Note: What follows is an adaptation of a previous article I wrote for the web site Science Of Relationships.
Recently, I spoke with Dr. Nickola Overall (Univ. of Auckland, New Zealand) for Relationship Matters, the podcast series of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. The interview was about the exciting research she's recently published that directly addresses the dos and don'ts in trying to change your partner or relationship.
First of all, Dr. Overall points out that to create long-lasting change in a relationship you need BOTH partners engaged and working toward improvement. So, the importance of taking responsibility for your own contribution to the problem and learning to regulate your own behavior is key.
Second of all, and perhaps the most important point made by Dr. Overall, simply accepting your partner for who they are and not trying to get them to change as well is an ineffective strategy that usually doesn't result in an improved relationship. So what to do when your partner just doesn't seem to care about change as much as you do? Dr. Overall points out that their research reveals what kinds of communication strategies are effective in the long-term for bringing about change.
Let's illustrate with an example; say you're (hypothetically) not satisfied with your sex life. One communication strategy would be to blame your partner, what Dr. Overall calls a "direct negative" approach: "Honey, you never have sex with me anymore. This is not what life is supposed to be like. Either change or I might leave you!" While this clearly gets the attention of your partner, it tends to bring out hostility and leads to more resentment than change in the long-term.
A second approach, often suggested by therapists and self-help manuals, is to accept your partner for "who they are" and to work on your self, an "indirect positive approach": "Honey, I wish we could have sex more, but I know you're really tired when you come home from work and I don't blame you. I love you!" Here, while you maintain positivity, you don't solve the underlying problem and you remain unhappy in the long-term.
The third approach identified by Dr. Overall, which is most likely to lead to long-term happiness, is the "direct positive approach": "Honey, I know you often feel too tired for sex, but I read on the Psychology Today web page how important a good sex life is for couples, and I think we need to really take it seriously. I love you, and I don't want our relationship to get into serious problems. I'm willing to do my share to improve our sex life, and I'd like for us to sit down together and see if we could come up with some strategies on how we could have more time for each other." Dr. Overall means that this last approach not only keeps a positive tone in the communication, but it also conveys that the need for change is real and not to be taken lightly.
Dr. Overall points out that in her work, it's not your own contribution to change that improves your satisfaction. Instead, it's seeing your partner working actively toward improvement that makes you happy. So remember, it takes two people to improve a relationship, but how you communicate the need for change is central to how successful you are at bringing that about!
My advice based on these research findings:
1) Relationships are dynamic and both partners always contribute to a problem in some way. Acknowledge and take responsibility for your own contribution to a problem within your relationship. Then, ask yourself what you can contribute to bringing about change for the better. Is there something you can specifically begin with today to help set your relationship off on the right track?
2) If you are trying to convince your partner to change a behavior or to help change something about your relationship, use a "direct positive approach". Convey the need for change with love and in a positive tone but go further by also conveying how important to you it is that a change actually happens. Suggest some concrete ideas that could get things going in the right direction. Avoid an overly negative approach and avoid an overly positive approach that doesn't convey the message that change is very important: these approaches will only lead to long-term grief!
Download the full interview with Dr. Overall and/or read the original research article, both courtesy of SAGE publications.
About the author: Dr. Bjarne Holmes is Associate Professor and the Program Director for Psychology at Champlain College in beautiful Burlington, Vermont (come study with us!!). His research focuses on attachment, well-being, health, relationship attitudes and beliefs, and the role of media influence on social identity in young adults. Dr. Holmes is an Associate Editor of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships and he produces the journal's podcast series,"Relationship Matters" (download the podcasts for free here). He's also a regular contributor to the web page Science of Relationships (read his articles here). Dr. Holmes is available for media interviews, expert commentary, or consulting.