In any healthy relationship, partners should be able to tell one another everything. That’s easier said than done, as certain topics can require much more tact. It can be particularly difficult if you need to tell them something you know they won’t want to hear or need them to make a change.
Despite the challenge, such discussions are often necessary to have. So what, exactly, is the best way to do it? How do you ask someone to change? What do you say? How much time do you need to give them to make said change? What goal markers should be placed along the way? Is it actually possible to ask someone to change or is this just a pipe dream that postpones the inevitable?
There are a lot of wrong ways to ask a partner to change. Blunt ultimatums aren’t ideal for anything but a last-ditch resort. And unless you want to slowly drive your partner mad, passive aggression doesn’t play.
But there is a way to bring it up so understanding overshadows defensiveness. It requires being positive, being prepared to do your own changing, and doing some thinking before you say one word to your partner. It helps to start by asking these questions.
Question No. 1: Is This Really That Important?
It’s important to think about — really think about — how bothered you are. Because even the smallest change is hard to make, says Debra DeMartino, a psychotherapist in Hicksville, New York. The pandemic has upped everyone’s stress, so it pays to wonder if the request will better your relationship or just make something feel hurt.
It’s also good to consider: Can you do something? Your partner’s loud talking voice might be annoying while you’re trying to work, but you could wear headphones or move to a different room. Problem fixed. No conversation needed, she says.
Question No. 2: What Are You Expecting?
There are two kinds of change. One is fundamental, such as being more adventurous or less angry, which, if not addressed, could feel like divorce potential. But realize that this is an entrenched issue.
“It takes 18 years to develop. It’s not going away in a week,” says Robyn Landow, a New York City psychologist. Such deep-seated issues require work, time, and probably therapy. But with the current social isolation, political atmosphere, and overall uncertainty, “It’s even more difficult to say, ‘Oh, this is a good time to change my personality to please you,’” adds DeMartino.
The other request is behavior modification. These are clean-out-the-sink, turn-down-the-lights level problems. These are doable, but still hard because making a change requires creating a new habit. As you know from trying to go to bed earlier or sticking with exercise, stuff that you want to do, it’s not a steady upward trajectory. Patience can’t be in short supply. “We all wish that ‘Just snap out of it’ would work, but it doesn’t,” Landow says.
Question No. 3: Why Is My Partner Doing This, Really?
You want to think about a person’s motivations. Possibly, the issue stems from a family tradition or coping mechanism. This is called perspective-taking, Landow says, and it allows empathy to kick in. It’s also good to remember what’s easily forgotten in even strong relationships: Often, it’s not intentional or personal, DeMartino says. None of this makes the issue disappear, but it might shrink it down to an insignificant size.
Question No. 4: What’s Really Bothering You?
Much of the time when you’re seeking a change, a deeper issue is at work, DeMartino says. Say, for example, that your partner regularly talks to their mother and sister throughout the day. You feel that it takes them away and puts kid duties on you. It sounds true, but, with a little digging, you might realize that you’d like someone to regularly talk to or you’d like some alone time, shifting the request you want to make and the conversation you’re going to have, notes Lindsay Jernigan, a licensed clinical psychologist in Burlington, Vermont
You also might go through these questions and still be annoyed and want to ask for a change. That’s fair and necessary. “Don’t stuff feelings,” DeMartino says. “Resentment will always add fuel.” But by thinking, you’re no longer reacting.
How to Ask Someone to Change: Making The Request
Okay, so you’re ready to do the asking.
The size of the issue can dictate the approach. If it’s the issue is something no-nonsense like putting away dishes, just ask directly without touching on history or saying, “You always.” Stuff like that can load up the criticism.
If the problem is more nuanced, start with, “This is a little difficult to bring up,” followed by, “I didn’t know how much this was bothering me, but I was wondering if you could …”
This gives your partner a direction, which saying something like “I hate when you do this” does not, Landow says. It also shows consideration, upping the chances of being heard. “It’s not a casual slam,” DeMartino says.
The ensuing conversation might bring more insight into the whys of the behavior, lessening your stress. Your partner also might be receptive to change. But prepare for them to say, “Oh I have a list too.” When your spouse asks for some behavior modification, listen, and then assess the cost versus the benefit, Landow says. You might not think piles on the floor are a big deal, but for this low hanging-fruit change, your spouse feels appreciated, heard, and more inclined to reciprocate.
And it pays to at least try. People appreciate the effort and when something can’t be done – not all requests are equal, after all – you’ve built up your bank. “You have street cred when you say it’s really hard to change,” Landow says.
Even with your effort, you might not see any changes from your partner, even with promises to do so. It’s easy to assume the worst, but rein in that instinct. “We can be so off course,” DeMartino says. Rather than snap, open with, “Just wondering if you had thoughts on what I had asked?”
When in doubt, always go with a question. You could find out that your partner has been thinking, but also has been distracted, having difficulty letting go of what’s familiar, or genuinely trying in a way that’s not apparent. Asking keeps the conversation and your partner open. “Once a person gets defensive, it can stop the opportunity to solve the problem,” DeMartino says.
And then be encouraging. Acknowledge attempts. The commonly said, “Finally,” does not suffice. It’s not fair to be spiteful that an issue you had never mentioned hadn’t been taken care of already, notes Jernigan.
You know how and when your partner takes feedback, but you want to look to praise any kind of forward progress. “You always want to give positive feedback,” Landow says, “because you were willing to give negative feedback.”