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Need Your Partner to Make a Big Change? Here’s the Best Way to Ask Them.

We're not saying it will be easy. But there is a best way to go about asking.

During his opening monologue on the season-premiere of SNL, Chris Rock hit upon a harsh truth about relationships and marriage during COVID-19: In close quarters for so long, people are, well, noticing a lot of things they don’t like about their partners. And if they’re not straight up asking for divorce, husbands and wives are telling their partners how to change. 

“One thing I’ve noticed about this whole pandemic: People are reassessing their relationships — that’s the big thing,” said Rock. “Taking inventory. A lot of breakups. A lot of couples therapy and a lot of renegotiations. Couples stay together, They’re like, We’re going to stay together but I’m telling you exactly what I don’t like about you right now. We’re going to keep things going, but you’re going to have to change some stuff…”

Rock, a keen observer of relationships, nailed it. It was very funny and also very true. The question is, when you have something to bring up, how, exactly, 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 erected along the way? Is it actually possible to ask someone to change or is this just a pipe dream that postpones the inevitable?

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If there’s been any upside from the pandemic, it’s been the chance to spend more time at home. The downside is that it’s been a lot of time at home.

Before you had glimpses of how your partner ate, talked, even breathed, and while it might have been slightly annoying, you could leave the house and go to work. Now, there’s no escape and no way to ignore any of it. 

“It’s the intensity of the information you’re getting,” says Robyn Landow, a New York City psychologist. “No one is that disciplined to hide their worst parts.”

We’re all also already exhausted from the last seven months, and school has started back up. “Our resilience is lower,” notes Lindsay Jernigan, licensed clinical psychologist in Burlington, Vermont. “The things that bug us bug us more.”

Husbands and wives are left saying, “I’m married to this person” as both a question and a statement. It’s not unreasonable to ask a partner, especially with home-bound working stretching into 2021. But how do you do it?  

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, 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 can 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 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,” Landow says. It requires 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,’” DeMartino says.

The other request is behavior modification – clean out the sink, turn down lights level problems. Those are doable, but still hard because it’s creating a new habit, and 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 motivations; possibly it’s a family tradition or coping mechanism. It’s 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, a deeper-seated issue is at work, DeMartino says. Say, for example, that your partner regularly talks to her mother and sister throughout the day. You feel that it takes her 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, Jernigan says.

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.

Asking Someone to Change: Making The Request

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 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 …” It gives your partner a direction, which saying, “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 changing, but be prepared for, “Oh I have a list too.” When your spouse asks for some behavior modification, listen, and then asses 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 effort, and when something can’t be done – not all requests are equal – 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,” she 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, Jernigan says.

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.”