When Your Partner Won’t Change
Only better behavior can fix poor behavior.
Posted December 23, 2020 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Have you said something like this about your partner? “He really wants to change. He just can’t seem to do it.”
Sometimes we begin relationships with people we hope will change. If we go into it with our eyes open, it’s on us if change doesn’t happen. We knew what we were getting into.
But sometimes a partner’s troubling behavior doesn’t show up right away. And when it does, it can threaten the future of the relationship.
The most obvious example is aggression. If your partner starts being physically or verbally aggressive toward you, that needs to change if you’re going to stay together. Nobody should be abused by their partner.
With deal-breaking behavior like aggression, it’s reasonable to ask your partner to change. If she knows the relationship is on the line, it will give her an opportunity to address something that clearly needs her attention.
But once you’ve asked for change, that’s when the rubber either meets the road or keeps on spinning in the air.
Can’t vs. Won’t
The reasons why people don’t change are complex. But it’s safe to say that both ability and willingness to change are influenced by our mental and emotional health.
If your partner seems to really want to change but keeps falling back into the same old habits, that seems more like a matter of “can’t” than “won’t.”
He would if he could, right? He’s even said things like, “If I could snap my fingers and be different, I would do it.”
You don’t doubt his sincerity. But it raises a question. If your partner shares your desire for change but can’t deliver, what then?
For some people, just knowing your partner genuinely wants to change is enough. You’ll put up with unwanted behavior for an unspecified period of time, as long as he’s trying.
But that puts both of you in an unhappy position. You’ve got a partner who’s not behaving well, and he’s got a partner he’s regularly disappointing.
And because there’s no deadline for change, this can go on for years. It’s a bumpy ride, with bad times and better times, and occasionally even wonderful times.
But ultimately, you’ll still wish your partner would change.
The fact is, if your partner’s poor behavior isn’t changing, it doesn’t matter whether it’s because she won’t or she can’t. You’re not obligated to stay with someone who’s trying (and failing) to do the right thing.
Motivation itself will not fix the problem. Only better behavior can fix poor behavior.
Sometimes the only way to get change is to require it. Again, we’re talking about deal-breaking behaviors here, so don’t assume you’re being demanding if the change you're requesting isn’t optional.
If your partner’s behavior is hurting you, then change should be required.
You don’t have to make demands. All you need to do is be clear that change is required if the relationship is to continue. And hold that boundary.
Keep these three things in mind:
Set a deadline. If you don’t, your partner could be “working on changing” for years to come. For some behaviors, a deadline is a reasonable compromise.
But if the behavior is extremely harmful, you don’t have to stick around until an arbitrary date. Make it a one-strike-and-you’re-out deal instead. This is totally reasonable when it comes to abuse.
Be specific. Make it clear that a particular behavior (describe it so it’s clear to your partner) is unacceptable.
Create consequences. Tell your partner what you’ll do if the above behavior happens again. Then follow through if necessary.
If your partner won’t change, and you don’t require her to, it’s not your partner’s fault if you’re continually mistreated. Take charge of your experience by setting and holding healthy boundaries.
You can be compassionate with a partner who’s trying, unsuccessfully, to change. But allowing him to continue to hurt you every time he fails is not helpful for either of you.
Sometimes the only thing to do when your partner can’t or won’t make reasonable changes is to walk away.