TAHOE/TURCKEE, Calif. — This is not the article you might have thought it was.
This is not about the fact people don’t change and why you’d better learn to just accept everything about your partner. No. This is about healthy requests for change in marriage.
It is unlikely your partner will have a personality transplant, or a chronically disappointing relationship or cyclically abusive relationship will become satisfying and healthy. Not impossible, but unlikely.
If the love is there, however, and the relationship is, overall, good enough most of the time, then you would be wise to accept it is highly likely you are going to want your partner’s behaviors to change — a lot. And, your partner is going to want your behaviors to change — a lot.
Modern marriage, for most, means high expectations for regular progress toward mutual fulfillment and efficient teamwork.
Unless the marriage is continually getting better one or both partners is likely to feel seriously upset and dissatisfied. These days, marriages are expected to follow a path of evolution.
And who could object to evolution? Yea for growth, right?
Well, actually, evolution in a marriage is often neither pretty nor pleasant. In practical terms, change and evolution means listening as your partner asks you to behave differently and then trying to adapt to his or her requests, while still being true to your own needs and limitations. It also means communicating to your partner about the changes you want from him or her, and then accepting a compromise or sometimes a flat-out “no.”
At worst, these desires for change can either turn into excruciatingly painful fights that go nowhere or go unspoken and manifest as an undercurrent of resentment and disappointment in the marriage. At best, they can be relatively calm but difficult discussions that can propel positive change.
Here are 11 keys to optimizing your chance for calm and productive negotiations about change:
1. Recognize changing behaviors in response to each other’s needs and preferences is part of marriage. It does not mean you are nags, controlling or mean. Asking for changes and receiving requests to change also does not mean you do not love or accept each other as is — it just means you both want a marriage that grows and evolves.
2. If you are the one who wants a change, identify what you want before the conversation begins. If you are upset your partner has been putting wet towels on the bed, for example, figure out what behavior you do want. I want him/her to hang up the wet towels.
3. Be respectful your partner may not agree what you are asking for is simply compliance with the “right” behavior. Avoid trying to get inside your partner’s head and “help” him or her to “see the light” so that he or she will make a change in behavior; “Doesn’t it make sense to hang up the towels? Don’t you see that putting the towels on the bed just creates more of a mess?”
4. Don’t assume your partner’s behaviors have anything to do with you. Avoid using guilt inducing comments such as “Why would you put the wet towel on the bed when you know how much it annoys me?”
5. Avoid indirect blame laden comments like “why do you insist on throwing wet towels on the bed?”
6. Ask directly and specifically for the changes you would like from your partner, and own the fact you are asking for a change. “I would like you to hang up the towels when they are wet. Would you be willing and able to do that?” While it may sound cold or robotic, a simple statement and question combo like that can be more productive than a “Please, honey, could you try to hang up the towels?” The direct and plain version actually allows for an answer of yes or no. The seemingly more polite version is basically saying “Do it.” And, “Aren’t I so sweet for asking nicely, how could you say no to this reasonable request?”
7. Do not argue against the answer. There may be times when a quick, “I want you to know this is a 9 on a scale from 1 to 10 in terms of importance to me” (but do not overuse this option) is appropriate, but that is it. Learning to let go when you do not get the answer you want is a challenge, but remember, you will get the same respect back when you say no.
8. If you are the one being asked for a change in behavior, and your partner is asking in a way that is not respectful or direct, ask for a direct request.
9. Once there is a direct request, be respectful back by not becoming angry or defensive or deflecting the request. Reflect on whether you are able and willing to make the change. “Is hanging up the wet towel something I am willing to do? Will I be able to remember?” Be honest and realistic with yourself.
10. Avoid responding based on whether or not you see the request as reasonable or valid. It’s not your job to pass judgment on your partner’s requests.
11. Communicate to your partner if you are willing and able to make the change or not. Or, offer a compromise or try to develop a plan together. “I will hang up the towels if you put a reminder note in the bathroom.”
The example of the wet towels may seem simplistic, but you can work to apply the same principles to more serious or vulnerable issues such as substance abuse, sex, needs for verbal attention from your partner, concerns about finances or employment, or major life decisions about having children or choosing where to live.
“I want you to go to AA meetings, would you be willing and able to do that?” “I would like you to initiate sex.” “I would like you to read this self-help book and reflect on your own issues.” “I would like you to call your boss about the late paycheck.”
“I love…now change” may sound like the example of “what not to do in relationships,” but in fact it is the definition of an evolving and thriving marriage.
I love you, I accept you, and I have needs and preferences. Let’s make this work for both of us.
Danielle B. Grossman, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, specializes in relationships, loss, anxiety, codependence, and addiction. She works in private practice and consults by phone. Contact her at (530) 470-2233 or www.truckeecounseling.com.