Couples Therapy for One
Change your partner's behavior by changing your own.
Posted May 31, 2020
Your romantic partner may be driving you crazy but stubbornly refuse to do anything about it. They may even deny that there is a problem or that they have any part in it. You probably feel stuck and powerless, since how can you work on a relationship problem without your partner?
Good news: You can work on your relationship by yourself. Since relationships always take two to tango, you can change what your partner does by changing what you do. Doing more of the same but harder or louder probably won’t change much, other than to perhaps dig your partner in a little deeper. The trick is to figure out what you need to change in order to evoke something different from them.
It’s All Connected
Nothing in a relationship happens in a vacuum. Every interaction is influenced by the million interactions that came before it—some of them longstanding patterns, some of them what just happened. This creates a situation where it’s easy for both partners to justify their actions based on what came before, by selectively pointing to whatever bolsters their case. For example, “I wouldn’t avoid telling you things if you didn’t freak out,” versus “I wouldn’t freak out if you didn’t withhold information.” One misdeed begets the next, so if we want our partner to behave better, we probably need to start by behaving better first. After all, it’s a crummy sales pitch to tell our partner that if they start acting better first, that then we will follow with our own good behavior. If your partner was really willing to go for that deal, then you wouldn’t be stuck in the first place.
The reward for acknowledging our own part in those unhappy interactions is that it also means that we have the ability to break the pattern by doing something differently. The price tag for the power to change something is accepting that you have some responsibility for the problem in the first place. This doesn’t mean that it’s your fault, nor does it mean that it is or isn’t your partner’s fault. Rather, it means that in relationships, partners influence what the other person does. If your partner keeps behaving in a way that you don’t like, you just haven’t yet found how to change your behavior so you get more of what you want from them.
How Do You Drive Your Partner’s Bad Behavior?
If your partner does something that makes you crazy, step back and look at what happens before, during, and after. What happens before that annoying behavior? What does your partner do and then how do you respond? How do they respond to what you do? Where are the places that you say or do something? Where are the places that you stay silent or don’t do something?
How can you change up the interactional pattern? Most couples tend to get stuck in the same old patterns. Each week looks a lot like most other weeks, so we tend to get stuck on the same topics and behave in the same ways, perhaps sometimes better or worse. How can you approach the situation differently or respond in a new way? If you do something different, it’s more likely that your partner will also do something different, whereas more of the same almost always evokes more of the same.
If you tend to say or do something, then try saying or doing something different—or maybe nothing at all. If you tend to stay silent or inactive, then think about what you could say or do.
For example, if your partner tends to leave the kitchen a mess and you tend to respond by angrily complaining but then cleaning it up anyway, then maybe you simply state, “I would appreciate it if you could clean up your stuff,” then let it sit there. Give it some time, then ask nicely again. If they still don’t act, then give them your dilemma (next).
Give Your Partner Your Dilemma
When people feel stuck and angry, it’s because they feel caught between two bad options and cut off from the option they want. Let’s use the cliché example from above about the wife who is resentful about her husband leaving the kitchen a mess. Her two bad options are to resentfully clean it up herself or to yell at her husband to finally do it. The option she wants but can’t figure out how to get is that he cleans up his mess without her having to say anything.
The advice I would give her is to tell him, directly and calmly, “I don’t want to resent you when I have to clean up the kitchen but I also don’t want to yell at you to get you to do it. What can we do here?” Alternatively, the husband in this situation may give his wife his dilemma, which is, “I don’t want the kitchen to be a source of strife between us but I also don’t want to feel pressured to clean it up right after dinner. What can we do here?”
Giving your partner your dilemma puts the ball in their court and makes it a problem to solve together. It’s more about what to do in the future than it is about debating or casting blame about the past (which is rarely as satisfying as we hope it to be). This couple has a bunch of different options that they could each feel OK about (the ideal decision of no one cleaning the kitchen doesn’t exist), but it takes at least one of them doing something different by bringing up the conversation in a different way. The important thing is that the couple comes to a better solution that they can both be happy enough about. To keep this new solution going, rather than falling into the same old habits, they both have their part to play. And if someone falls off the wagon, then start a brief and nonaccusatory conversation asking what happened and requesting a return to what was agreed on.
Acceptance May Be the Better Path to Happiness
Hopefully, you and your partner can solve most of the difficulties that come up in your relationship. Or at least soften them somewhat. Sometimes though, happiness comes from accepting that this is who our partner is and that it probably won’t change. Or perhaps it could change for the better, but it would take too much wrangling and generate too many bad feelings to be worth it. This isn’t to say that you should turn a blind eye to truly problematic behavior, but most relationship problems tend to be about more mundane matters. Yes, they’re annoying, but they aren’t a matter of personal integrity.
Happy couples figure out how to pick their battles, focusing on the grievances that are most important and most likely to change. They make an active choice to let some smaller matters go so that they can focus on more important matters. After all, if you fight every battle, the relationship won’t be worth fighting for. In the process, they enjoy each other more and get the benefits of those positive interactions. Accepting your partner for who they are can be a powerful couples therapy intervention.
It’s always a judgment call as to whether we accept our partner for they are or try to change what they do. Either way, remember that you can change what your partner does by first changing what you do.