Relationship Trouble?

What to do when your partner won't change.

Posted Oct 05, 2012

People often seek my advice on restoring their relationships, which is astounding when I consider all the times I’ve annoyed or upset my wife, Kristen. And when I say “all the times,” I’m referring to this morning. In any case, I'm always glad when people approach me with questions, because it reminds me that the challenges in my own marriage aren’t so unique; that Kristen and I are, in a sense, one couple within a larger community. That, and because I love telling people what to do.

Two of the most common questions Kristen and I both receive when we talk to people have shockingly simple answers. The first one is a doozie: “My husband or wife doesn’t think there’s anything wrong, and he or she refuses to change. Our marriage is falling apart. What can I do to make him or her change?”

Bad news first: You cannot force someone to change. It’s impossible. Ask anyone who has ever watched a loved one struggling with addiction—ask them how helpless and frustrated they felt, knowing that person could change but ultimately wasn’t willing to.

Now, the good news: You cannot force someone to change. It’s impossible. Knowing that liberates you from the heavy, self-assumed burden of trying to control the people around you. I, personally, have a hard enough time keeping my own life on track without having to worry about every decision Kristen is making throughout the day. You can’t control other people, and that’s a good thing.

Which leads me to the next question: “So much is going wrong in our relationship. We want to make things better, but it feels overwhelming. Where do we start?”

Having been there, and knowing that we cannot control other people, Kristen and I believe that the best place to start is with yourself. A few years ago when we finally decided to reconstruct a happy marriage, we began by focusing on improving ourselves.

I began seeking opportunities every day to be a better partner and friend to Kristen. I wrote down behavioral rules and goals in my Journal of Best Practices and re-committed myself every morning to the process.

Kristen focused on herself as well. As she relates in this Q&A video, she made a conscious decision one day to commit to a healthier lifestyle. This was just one area of her life that she wanted to improve while treading water in a struggling marriage.

She did this entirely for herself at first, as a way of making time to recharge. The hour Kristen spent working out everyday was her hour—her moment of solitude—and I very diligently respected that time. I didn’t allow myself or our kids to interrupt her with the usual trivial stuff; I could make the kids a snack, for example, and my hilarious impressions of Ted Koppel could wait until after Kristen’s workout was over.

TIP: Never interrupt your wife's cardio-kickboxing pretending to be Ted Koppel. It’s a mistake you make only once.

What Kristen and I didn’t know at the time is that change begets further change. While working to improve myself, I gained more self-confidence and noticed that Kristen actually wanted to be around me more. Kristen says she noticed that exercise elevated her mood, as did learning how to manage her time and focus on her priorities, which happened after she began exercising. We weren’t arguing quite so often. Living in harmony felt pretty darn good, which motivated us to keep working on improving things.

While Kristen and I made a commitment every morning to ourselves, we never lost sight of the end goal: a better partnership. We weren’t making purely selfish commitments; rather, we committed to improving ourselves in ways that would ultimately serve our relationship. And when you’re acting in the best interests of your relationship, your relationship will thrive.

So, if you’re stuck right now, where could you begin? Which aspect of your life would you focus on first to improve not only yourself, but your relationship?

About the Author

David Finch

David Finch is a New York Times best-selling humorist, essayist, and public speaker.

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