Do you want things to change in your relationship, but your partner doesn’t see the issue or want to put the effort in? Are you frustrated with your partner and their lack of effort? Do you believe things would be better if s/he would just ______? I have some solutions for you when your partner doesn’t want to put an effort into changing their part of the relationship, but first, I want you to know that you aren’t alone!
The couples that come to therapy want a change, and more often than not, it is focused on the other person changing. However, focusing on the other person as the problem is a part of the problem! That is why couples therapy is about learning how each partner can make changes to increase the connection and success of their relationship.
If Only They Would…
When you focus on just your partner’s shortcomings, you will end up feeling frustrated, disempowered, and even hopeless. This is because when you say “if only they would listen more, talk more, show their feeling more, help more, etc.”, you are putting the entire success of the relationship in their hands. Things will only change if they change.
I am not suggesting that you haven’t tried to make things better on your side. Perhaps you have tried to convince your partner, or even demanded or criticized them in moments of desperation. We have all been there! If you have tried and “nothing changed,” then may I suggest we try something different?
One role of the relationship coach is to help clients “pull back their blinders”. It can be hard to see all of the nuances of a sticking-point when you are so emotionally tied to it. My role is to listen and ask questions, and to help you see a more whole picture; that of your + your partner’s + my outside perspective.
When you can see things from your partner’s perspective, it softens each of you and increases the chances that your partner will be receptive to change. Any disregard will only invite your partner to react defensively or out of self-preservation. First, we need to listen.
Listening Helps to Heal
As human beings, we all have a need to be heard and seen for who we are. If we reject the person’s truth then we reject them. This act of disregard taps into our deep wounds from childhood of not being accepted for who we really are, and having to be “someone else” to feel loved.
We have all experienced this type of conditioning or wounding at times. Even the most loving parents parent unconsciously at times, and they too were raised by parents that unconsciously wounded them. Our wounds can go back generations! The result is that we create a persona to become the person we believe we need to be in order to get the love we crave.
I don’t talk about past wounds to place blame, and I don’t focus a lot on the past since we cannot change it. I do, however, believe that the past can inform the present, so we talk about it for the purpose of understanding how we became who we are today.
I want to understand why that particular thing your partner does triggers you in the way that it does. Not to focus on their action, but to heal your wound. And when your partner understands how (and why) their action hurts you, their point of view may shift.
If you knew that the very thing your partner is complaining about is actually digging into an old, unhealed wound, would you keep doing it?
I have rarely seen a couple that walks into my office where one is intentionally trying to hurt their partner. When you seek help, you are both (at some level) showing up as wounded children wanting to love and be loved. So even though we are adults, we still can react from this wounded-child place. Moving from this place to a more mature response is part of the growth process that can be created within each individual and in a supportive relationship.
Taking Responsibility for Self When Your Partner is Resisting
But what if you are ready to look at the whole relationship and how you both are playing a part in what is broken, and your partner is still resisting? There are things you can do on your own that may start to shift things into a more positive place:
Step back from the situation. Before you react, step back and consider ways in which you can invite more softness so you can both get to that tender place—to the core wound. You might have to do the work first, hold space for both of you to put down your weapons, and take off the armor.
Put down your weapons. Weapons of communication are the jabs at one another. Criticizing, blaming, general attacks, shutting down, and even things like sex, money, or the kids can be used as weapons. Consider the weapons you use. When do you pull out the big guns, the small pistol, or the knife? Ask yourself, what is my intention? What would I like to invite from my partner? Start here and move forward differently.
Respond, not react. You are human so you are going to react, and you may not always be conscious and react from a wound. Practice non-reaction and sitting with what is being triggered within you before you respond consciously. Recognize that an attack is more about what your partner is feeling rather than what they are saying. Try to see through the attack and get to their core: what is s/he feeling underneath that mask of protection?
When you impulsively react, you take ownership of the problem and take that responsibility away from your partner. On the other hand, if you pause and respond to the attack with a question of clarification, your partner gets another chance to take responsibility. Soon you will know when to take ownership and when to allow your partner to have their experience.
Identify the dynamics. Look at the dance between the two of you around an issue. Consider how you each are triggering each other so you are seeing it from a cyclical perspective, rather linear. It is A ←→ B, not A → B.
Become conscious of the dance the two of you create together that maintains the problem, and then focus on changing your part. You don’t need to take ownership of the problem when they attack you. Every time they throw the ball to you, don’t throw it back. Stop playing!
Establish boundaries. You are responsible for your feelings. Your partner is responsible for theirs. But you can also be responsible TO your partner by clearly differentiating between what is yours and theirs. When you have been triggered or bothered by something, bring it up mindfully. Ask to have a conversation, and state your problem using an “I” statement, with a focus on asking for what you need.
If/when your partner is reactive, recognize this as a sign that their own wound has been triggered. Reacting will only add salt to the wound. Instead, honor your partner's reaction and offer to witness their experience.
A relationship is a partnership, and we can forget that when we are feeling especially hurt or unseen. The tips above will help you change the dynamic around an issue, but it takes work. If your partner continues to throw balls at you and not take any responsibility for their part, find a time when the tension is low and express your need to your partner using “I” statements. Set a limit around how you need to be treated and state the consequences. Getting support for yourself will also help you define your role in the relationship, and help you set boundaries to keep yourself safe.