My friend and colleague, Tess Brigham, always says, “If you don’t want to live on a farm in Idaho, don’t marry an Idaho farmer.”
I totally agree! People are who they are, right at the beginning of any relationship. I don’t necessarily mean those first few dates when they’re on their best behavior (and if they can’t even do that – and the first few dates suck – you should be running VERY fast the other way). But they show who they truly are within the first month of dating.
If you’re dating someone who says, “I’m not looking for anything serious,” newsflash: They’re not!! You’re not going to be the person to change them. They’re not going to suddenly fall in love and want to settle down. Mainly because, if you kept seeing them, they’ve now learned that you’ll date them without a commitment and they’re thinking, “Yippee!”
Some of you come to me and say, “He wasn’t like this in the beginning,” or “She’s changed.” But, once I dig a little, we all find out that the signs were there from the beginning, but you were looking for the potential of who they could be or just focusing on what you wanted to see and ignoring the rest.
So, does this mean that you and your partner can’t work towards being different? Of course not! There are lots of things I wish were different with my partner, my siblings, my mother and some of my friends. I will continue to work on these relationships. However, I will work on them from a place of unconditional acceptance.
The key to any happy relationship isn’t unconditional love, it’s unconditional acceptance.
Let me tell you the story of a mom and son I worked with, we’ll call them Deborah and Daniel. Daniel came out as gay at 14 and Deb wasn’t down with it. Deb was a super loving and hard-working single mom, but she and her son were having major issues around his coming out and he was starting to act out.
I had met with the two of them and Daniel told her that he felt like she hated him and didn’t love him. He felt like she favored his older, straight, sister.
“Of course, I love you! This has nothing to do with how much I love you, it has to do with me thinking you’re going down a wrong road and it’s my job as your mother to protect you.”
It was then that I intervened. “If Daniel was doing drugs and you wanted to intervene, I would understand. If Daniel was having unprotected sex or dating much older men and you wanted to intervene, I would understand. Those interventions would be about protecting him and poor decisions he was making. But this is something else. Identifying as gay is who he’s saying he is as a person, not a behavior he’s choosing.”
Deb replied, “Of course this is a choice! How does he even know he’s gay? He hasn’t even tried to date girls! Shouldn’t he do that before he decides?”
I replied, “Does that mean that your daughter should be dating girls right now because otherwise she wouldn’t know she was straight? Why is it that you accept that she’s straight but won’t accept that Daniel’s gay? You’re telling Daniel that you don’t accept who he is as a person. He’s not choosing to be gay, he is gay.”
As you’re listening to this, I want you to think about how many things you’ve determined are facts or true, that your partner might disagree with. These could be little or big things:
- People choose to be gay
- Being a stay-at-home parent is easier and less stressful than working a corporate job, answering to a boss and commuting every day
- Day care is bad for kids
- Pornography is the same as cheating
- The correct position for the toilet seat is down
When we don’t accept our partners, and continually try to change them, we both become resentful, distant and disconnected. How can you truly feel that someone loves you if you feel that, at a very basic level, they don’t like or accept who you are?
You know I love me some Dr. John Gottman. In case you’ve never heard me talk about him before, he and his wife are amazing marriage researchers in New York. In his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he 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 themselves.”
So, if you want your partner to change, start by accepting them for who they are.
I want you to take a moment and really think about what you want to change in your partner. Is it for you, or is it for them? Is it to make their life better or yours easier?
Trying to change someone else is sometimes a selfish act; You’re trying to change them in order to fulfill your own needs, to make your own life more comfortable or better.
How do you feel when someone tries to change you? Think about the last time someone tried to change something you were doing or saying. How did you feel? I’m betting it was angry, defensive, frustrated, sad, misunderstood, or not heard. This is how your partner feels when you’re trying to change them.
You and your partner can both change, but you’ve got to focus on effective, connecting approaches.
Today, I’m going to teach you five strategies to create lasting change in your relationship and how you feel about your partner.
1. Change Your Mind:
What I mean by “change your mind” is to change how you’re thinking about what your partner’s doing (or not doing).
First, you can make a decision (really) that this thing doesn’t need to bother you anymore and that it’s just not that important. If you’re constantly nagging or complaining to your partner, your words cease to have effect or meaning. I never yell at my kids and rarely get really angry but, when I do, I have their COMPLETE focus and attention. It’s something different and they realize that they really need to listen up!
