Can You Change Your Partner?

OC Relationship CenterIn square dancing, absolutely. In a relationship, it’s a bit more complicated.

When people first enter into a relationship—especially if they’re young—they usually feel like they have all the time in the world to worry about how their differences might impact a future life together. Infatuation always trumps practicality, so even the big issues like children, religion and money seem far, far off in the future. If their partner does something now that bothers them, they probably assume it’s a youthful phase.

But why would you assume that? There’s a great opening line in a novel by Louise Redd called Hangover Soup—about a married couple nearly destroyed by the husband’s alcoholism—that really hits home when I think about this: “I met my husband in college,” the narrator explains, “where it’s hard to tell who’s a true alcoholic and who’s not.” She assumed his drinking was normal for a college kid, and he’d grow out of it.

Renowned marriage researcher Dr. John Gottsman did a study showing that fully 69 percent of issues that couples disagree on early in marriage are not resolved later in marriage. It seems a fair guess that the odds get worse for couples who’ve been together for years.

So what do you do when disagreements over one another’s habits or behaviors reach the boiling point? Here are a few pieces of advice I often give my clients:

  1. Clearly tell your partner (as if he or she hasn’t already heard it a million times, but still) what you wish he/she would do differently, and how you feel it would improve the relationship. Then just ask them if that’s likely to happen—and whatever their answer, take them at their word. It may not be what you want to hear, but at least it gives you a chance to move forward with clear expectations.
  2. At the same time, however, compromise is a beautiful thing. State the major areas in which you think you could be happier in the relationship, and ask your partner if they’re willing to change at least one or two of them. Be sure this is a two-way street, however: your partner should come up with his or her own list, and your willingness to change one or two of the things that bother them might make them more willing to meet you halfway.

This practice also offers the added incentive of helping you prioritize what really matters and what doesn’t. If you’re biggest complaints are (1) the dirty socks you’re constantly picking up, (2) their unwillingness to attend church or synagogue more than once a year, and (3) their nightly habit of stopping for drinks on the way home…well, for most people, the dirty socks start to look pretty insignificant. You can’t change everything, so you might as well go for the important ones.

  1. Be as specific as possible. If you’re always complaining about the state of the office and he hears, “I need you to really clean out the office before my mother visits this weekend,” he may imagine that you expect him to wash the baseboards, dust the diplomas and alphabetize the books, when all you really wanted was for him to go over the desk and put all his papers in neat piles. When you ask for someone to change something that doesn’t come naturally to them, they’re far more willing to comply if you can explain exactly what you’re looking for
  2. Finally—and you probably know this one, but it bears repeating—remember the timeless “serenity prayer”: “Grant me the courage to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Whenever reasonable and possible, accept your partner for who they are and find a way to focus on the person you love, warts and all.

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