can i change my partners behaviour?

You have been incessantly fighting with your partner and you’ve had it. Turning to Google to understand the problem, you type in “how do I change my partner” and hit enter.

You weed your way through all the superficial relationship advice telling you how to play games and manipulate your lover, and find your way here.  Perhaps, you have determined that your partner’s attachment style doesn’t mesh well with yours, or are just dissatisfied with the differences in your relationship.

What now?

I regularly receive emails asking how to initiate or bring about change in relationships. Comments often go something like “if they just knew this information, things would be so different” or “if they could just work on this area, our relationship would be perfect.” I think it’s time for us to have a discussion about whether or not we can change our partner’s negative behaviour.

I have a very strong conviction that before we pass the buck and blame our partners for our relationship woes, we need to do some self-evaluation. Change is a two-way street. Both partners need to be engaged. The onus is never on one person to renovate the entire relationship.

Psychological research[i] has looked at and compared attempting to change your partner’s behaviour versus focusing on changing yourself. Research reveals that those who focus on changing their partner’s behaviour tend to use more negative communication strategies, report less success in changing their partner’s behaviour, and rate their relationships lower. Therefore, negatively targeting your partner’s behaviour could actually do more harm then good.

I am a big proponent of self-improvement: focusing on developing yourself and living your best life possible. While research acknowledges the value in self-improvement, it found that it actually doesn’t translate into improvements or more positive ratings of your relationship. While you may be gaining confidence and developing as a person, your relationship may remain at a stand still.

What the heck? That stat threw me for a loop. I knew that self-improvement increased personal happiness and satisfaction, and kind of just assumed that satisfaction translated into better relationships! But the research actually reveals that relationship quality and satisfaction improves when there is a perceived willingness and engagement from both partners to work on relationship goals.

So there you have it: trying to change your partner doesn’t work and will end up doing more harm than good, while focusing on changing yourself will definitely make you feel better, but won’t necessarily translate into improved relationship dynamics. For change to occur, both parties have to be willing to work together and actively play a role in bettering themselves and their relationship dynamic. The discussions should be positive, the wording tactful, and both parties should remember that they are here to tackle a problem and not each other!

Wishing you love,

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This article was originally written for http://www.drwendywalsh.com

[i] Hira, S. N., & Overall, N. C. (2011). Improving intimate relationships: Targeting the partner versus changing the self. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. Published on-line before print Dec. 29, 2010, doi:10.1177/0265407510388586.