Conflicts — 05 June 2006
How to motivate your partner to change

The choice to change one’s ways is an individual decision motivated by a need for self-improvement, pleasing others or personal gain. No individual can change another, though some partners may help motivate their mates to undertake this hard task.

Some people ascribe magical powers to love and delude themselves that their love is strong enough to alter their mate’s conduct. For example, one gentleman who was dating an anxious woman chose to see her nervousness and agitation as stemming solely from her desire to have him marry her. “Once we are married, she will relax, be safe and secure and no longer anxious”, he said. What he failed to remember was that her low self-esteem and personal doubts were evident early in their dating history. Though the marriage did quell some of her specific anxiety about his love for her- it did not change her nature.

Another false belief is that love is a strong catalyst for change. “I know that he loves me, so if I ask him to stop watching his favorite television programs, it should not be hard for him to do so”, she said. Loving your mate is not a strong motivator for him or her to change, especially if it involves habits, preferences or choices. Love may be a very strong catalyst for voluntary caring, compassion, consideration and help, not personal habit change.

Some partners elect to use criticism, withdrawal, sulking, punishment, or even threats in their futile attempts to coerce a mate to change. None of these aggressive techniques are likely to elicit cooperation. Nor does withholding love, attention, companionship or sex helpful in compelling the mate to alter his or her ways. One woman said: “He is not going to get sex until he stops making messes in the garage”. How likely is that method to generate goodwill and cooperation? It is only likely to exacerbate the war between them.

Making changes to accommodate a partner’s need usually comes from kindness, empathy and loving energy that are volitional- not demanded. The change maker wants to please the mate and is willing to train him/herself to act in a more pleasing way.

The request for change should be explained as the need of the requester, rather than be associated with the deficit of the compliant partner. “It is really important to me to have the entry table clear most of the time, I feel welcomed coming home to an orderly entrance, would you be willing to avoid putting all your stuff on it?” may be responded to with: “Since it is so important to you, I’ll make an effort to do so daily”. The request maker did not accuse, blame, shame, attack or threaten – he spoke of his need and asked for cooperation.

It must be stated that the changes referred to in this column do not apply to issues of addiction, chronic infidelity, abuse, or illegal behavior. People engaged in these behaviors are certainly unchangeable by others and their issues often require voluntary prolonged treatment.

The best way to help your partner change habits and annoying ways is:

• By modeling the behavior you wish to receive. If you want more respect, act respectfully, if you desire more attention, pay closer attention to your partner.

• Describe to your mate the significance his current behavior has on you and the impact the new behavior will have. For example: “When I see you being so irritable with the children, I ache for them and worry about how they feel about you. Having greater patience with them will help them feel more secure, will make me feel pleased with the parenting they get and will make them adore you and be closer to you than they are now.”
• Reach your mate by relating the behavior to one of his or her values. If he prides himself for being a good son, say: “You are a very devoted son and your mother will feel even happier if you saw her more often”.
• Avoid comparisons between you and your partner’s ways. It is often seen as competitive, patronizing or belittling. “I always remember MY mother on mother’s day. Why do I need to remind you about your mother?”
• Phrase your need for your partner’s behavior change as a request and be pleased with the effort made to accommodate you. Change is hard and when it is done to please you-regard it as a special gift.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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