Keep Your Partner, Change Your Relationship This Emotional Life - PBS

Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Relationships / Blog

    Suzanne Phillips, PsyD

Suzanne Phillips, PsyD's Bio

Dr. Phillips is a licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomat in Group Psychotherapy and Co-Author of Healing Together.

Keep Your Partner, Change Your Relationship


Most relationships do not remain static. Whether intended or not the lives of partners and therefore the life they share inevitably changes. Sometimes changes are desired and mutual; sometimes one partner wants to change the other; sometimes a partner’s negative behavior causes changes; and sometimes traumatic events change life as they knew it.

Creating and Handling Change What, how and why a couple creates and handles change is a complicated and important part of the story they share. No matter what happens, no one arrives with their partner to a new place - without reflection, communication, adjustment, transition and reconnection.

Here Are Some Thoughts To Guide That Process:

Same Partner – With Changes
If you ask people what they think would improve their relationship – they often have a clear formulation of what their partner could or should do to make things better. Most people really don’t want a new partner. What they want is their own partner –WITH CHANGES!

Changing Your Partner
Apparently the view across the table often seems clearer and in need of more adjustment than the view of self:

·         Why can’t he see the mess and just be neater?

·         Why doesn’t she make plans with other couples so you have more of a social life?

·         Why can’t she make more money? Why can’t he be more affectionate?

Is the change that you want in your partner one that he/she knows about, cares about or would benefit from? As G. K. Chesterton says “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution. It is that they can’t see the problem.”

Who Wants the Change?

If the change is clearly more important and relevant to you, you may want to re-define it as a change you want not as change in your partner – less mess, more socializing, more money, more affection. We know that no relationship can stay in the same place with the same patterns if even one partner takes a new and different step. We also know that you have far more control over changing self than changing someone else.

Why Should You Do The Changing? You want it and it matters to you in a way that it might not matter to your partner.

Why Doesn’t It Matter To Your Partner? People are different. Men and women are different. One interesting study qualifies this in an interesting way to suggest that overall men and women actually often want changes in the same directions on a host of behaviors including support, affection, actual help, companionship, sex etc.  but to different degrees – for example, they both want companionship – she wants more. They both want sex – he wants more (Heyman, Hunt-Martorano, Malik, Slep, 2009)

Why Can’t Your Partner Do It For You Because He/She Loves You? Maybe they will. Maybe your momentum will mirror, model or invite them. When the atmosphere is positive, there is often more of a stake in keeping the connection going. If they don’t- it does not equate to them not loving you.

“Singularity of Definition” - We have a tendency to get stuck in a “singularity of definition” about our partners, which means we start to see them in only one dimension. They become “The guy who leaves the kitchen a mess” or “The woman who can’t handle money.”  When you consider all of their multiple dimensions i.e. all they are and all the other things they do- the need for change may matter a little less.

Changes for the Health and Well Being of You and Your Partner
The vitality of any couple depends on the health and well being of each of the partners. It goes without saying that you and your partner would want to address any behaviors i.e. excessive eating, smoking, drugs, gambling, compulsive buying, or  risk taking behaviors that are potentially dangerous to personal health and welfare.

Helping or Hounding
Most people want to help their partner. This is complicated. Watching a person you love eat or smoke or behave in a way that is clearly harmful can be torturous. The problem is that the sense of helplessness it evokes often turns you into someone who begins to hound rather than help your partner. Sometimes the desperation about the other leaves you angry, resentful and avoidant. None of which usually motivate change.

Modeling Mastery
While you would certainly want to extend concern and offer help in finding resources or strategies for your partner, one strategy that helps partners stay positive and less angry or disappointed about the other is to take on changing some behavior in them.
For example, in the face of his wife’s three pack a day smoking habit which she did not want to speak about, one man decided to begin cutting back on his overeating and for the first time in his life joined a gym ( also buying his wife a membership which she did not use). He then hired a trainer. Instead of criticizing or putting down his wife as he had been doing, he began to talk more about his experience at the gym, the people there and the small steps of progress he was making. Eventually he was talking less about it and looking remarkably different. As surprising as his weight loss was to him, was his wife’s decision to sign up for a class without saying anything!

Professional Intervention
When there is no effort to change behavior and it reaches a level that it is dangerous not only to your partner but to you and the rest of the family – professional intervention becomes the necessary change process. In terms of Intimate Partner Violence, for example, separation, safety and support systems of help are crucial in the change process.

The Stages of Change
Both for themselves and their partners, most couples find it very helpful to understand the stages of change. Prochaska, DiClemente & Norcorss (1992) offer a model for changing addictive behavior that can be applied to  understanding  changes in yourself, your partner as well as your patterns as a couple.  The five stages include:
Pre-contemplation- “I don’t know I have a drinking problem. My wife thinks I do. I might be forced to get help but I don’t really think there is a problem.”

Contemplation- “I have a drinking problem. I’m afraid I’m going to risk my marriage if I don’t stop. I am planning on getting help but I am weighing the pros and cons.”

Preparation- “I am setting up a plan and I have already started taking some action. I am not having a drink in the middle of the day at work. I have found out about an AA meeting. I think I may be an alcoholic.”

Action- “I am in program. I have been going 4 times a week. We have taken alcohol out of the house. I am going to change my life.” This stage involves altering behavior for a period from one day to 6 months.

Maintenance – Regardless of the problem, behavior or addiction, this is an ongoing stage which includes relapse that must be seen as part of the process not as the loss of all that has changed in the person or the relationship.

Understanding that change is a process will keep both partners seeing setbacks as “points of information to be shared” not as failure or the impossibility of change.

No matter what changes you want
No matter what changes occur
What should never change…
Is the hope that there just might be a way
To grow and change together.

For Further Reading…
Heyman, R. Hunt-Martorano, A., Malik, J., Smith Slep, A. (2009). Desired Change in Couples: Gender Differences and Effects on Communication. Journal of Family Psychology, Vol. 23, NO.4, 474-484.

Prochaska, J., Di Clemente, C., Norcross, J.C. (1992) In Search of How People Change. American Psychologist. Vol. 47. No.9, 1102-1114.