A lot of people ask me "how can I change my partner?" My short answer is, "you can't." My longer answer is that you can't change them and you shouldn't try. This doesn't mean you should accept poor treatment or unkindness from your partner, but it does mean that if you are trying to change your partner's basic personality traits (or quirks), you are doomed to failure and it's likely that your relationship is headed down a bad path as well.
Many of us get into committed relationships with the hope that we can change the things we don't like about our partner. We say things like, "once we are committed he will be more vocal about his feelings for me." Or "I know she won't care if I'm sloppy once we are married." Yet most people in long term relationships will tell you that not only does their partner not change, but often they get more set in their ways and less pliable to your demands.
So if you can't change what you don't like about another person, what can you do? First, you can consider changing how you look at what bothers you about your partner. If your partner often leaves a mess behind, do you assume that it's because they don't care about you? Unless they are doing it to intentionally annoy you, then most likely their sloppiness isn't really about you but rather about them. Can you either find a way to live with it or compromise in some way?
Second, you can find out if their behavior is in direct disagreement with your requests or just how they operate in life. How can you find out? You can ask, "I'm wondering if I stopped asking you to clean up would you do it on your own or is cleaning up not something you are ever interested in doing?" If they tell you they would gladly clean up if you just stopped asking, you have a choice to make: stop asking or keep up the passive aggressive games that the two of you are playing. Yes, it would be nice if your partner stopped first, but one of you has to lead the way.
Third, you must decide if you can live with your partner's behavior without constantly commenting or harping on it. If not, I would strongly recommend that you leave the relationship. Why choose to be in a partnership in which something about the other person makes you miserable? That is simply a recipe for a truly unhappy life for both of you. If you find that you don't want to leave the relationship then you must find a way to live with the things that you don't like about your partner.
If you are truly ready to leave the relationship if a change isn't made, then you need to approach your partner with your request. Ask it in a kind and loving manner without threats or hysterics. If your partner says yes, then accept that and don't keep reminding them. If they don't follow through, you can nicely ask them why. If they either say no to your request or inevitably don't do what you've asked, you can tell them that this is a non-negotiable situation, that you respect that they are unwilling to change and that you are leaving the relationship. Never do this as an idle threat — follow through on it. If you don't, your word will become meaningless in your relationship and you will only be contributing to long term ill will between the two of you.
Many of us come into relationships with the belief that we must like all aspects of our partner or else we must change them. Trying to change someone is a true lesson in futility and frustration. Learning to understand and accept things about your partner that you find less than ideal may actually bring the two of you closer. I'm not talking about accepting any type of emotional or physical abuse, I'm talking about accepting that your partner might not like to talk prior to their morning coffee or may leave their shoes laying out in the family room.
Long term, healthy relationships come from acceptance of the other, a lack of judgment, and kindness. If you find you can't give these to your partner, you either need to find a way to change yourself or to leave the relationship. Otherwise, you will live a rather miserable existence that isn't loving or productive for either you or your significant other. Life is far too short to live that way.
Lisa Kaplin is a psychologist and life coach. She has been married for 24 years. She stopped trying to change her husband about 2 years ago. They've never been happier. You can reach her at www.smartwomeninspiredlives.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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