You can also make a decision that this thing your partner’s doing/saying doesn’t mean what you thought. If your partner leaves his dirty socks on the floor it doesn’t mean he thinks you’re the maid or that he doesn’t appreciate you. You’re assigning that meaning; I would bet it’s the farthest thing from his mind when he’s doing it.
Instead, it could just be that he’s completely unaware and maybe you’ll decide to pick up the socks yourself because you love him and feel fine being of service in this way (or maybe you’ll train the dog to pick up the socks and put them in the hamper).
To effectively change your mind, it’s helpful to focus on yourself when you’re upset with your partner. You can do that by asking yourself some questions:
- “What’s triggering me here?”
- “What does this remind me of?”
- “What thoughts am I having about this?” (i.e., what do you think your partner’s behavior means. “She’s reminding me again about attending the parent/teacher conference because she doesn’t trust me and she’s a controlling bitch!” These are thoughts that aren’t facts!)
2. Seek to Understand:
If your partner is going to change, it needs to be their idea on some level if it’s going to stick. This means you need to get really curious and start asking questions that will elicit good conversations so you can understand their view on things. Remember it’s not their “side” of things – there are no sides. It’s just a way they view something and finding out what it’s really about is your goal.
You can check out my blog post Bad Questions are Ruining Your Relationship or listen to Episode 05 How to Effectively Deal with Conflict in Your Relationship to learn more about how to ask effective questions.
3. Change the Situation:
Focus on changing the situation, not your partner. For example, if your partner is always late and it drives you crazy, change the situation: take two cars so you’re where you want to be on time.
Are you waiting for your partner to get home and take care of the kids so you can get to an appointment? Hire a babysitter instead. Even if your partner gets home 20 minutes after the sitter arrives, pay for the hour and call it money well spent so neither of you is angry or frustrated.
That partner leaving their dirty socks on the floor that we discussed earlier? Hire a cleaning person to pick up the socks, make one of your kids do it, buy him some awesome new sandals he’ll want to wear every day (I pray without socks) or buy seven hampers and leave them at every possible juncture around your bedroom.
4. Assume Your Wrong:
Assume you’re the cause of the conflict instead of your partner. WTF Abby?!? Well, most issues with partners are circular, chicken and egg situations.
You: “I’m reminding you because you always forget.”
Partner: “Your constant nagging makes me shut you out and I can’t hear anything you’re saying. I’d do it if you stopped nagging me about it!”
No one sees their own behavior as the reason there’s a conflict. It’s time to get some perspective and empathy and really try to put yourself in your partner’s shoes. What does it likely feel like to them?
I call this Relationship Gridlock. You’re sitting in your car thinking that your partner has to move their car before you can get out of this traffic jam. But, your partner is sitting in their car waiting for you to move yours. They think you’re the reason you’re both in this traffic jam!
In her book Marriage Rules, Dr. Harriet Lerner says, “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.”
Be the first one to move your car. You might need to back up and go around the block instead of going straight through that intersection but isn’t the real goal to get to your destination? How you get there shouldn’t be the biggest priority.
5. Compliment/Appreciate Your Partner’s Differences:
I want you to start to see your partner’s differences in a positive light. Those things that attracted us to our partners in the beginning (“He’s so nice and calm!” “Wow, she’s so energetic!”) are things that often get under our skin when the complexities of a long-term relationship take over (“How can he be so calm right now?!” “Can’t she ever sit still?!”).
When it comes to the daily grind of paying bills, making large purchases, decision-making, children, and coordinating schedules, all those things that were so cute or endearing in the beginning can drive us crazy a few months or years in. We go from “opposites attract” to “opposites repel.”
Start identifying positives about their different approach. “OK, I know he seems to take forever to make a decision, but he really does balance me and my sometimes too-quick decision-making process. He helps me slow down a bit and I help him move forward, so that’s good.”
I don’t want you to love your partner despite their differences, I want you to love them because of those differences. Look to embrace, instead of tolerate.
In the end, you can accept the person and not their behavior. But, decide what behavior matters. Leaving the toilet seat up? Not doing a good enough job on clean up duty? Are these the hills you want your relationship to die on?!
So, the next time you think you want to change your partner, I want you to come back to these top five strategies so you can create lasting change in your relationship and shift how you feel about your partner so that you’re unconditionally loving and accepting.