Do you spend more time second-guessing your partner’s comments or reactions than examining your own behavior? While I believe it’s important to be vulnerable with your partner—to be open and reveal yourself without fear of rejection—it’s also crucial to take responsibility for your own actions. While vulnerability can enhance intimacy between you and your partner, blaming your relationship problems on negative traits in your partner can be disastrous for your relationship because it further divides you as a couple.
A typical example is Tim and Megan, both in their mid-thirties and married for seven years. “I’ve been unhappy for some time,” complains Megan. “I’ve asked Tim to be more considerate of my needs, but things don’t appear to be changing. It feels like I’m at the bottom of his list.” To this Tim laments: “Megan just doesn’t make me happy anymore and things just aren’t getting better.” The common thread in these statements is this couple’s focus on “fixing” the other person rather than on taking specific actions to change their part in a relationship dynamic that is undesirable.
Trying to change someone is deadly to an intimate relationship. It dawned on me recently that even though I don’t think of myself as a controlling person, my fix-it attitude about changing my partners has been problematic throughout my life.
Dr. Lisa Firestone writes,
“The focus needs to shift away from how to “fix” the other person and toward a broader view of how to repair the relationship.”
1. Your partner is not going to change. In other words, you can’t change a cat into a dog. Love just isn’t enough to change a person’s basic nature and upbringing. If you fall in love with someone who is reserved and you are more outgoing and need outward signs of affection to feel secure, you’ll feel chronically dissatisfied. Most likely, these differences will probably eat away at loving feelings over time and erode positive feelings in your relationship.
2. Rather than trying to “fix’ your partner, focus on improving your own life. Many people stay in dysfunctional relationships with the unconscious desire to change their partner. According to codependency and relationship expert, Ross Rosenberg, this pattern is common and couples often stay in highly dysfunctional relationships to their own detriment. Rosenberg notes, “The inherently dysfunctional “codependency dance” requires two opposite but distinctly balanced partners: the pleaser/fixer (codependent) and the taker/controller (narcissist).”
3. Focusing on changing your partner can prevent you from focusing on the issues at hand. Ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Avoid name-calling and don’t attack your partner personally. Remember anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so keep things in perspective. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
4. When you change your perspective the way you look at things will change. This doesn’t mean you should tolerate any kind of abuse or disrespect. It means that your expectations impact the way you feel about your partner and his/her action. In general, you will be as happy or disappointed with your romantic relationship depending on how well your perceptions of what is happening match your expectations.
5. It can prevent you and your partner from communicating honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns and express your thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way. Stop the “blame game” and examine your part in disputes or conflict.
6. Focusing on changing someone allows wounds to fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your partner’s behavior when you find it to be negative. Listen to your partner’s side of the story. Are there times when you feel mistrustful or hurt even when he/she presents evidence to the contrary about your grievance?
7. Trying to change your partner interferes with your ability to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move on. Try to remember you are on the same team. Accept that people do the best they can and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. If your relationship is basically healthy, develop a mindset of acceptance and forgiveness about daily disappointments. After all, none of us is perfect. Don’t let it impact you greatly and you try to let go of small annoyances.
8. Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute and you will promote good will. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
9. Trying to change your partner can lead to the end of your relationship. In Dr. Gottman’s acclaimed book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he posits that criticizing your partner is one of the main causes of divorce. It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. Consequently, you are cutting to the core of their character when you criticize. For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you were late. We agreed that you’d call when you were running late.” Versus a criticism: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish!”
10. Focusing on changing your partner doesn’t allow you to be vulnerable. While self-sufficiency and autonomy can help you weather the storms of life, it can also rob you of true intimacy. For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel that they are needed and appreciated for the support they give. Trying to change your partner can prevent you from influencing each other and achieving true intimacy.
Fortunately, even if you’re in a relationship that’s heading in a bad direction, there are strategies that can set you and your partner on the right path again. Taking responsibility for your part in negative patterns of relating to your partner is the hallmark of a successful marriage.
Additionally, compromise is an essential tool to preserving love that will last a lifetime. Discussing concerns that arise in a timely and respectful way will help you become better at repair skills. If you embrace the notion that conflict is an inevitable part of an intimate relationship, and that not all problems have to be resolved, you’ll bounce back from disagreements faster and build a successful long-lasting relationship.