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?