Can You Change Someone Else by Changing Yourself?

Cognitive therapy tips are applied to relationship problems.

Posted Feb 16, 2018

Agnieszka Marcinska/Shutterstock
Source: Agnieszka Marcinska/Shutterstock

I’ve been writing lately about how I use principles and techniques from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in my own life.  

Here’s a short example that pertains to relationships.

My spouse and I had an argument last night in which I was complaining about her not listening and, consequently, either messing up tasks or asking me questions about things I'd already explained. Her reply was, “If you talked less, I’d listen more.”  

My response to that was, “I only talk so much because I have to repeat things over and over due to you not listening!"

What’s the cause, and what’s the consequence?

Interpersonal dynamics are often chicken-or-egg situations. It’s hard to logically disentangle what’s a cause and what’s a consequence, especially when a pattern is entrenched.

I was seeing my behavior as the consequence of my partner not listening. Likewise, she was seeing her behavior as the consequence of me talking too much. Neither of us saw our own behavior as the cause of the conflict.

This is an extremely common psychological trap when you’re frustrated with someone else’s behavior. You can potentially move on from gridlock if you try the thought experiment of asking yourself, What if I saw my behavior as the cause of this pattern?

One way to move forward is to act as if your behavior is the cause. This helps to save you from potentially ruminating about who's at fault and getting stuck.

To succeed in changing your own behavior, you need to put your goal in specific, behavioral terms.

There would be no point in me setting a goal to “talk less” and leaving it at that. To succeed with any type of behavioral change, you need to frame the goal in terms of a behavioral habit you could enact. Continuing with my example:

  • I could only make requests or give instructions three times per day (which might sound like a lot, but most of the time we're together all day, and these conversations are usually related to our businesses or our toddler).
  • I could give instructions only when my spouse is sitting down, and I’m looking directly at her.

What I did in this scenario is brainstorm a few ideas for what my new habit could be, including the two mentioned above.  

I decided on the first idea — limiting my instructions/requests to three per day. By setting a cap, I'm unlikely to use up my quota on things like, “Can you get me a Coke?” or “Can you check the mail?”  These aren’t important requests and should help give us a reset, so she's not always feeling like she’s getting badgered to do things.  

Why did I choose the plan I did?

Basically, I chose the simplest habit, and one that would have natural, positive effects on other aspects of my behavior.

If I limit my number of requests to three per day, I’m naturally going to be more likely to deliver them face-to-face and to pay more attention to whether she has listened while I make the request.

Whenever you make a plan like this, you run the risk of making it too lofty. As a general principle, pick the simplest idea you have, and then try to simplify it further, if possible.

Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Wrapping Up

This is actually one of our perennial arguments, but it’s taken me a while to have the insight I’ve outlined in this post. I only had the insight when I truly listened to my spouse’s complaint and put myself in her shoes.    

If you’re stuck, try listening and perspective taking. Imagine what it’s like to be on the other end of your behavior. Since distinguishing between causes and consequences is so murky when it comes to interpersonal dynamics, remove the question of who’s at fault. Instead, experiment to see whether changing your own behavior has any impact on the pattern. Since prolonged tension creates emotional raw spots, leading to people overreact to even the smallest perceived slights or triggers, it may take a while before you see the impact.

As for me, I’m going to see how this plan goes.

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