you can only change yourself, and your partner can only change themselves. You can inspire someone to change, and you can request someone change, but you can’t make anyone besides yourself change.
Honor and appreciate one another. Engaging in deep conversations like these is an act of love, respect, and courage. Even if you haven’t entirely resolved the problem (yet), don’t forget the importance of honoring one another and the process of showing up authentically and becoming better teammates with the kinds of challenges we all face. You get major props from me for taking part in this deeply challenging yet rewarding process.
Martha Kauppi, LMFT, CST-S, Website - Book: Polyamory: A Clinical Toolkit for Therapists (and Their Clients)