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Stop Trying to Change Your Partner: – Part Two

Stop Trying to Change Your Partner: – Part Two
Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens. – Kahlil Gibran

My last post, “Stop Trying to Change Your Partner: Change Your Attitude – Part One,” began to focus on the multitude of ways in which the attitudes, expectations, and interpretations of behaviors that you bring with you into relationships can have powerful impacts on overall relationship satisfaction.

There is often a natural tendency when something “feels off” or “goes wrong” to begin looking toward your partner’s behaviors and attitudes in an attempt to make sense of the inner feeling of discontent. It can be much more challenging to examine your own behaviors, attitudes, and expectations.

Your partner is never going to say or do “just the right thing” at each and every moment that you wish he or she would. It is during these times when you feel as though some deeper emotional need is not being met, to look inward to yourself first. When there is a persistent desire to connect outwardly with your partner, this may ultimately be experienced as draining (for both of you) and result in increased withdrawal or avoidance.

It is worthwhile to honestly reflect on how connected you truly feel to yourself and how much love you are directing toward yourself. When you are unconnected and unloving toward yourself, it is nearly impossible to be connected and loving with another. Perhaps the notion of being disconnected from or unloving toward your true self feels frightening or confusing.

This is actually an excellent place to begin the process of mindfully getting to know who you really are, what your authentic emotional experience is, and what you truly want and need out of both a relationship and life.

If you find yourself caught in a cycle of discontent or disconnection from your partner, take some time to reflect on the ways in which you may contribute to the cycle. Take a step back and look at the big picture. When you use mindfulness exercises to step into your observing self, simply notice the meanings and interpretations that you attribute to your partner’s behaviors. How might taking on a new attitude or perspective bring you a greater sense of peace, harmony, and calm wisdom?

Interpretations of Problematic Relationship Behaviors

As continued in my last post, there are seven common relationship conflicts and interpretations. Allow yourself the freedom to authentically look at the ways in which you may be unfairly or inaccurately attributing distorted or overly negative interpretations toward your partner’s behaviors. As long as your partner’s actions are not abusive toward you, others, or themselves, allow yourself the psychological flexibility to examine them from a new perspective.

(4) Feeling unappreciated
Cultivating and maintaining a general attitude of goodwill makes it increasingly likely to feel happy (even eager) to do loving, supportive, or practical things for your partner. When one person in a relationship begins to feel increasingly unappreciated or unnoticed for the big or small acts he or she makes to benefit the relationship, resentment may slowly build. In many relationships, the sense that acts of kindness, love, or responsibility toward the partnership are going unnoticed can result in feeling less inclined to positively invest in the relationship.

Rather than assume that your partner is oblivious to your acts of kindness, love, or sacrifice, make the choice to engage in direct communication. If your partner is unaware of what types of behaviors help you feel appreciated, they may be under the (false) impression that you simply “know” how much they appreciate you.

Have you entertained the possibility that your painful emotional experience is more about you than about what your partner is or isn’t doing? Try noticing the attitude that you take when you do positive things for your relationship… is it accompanied by an underlying sense of waiting to be “repaid” for all that you do or is it with an attitude of generosity and joy?

If you feel resolute in knowing that you contribute much more to the relationship in ways that are unjust or degrading to yourself, you can still direct the focus (not “blame”) initially toward yourself. How can you begin to act differently, more assertively, or more authentically in ways that will send the message to your partner that you expect an equal and balanced relationship?

Rather than waiting for your partner to pick up on subtle clues or hints about what it is that you need, try making it explicit. For some people, there is a deep fear of speaking up about their true needs/feelings due to early maladaptive schemas continuing to interfere in their adult lives.

(5) Feeling controlled
Consider the ways in which you generally interpret and assign meaning to requests from your partner. One study in particular found a sense of being controlled by one’s partner is the source of approximately 40% of complaints in relationships. No one likes to be told what to do. It is important to consider the ways in which you are interpreting requests from your partner… how are you choosing to label or assign meaning to those requests?

Successful relationships involve attributing positive intentions behind your partner’s behaviors, which requires that you take a step back and ask yourself what the potential motivations/reasons might be for statements or requests that you perceive as controlling. Could it be that your partner’s expressions of second-guessing your decisions mean that he or she is genuinely concerned about you? When you begin to look at your partner’s behaviors as coming from a well-intentioned place, ask yourself what unmet emotional needs those requests may be illuminating.

