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If only you were different, he would change

Have you ever heard yourself saying something like?  "If only I were different (more this, less that), my partner would change."  

Tragically, I have been witness to the fallout of this kind of thinking in many of the couples with whom I work.  Holding the idea that you can change someone by behaving in some special way, eventually leads to exhaustion and resentment on both sides.

While there are myriad causes and conditions that give rise to this idea that you can change your partner, Here are two that stand out:

One, your partner seems to make a mysterious change for the worse.  Perhaps there is a sudden weight gain or loss.  Perhaps the symptoms of depression start to appear.  Maybe they start to get "short-tempered".  When you inquire about this change and your partner has no insight about it, you are motivated to get your healthy partner back.  

Second, your partner doesn't take responsibilty for their own feelings and needs.  They express feelings and needs in such a way that you are painted as the one and only problem or solution and you agree to take this on (whether consciously or unconsciously).  It might sound something like this:

Your partner says:  Do you really need to go to that party?  I feel lonely, won't you stay with me?
You say:  Oh, I don't want you to feel bad, I will stay.

In essence your partner doesn't have the skills and consciousness to take responsibility and express feelings and needs directly.  In absence of this, they attribute responsibility to you.  This gets expressed in subtle and not so subtle ways.  This pattern is further supported by the structure of blame in our own language.  Examples are:  "You disappointed me, you let me down, you make me mad, you hurt my feelings," etc.

It's tricky because we do, of course, affect one another.  It's hard sometimes to know where to take responsibility and where to leave it with the other person.  One way to pull this apart is to get more clear about the distinctions among feelings, needs, and the strategies used to meet needs. In the framework of Compassionte Communication (NVC), we say feelings don't arise dependent on another's person behavior.  This a radical notion of self-responsibility and takes some careful attention to really integrate.  Feelings arise based on the perception you have of the other peson's behavior and regarding needs met (honored) or unmet (threatened).  Your partner could say the same thing on two different occasions and you would hear it differently each time based on what's alive in you. The empowering part of this is that other people can't make you feel something.  If that doesn't rock your world, you have either done an incredible amount of personal work and now take this as a given or you may want to more time integrate this notion.  

The behavior of others affects you in that it either meets your needs (is in alignment with your values) or isn't.

If you are able to separate feelings from needs and remember that you don't cause other's feelings, you can be present for your partner's disappointment without feeling compelled to "make them happy".  You can then attend to needs.  As you name and attend to needs you will want to make a clear distinction that the request made of you is only one strategy to meet your partner's needs.  Lastly, and this is a very important point, there is no rule book that states which requests "good partners" say yes to and to which they can say no.  Responsibility for your partner's needs rests only with them.  The loving and generous act of meeting each other's needs is done through daily negotiations that fully honor each person's autonomy.

Part of respecting your partner's autonomy, means respecting that they are in charge of their unique change process.  You may have the honor of being invited in for support, but you are never in charge of it and your perfect behavior won't magically change them, no matter how many good intentions you have.

Take a moment now and reflect on any relationships where you might have been in "If only I were different, they would change" thinking.  Engage in self-empathy around this situation by naming the feelings and needs that come up for when you see the other's difficulty or challenging behavior.  How can you take care of your needs in a way other than trying to get the other person to change?  How can you express compassion for that person without attempting to change them?

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8 Responses

  1. Jun 11, 2009

    Yes, I have gone through this. I hear this idea a lot as "If one person shifts in the relationship, often the other person does too".

    It does seem to sometimes happen that way, but that statement, by itself, is unhelpful because it still suggests thinking in terms of manipulating the situation - changing so the other person changes. Which of course doesn't work at all, because an actually healthy "shift" is toward *not controlling*. Trying to change so your partner changes is more of the same manipulation/codependence/controlling etc.

    So I find that I have to keep myself in the state of mind of: "If I work on my own stuff, and my own boundaries, that will probably change the dynamics of our relationship. But I am doing it for me and my own well-being...and how my partner shifts (or not) is not up to me and not about me."

    I like the concept of relationship as a mirror - as in, if I work on myself, then I'll see a better reflection. I.E. what you give out, you get back, etc. It's just key to center the locus of change in yourself and remember that you are changing for you, and that's all the control you will ever have.

    On a separate topic - is there a list somewhere of strategies like Pleaser, Victim, that is written in terms of NVC? Or maybe it would make a good Gem. I've seen the concepts in other work but I like the NVC framing.

  2. Jun 16, 2009

    Yea, sounds like you are mentioning the positive version of this mindstate - getting more clear yourself attracts folks with similar clarity into your life or helps someone you are in relationship shift.

    Looks like you have some helpful strategies around keeping yourself grounded in this framework.

    Hmm, not sure about other writing regarding pleaser, victim strategies specifically, but you might find some similiar information with the google search on "character types". Yes, might make a good gem. I will sit with that.

  3. Jun 18, 2009
    Art Resnick

    Emma & LaShelle,

    You might be interested in the work of Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone. They have developed a practice called voice dialog based on the "Psychology of Selves". It is not overtly NVC but definitely fits and deals with characters within us like the judge, the critic, the victem, etc. etc.

  4. Jun 22, 2009

    Yes, I am familiar with their work. This model is used frequently at Great Vow Zen Monastery where I lived for a year. They have a voice dialogue workshop there each year.

  5. Jun 09, 2016

    I just found you recently, LaShelle. awesome info. but you make me think REALLY HARD! I understand your concept today, but I have a hard time applying it to circumstances. i.e., my husband laughs at me and rolls his eyes when I'm talking with our kids (20s). I recieve it as condescending. It is a way for him to criticize me without saying it. we tried talking about it the other night, and explored our history with the issue. but I don't know how to deal with it. Obviously, it's not his issue, right?

  6. Jun 15, 2016

    Um, yes, it's clearly his issue.

    He is having reactivity regarding your conversation with your children. It's up to him to identify what's happening for him, and do something to meet his needs whether making a change in himself or making a request of you and the kids.

  7. Jun 21, 2016

    hi lashelle,
    my partner is indeed invited to a party soon, one in which my ex partner, (whom i do not get along with) is also invited. the person having the party is a mutual friend and has asked me "not" to come. i have a lot of feelings about this, mostly sadness that my partner really wants to go to her ice cream party and doesn't seem to get that i would be upset about this. in the interest of autonomy, i think he can do whatever he wants, but i still feel hurt. i will ultimately be ok, but i am afraid this will come up again (it has in the past) and i'm not sure how to articulate this in an n.v.c. manner. any suggestions?

  8. Jun 22, 2016

    Hmm, sounds like needs for inclusion, and I wonder about a need for clarity around your boyfriend supporting you regarding the boundaries you have with your ex and I wonder about you needing empathy regarding what is still painful or difficult with the ex

    In sum, I wonder about you having a sense that your boyfriend is on your side, not in the sense of against others but in the sense of caring about you and really getting how the ex relationship was difficult for you. Perhaps a request to have clarity about how your boyfriend intends to interact with the ex at the party and also having clarity about what is meaningful to him about going would also help.

    Does this help?

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