As a couples therapist, I get this question all the time. Sometimes it’s spoken with anger, sometimes despair, sometimes sorrow, and sometimes exhausted resignation. Behind the question is often feelings of hurt, powerlessness, and a sense of something being broken in the relationship.
My answer to this question is simple: “What can you do to change your behavior?”
This answer is often met with puzzlement. “I don’t understand. My problem is with my partner.”
But the only thing that any person has power over is their own behavior. You can’t control your partner at all. However, you can trigger change in another person’s behavior by changing whatever it is that they’re reacting to- in this case, your behavior. This is why the answer to this question, “What can I do to change my partner?” is, “What can you do to change your behavior… so that your partner is likely to respond differently?”
This can be hard to get at first, so I will provide some examples of what this can look like:
- You don’t see how your grumpy mood when you come home from work and brood silently in the kitchen affects your partner, who feels rejected and ignored. When you ask about their day an hour later and they snap at you, it seems like it “came out of the blue.”
- You don’t see how your all-encompassing focus on your new job makes them feel neglected and disengaged until you reach out for some emotional support which they are too resentful to provide.
- You don’t see how making a commitment and not following through with it time and again has made them reluctant to trust you on your word until you need them to trust us and find that they don’t.
- You don’t see how long it’s been since you’ve complimented and admired your partner until you see them come alive under someone else’s admiring attention at a party.
In each of these examples, your partner acted in a way that you didn’t like. But their behavior was in direct response to something you did (or didn’t do) first.
Relationships are co-created. And while it is easy to point out the behavior our partner enacted that provoked a response in us, it seems to be a natural human blind spot to have to struggle to see that our partner is just as surely responding to us. And while we can’t make a behavioral choice that guarantees a given desired response, we can learn about what sort of behaviors make certain responses more probable. And then we aim to do those.
What might that look like? Read the examples below and think about how your partner might respond differently from the way they did in the scenarios above.
- You come home in a grumpy mood and tell our partner, “I need a little alone time. Can I decompress a little and then connect with you later?”
- You are extremely focused upon your new job and make a point of telling your partner that you miss them and want to put some special time aside on the weekend to just focus on them.
- You recognize that you didn’t keep your commitments to our partner and make a sincere apology. You think about what made it hard to follow through like you said you would and make some changes so that it isn’t likely to happen again.
- You realize that you haven’t shown your affectionate appreciation for your partner for a while. You leave them some notes in places you know they will find them.
So the next time you don’t like something your partner does, ask yourself, “What did I do right before, and might they act differently if I changed that?”
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