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Ben and Alicia are both waiting for the other person to
change. I see it all the time in my private practice.
“I’ve been miserable for years,” complains Ben. “I’ve asked Alicia to give me space, but things don’t appear to be changing. It
feels like I can’t breathe.”
“Ben has his
friends over every weekend,”
Alicia reflects. “He doesn’t consider my needs and I feel
so alone.”
If you want your partner to change, start by accepting them
for who they are. In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, Dr. John
Gottman says, “People can
change only if they feel that they are basically liked and accepted the way
they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are
unable to change. Instead, they feel under siege and dig in to protect
Instead of criticizing your partner, remind yourself of all
of the things you appreciate about them, and share those things with them. Be
genuinely interested in learning about why they see or do something different
than you, and be open to respecting and even celebrating what makes each of you
Of course, there are some things that should never be
tolerated in a relationship, like abuse, addiction, or infidelity. These
behaviors should be addressed in a loving and direct way with the help of a
professional. Even in those cases, it is possible to accept the person even if
you do not accept their behavior.
Vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand.
What Ben and Alicia don’t
realize is that they aren’t really
arguing about the amount of time they spend together. The underlying issue in
their marriage is that neither partner is able to express their needs in a
non-blameful way.
They had never discussed what alone time and time together
meant to each of them. By talking about this in my office, Ben finally
understood Alicia’s fear of
being alone. His understanding led him to carve out time to spend together on
the weekends.
Couples seeking a deeper emotional connection need to understand
that vulnerability and intimacy go hand in hand. In other words, intimacy can
only occur when partners are vulnerable enough to share their deepest hopes,
fears, and dreams without judgment.
Change starts with you.
Do you spend more time questioning your partner’s words or actions than
examining your own? Blaming your partner can feel good in the moment because
you want your partner to change, but it’s
dangerous because it can lead to anger and resentment.
Conflict is not a bad thing in relationships. After watching
thousands of couples in his lab for over 40 years, Dr. Gottman discovered a
simple truth: all couples argue. The difference between the couples that stay
together and the ones who divorce is the way they repair after conflict. The
masters of relationships take responsibility for their role in the issue and
change their own behavior.
Dr. Gottman explains, “The
couples that don’t repair
those hurts end up with festering wounds that grow bigger day by day, the
month, and the year until they finally break the couple apart. Repair is
absolutely crucial in any kind of relationship, particularly intimate
Here are four things you can do when you want your partner
to change. Instead of trying to fix them, these can change your relationship
for the better.
1. Be a better partner.
Many people stay in bad relationships with the desire to
change their partner. In Marriage Rules, Dr. Harriet Lerner writes, “If you don’t change your part in a stuck pattern, no change will
occur. Change comes from the bottom up: that is from the person who is in the
most pain, or who has the least power, or who has lost or compromised too much
in the relationship.”
2. Focus on the issues at hand.
When you focus on changing your partner, you miss the
opportunity to work together to come up with a solution. You’re no longer on the same team. Instead, focus on the
issues at hand to meet both of your needs.
Anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and
frustration, so speak in “I” statements and focus on expressing your
feelings in a vulnerable way that invites your partner to understand your pain,
rather than pushes them away.
3. Take responsibility.
We are responsible for how our words and actions make our
partner feel. Apologize to your partner by taking responsibility for the
problem, even just a small piece, and this will validate their feelings,
promote forgiveness, and allow you both to move on.
4. Complain without blame.
In Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Dr. Gottman explains that
criticizing your partner is one of The Four Horsemen that predicts divorce. It
is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. A criticism
attacks the core of a person’s
character while a complaint focuses on a specific behavior.
Successful couples remember to give each other the benefit
of the doubt and consider that they are both doing the best they can. In The
Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman advises couples to talk about their feelings in
terms of a positive need, instead of what they do not need. By being good
friends, you can build a healthy bond that will help you repair and navigate
challenging moments together instead of believing you want your partner to
There is a saying to be the change you wish to see in the
world. Gandhi advises us, “If
we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a
man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards
him.” I believe this to be true in
relationships as well.

Instead of trying to change your partner, be the change you
wish to see in your relationship.
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