The other day, I had to fix a broken light switch. Yep, I didn’t know those could stop working either. Fortunately, I remembered enough about electrical wiring that it was a simple task: Trip to the hardware store, turn off the electricity and swap out the faulty switch. Unfortunately, fixing our spouse or partner isn’t as easy.
Instead, they fight back. It’s always easy to see what others are doing wrong and what they need to change. Yet, for some reason they resist our efforts to “help” them and instead complain that we are nagging or making a big deal out of nothing.
It doesn’t even matter if you’re absolutely right. The more we complain, the less others seem to change. It’s not that we shouldn’t try to help our parter become a better person. Rather, we need to find ways that are “more helpful” rather than just “continuing to just hit them over the head” with the same failed approach.
The problem with this approach is that it involves several elements on both sides that are contrary to change:
- Contempt / Disdain / Hate / Loathing
Unfortunately for us, criticism, blame and contempt are much easier to work with than to take a long, honest look at what we are doing to make the situation worse. Changing others requires that we start to look at our contribution to the problem. Even though our partner may have genuine problems, we also must look at how we try to “fix” them as this often creates more problems.
Steps to Change
First and most importantly, you have to first ask yourself what you want. Do you really want your significant other to change, or have you already decided that you will NEVER be satisfied with anything they do, even if they change? Even more urgently, do you still love them?
If you decide that you to make things work and are committed to the relationship, the next step is straightforward, but not easy: The two of you have to agree that both of you are going to work on this together, since fixing only one partner rarely ever works.
Parents like to do this with their children: They send them off to therapy, hoping that the therapist will just “fix” their kid and magically transform them a “new child”, ready to return back to the family. The reality is that only family therapy for all family members can make the difference in such situations.
Why Change Rarely Lasts
Let’s say that you were successful in changing your parter. For example, if your spouse has an addiction issue with alcohol and finally goes to treatment and actually gets better, the odds are that they will return to drinking if the rest of the family does not get therapy also.
Here’s why: In this example, say that Dad is an alcoholic. Dad finally, after much begging, prodding and pleading from the family, goes off to treatment yet again. And this time it works. Dad is sober and returns to the family as a new man. But now, something unexpected has changed: Dad wants to be involved.
Dad has an opinion on how Johnny should do his homework. He has preferences on what to watch on TV. He wants to be involved in the family finances. And the family is both relieved, and taken aback, by this “new” Dad. They almost literally give him the cold shoulder as they slightly resist this new version of him. Dad senses this, and picks up on the signals, which are interpreted as, “I guess they don’t really love me / want me to be around.” And he goes back to drinking.
Without changing the family members as well as Dad, everything ultimately falls apart.
The Same Approach for Marital Therapy
I take this same approach when a couple comes to see me for marital or relationship therapy. I let them know that they both have to commit to change, even if their partner totally screws things up.
I don’t care if their partner is bored, refuses to do the homework, keeps making the same mistakes or won’t even participate in sessions; you must focus exclusively on your own problems and contribution to the relationship issues, otherwise nothing will change. This is similar to the approach of Dr. David Burns, who is an outstanding expert in the field of cognitive-behavioral and couples therapy.
A Does of Reality
You have to ask yourself how you view your mate. Remember: What you see is what you get! People can change, but in many ways they are the same. They may fine-tune things, file down some of the edges, gain some insight, but in the end they are who they are (though slightly improved). A good rule of thumb is that after 10-15 years of a relationship, you’ll be lucky if you get 10-15% of a change in who they are (and the same goes for us too, by the way).
Demanding that someone needs to change rarely works. You have to decide that you both are going to become a “mutual team” that works to find solutions. Each person has to work on improving themselves first. All you have control over is yourself.
Just as in children’s therapy where there is a need for the child to have individual therapy, it is also important that the family come in several times along the way, and at first, to help define, clarify, and assess progress, or nothing really works in the long run.
Relationships often require that we take a “leap of faith” and commit to the relationship in positive ways. Each of us must work on improving our own part to the relationship and not wait for the other person to do their part first. You must continue to live your life and not just wait to see if your husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend will change.
Stop listing to what other people tell you, to do. Other people have their own agendas which may not be in line with your relationship.
Some situations will not change. If this is the case, it’s best to clearly decide together how you both are going to handle it so that you do not continue to hurt each other.
Finally, it is critical to let go of old hurts and pains. If we keep hitting our significant other over the head with their past faults anytime something goes wrong, we’ll never get any traction in the relationship. We need to focus on the here and now rather than beating them up for the past.
Life is suppose to be fun, enjoyable and loving. You should focus on the reality of life and not on what others need to do. All you can do is to decide that if are going to enjoy life. If your mate wants to join you, then fine. If not, it will be their loss.
You can’t make your partner into something that they do not want to be, or do not want to do. Once you focus on yourself first, then you can become a desirable person that your partner can “freely choose” to be with… or not.
It may be a risk, but you’ll be worth it.