In my relationship coaching work I am often asked by my clients how they can change their partner’s bad behaviour. I must admit that I have often wanted to change the people who are close to me when their behaviour feels less than positive. It can seem that the only way we can be happy is if the people we relate to behave in positive loving ways, and when they don’t we have no choice but to suffer. However, I always have to reply to my clients question with the answer that many years of exploring relationships has taught me:
“If you want to change your partner you must be willing to change yourself”
My clients are usually very disappointed by this answer, but I feel it is an important to be honest. In this article I want to explain why attempts at coercion or control always fail in the long run, but also how a willingness to heal and find self-love is the key to change in a relationship.
The first thing to become aware of is why you might want to change your partner. They might be behaving badly and triggering pain in you, so it makes sense that you would want this to stop. In a world that was purely logical and without emotions it would make perfect sense to point out their failings, show them how they need to change and to make it clear that there will be negative consequences to their non-compliance. But the problem is that humans are full of emotions and it is these rather than logic that control their behaviours and reactions to stress. There is something critically important that you need to remember about poor behaviour.
If your partner is acting negatively it means they are hurting inside
The chances are that your partner is completely unaware of this and may even be unaware that you are hurting because of their behaviour. Nevertheless, deep within them is a subconscious layer of hurt that is so painful that they feel they have to defend it. They fear that if they did release their emotions that they would be consumed by their pain and become unattractive and unloveable. To keep this pain down they defend their heart and disconnect from you using a number of behaviours that sadly end up hurting you.
If you judge, admonish or punish your partner when they are behaving badly (and this could be subtle behaviour like withdrawal) this will just make them feel even worse. They are already reacting from their internal suppressed pain and your judgment of them just makes them feel worse. Of course it is incredibly hard not to judge or try to control somebody who is behaving badly because you have lost many or all feelings of love for them. Think about it. When your partner is behaving negatively how much love do you feel for them? Probably not much at all - it is more likely that you experience irritation, disappointment, anger or even hatred if their behaviour has become entrenched. The problem is that your partner feels your judgment (even if it is unspoken) and this makes them behave even worse – you both become stuck in a vicious circle. The only way forward is to realise that:
Negative behaviour is always caused by a belief that love is lacking or absent
When you understand bad behaviour in this way you will immediately see how you can bring positive change to your relationship. It is about bringing the love back to it, which is something you have the power to do. That is why the way to encourage change in your partner is to change yourself. This means looking at your own self-beliefs and insecurities and finding the places in you that are so easily triggered when your partner behaves in a negative way. By healing these triggers you will rediscover your natural store of love and forgiveness that lies underneath your insecurities.
My website and books describe in detail the healing process that is needed to become the leader for positive change in your relationship, but here is an exercise to help you along your way.
Exercise – How to bring positive change to your relationship
The next time you are with your partner (or you can try this with a friend or colleague if you are single), notice what it is about their behaviour or attitude that annoys or upsets you. What is it that you want to change!
Notice how you are feeling – become aware of your judgments – name the emotions that you are experiencing. They will be negative - perhaps frustration, disappointment, anger or some other form of hurt. Realise that your partner’s behaviour has triggered these feelings in you, but also that those feelings have been in you for a long time – probably before you even met them. Remove all your desire to change them through persuasion or coercion.
The next step is to realise that whatever painful emotion you are feeling is mirrored in your partner. They might not be showing this, but deep inside they too are hurting. Imagine your partner as a small child who is upset – they might be very frightened or crying. To do this you must be able to see through their surface behaviour which could be aggressive, controlling or withdrawn and see the ‘child within’.
The final step is to react just as you would if your partner was a child needing support and help. Your natural instinct would be to show compassion and try to comfort and help them. This is what your partner actually needs, but they have lost the ability to ask for it effectively. Open your heart as much as you can to their pain and know that your pain is shared. Feel empathy for them and remember how much you love them. Your partner will subconsciously sense your change of heart and feel loved rather than judged. If you can genuinely open your heart and feel love for your partner you will always see their behaviour change for the better.
I am not going to pretend that what I have just described is easy to do – it requires tremendous emotional maturity not to react to your partner’s negative behaviour or attitude and then rediscover your feelings of love for them. But it is the only way to take your relationship forward if is stuck in a power struggle or has slipped into the loveless dead zone. It requires just one partner to take a new perspective on the problem and to realise that it is caused by a denial of love (in both partners). If you can be the one to recognise this and bring back the compassion and love, you will have learnt the most powerful relationship-building technique of all. You will also know that you can bring beneficial change to any difficult situation you might face in life by finding the love within you and then expressing it to the people who are involved. Your love inspires the natural state of love in them and reminds them of who they truly are - it really is that simple. Your partner's behaviour will change, as if by magic!