As you reflect on your partner’s deeper emotional needs in a relationship with you, ask yourself how willing you are to engage in open dialogue about those needs and find compromises… or perhaps you need to admit to yourself that those needs are too incompatible with your own relationship expectations or personal goals.

Rather than engaging in the automatic thought process that emotional “needs” are inherently bad/wrong, take a step back and recognize what your partner’s actual needs are (without assigning judgment). If you find yourself incapable or unwilling to meet your partner’s most cherished expectations in a relationship, it is always possible that you are doing a disservice to both yourself and to your partner by staying.

(6) Lack of intimacy
Individuals have marked variations in their desires and expectations for emotional and physical intimacy. While it is natural for levels of intimacy in a long-term relationship to fluctuate over time, it is important to recognize the underlying themes behind the interpretations and meanings that each of you assigns to intimacy in your relationship.

As you reflect on boundaries and intimacy, do you find yourself entrenched in a pattern of interpreting your partner’s hugs, kisses, or sharing of emotions as unpleasant, unwanted, or intrusive? It is always possible to transform intimate patterns from a cycle of avoidance and withdrawal to one of connectedness and closeness through changes in your attitude and willingness to engage in new behaviors (even if you don’t always feel like it).

(7) Flirting
Your partner’s willingness to engage in flirtatious behaviors with others may be a sign that there is a current lack of closeness in the relationship and an indication of your partner feeling unfulfilled in their need for playfulness, attention, or self-esteem. It is possible to shift your attitude toward this behavior by stepping outside of your own hurt feelings to ask yourself what your partner is truly seeking.

Depending on the individual, this may be a sign of resentment, lack of quality time as a couple, feeling like a low priority, etc. While your partner is clearly responsible for their own behaviors, it is always worth examining the role that you play as an active participant in the relationship.

(8) Personality conflict
Many general annoyances with partners arise out of real and perceived differences. Rest assured that for every irritation you may have about your partner being “too” social, spontaneous, organized, adventurous, creative, intellectual, etc… there is someone else out there in another relationship wishing their partner was more like yours (and sometimes, really just more like themselves).

Part of changing your perspective in this regard is to accept the inevitable fact that there are bound to be differences in personality traits, preferences, hobbies, and temperaments between individuals. It is often a mistake (particularly for the health of your relationship) to decide that your partner’s preferences or needs are less valid or worthy of fulfillment simply because they differ from your own.

If you increase awareness of your personality differences and variations in general preferences, you can make the choice to become more accepting of your partner and find ways to be understanding of these differences while still retaining a loving bond. Consider the ways in which those personality differences can bring strength to the relationship or encourage you to see the world from a fresh perspective.

(9) Lack of fairness
When one partner feels the other simply isn’t holding up their end of the “bargain” (through financial, childcare, household, emotional, time-related responsibilities, etc.) resentment is likely to build.

Once again… with just about all relationship “irritants,” it’s a matter of perspective. In a somewhat sad irony, couples who try to divide responsibilities right down the middle in a rigid way often end up particularly unhappy – an inherent part of this overly simplistic division of responsibilities is that your and your partner’s attention is drawn toward measuring, assessing, and arguing over who is doing “enough.”

Consider whether or not you feel overall that you and your partner give and receive in a roughly equal manner. As you reflect on your own attitude and perspective, is it possible that you are not noticing some ways that your partner contributes to the relationship?

For example, through paying bills, doing household chores, taking care of children or pets, or building a future for the two of you? Take into consideration the “measuring stick” that you use when you think about the concept of fairness in relationships and ask yourself if perhaps your partner is contributing more to the relationship than you are noticing.

(10) Criticism
Criticism creates a natural tendency for your partner to physically/emotionally withdraw, become defensive/resistant, develop deep self-doubts, or slowly begin to simply dislike being around you.

Dr. John Gottman, the renowned couples therapist, and developer of Gottman Method Couples Therapy state that men are more likely to react to “annoyances” by shutting down and refusing to engage, whereas women are more likely to actively voice their concerns (and may even tell their partner precisely what is “wrong with them” and what needs to change). It may be self-evident that these are both ineffective problem-solving strategies.

Many couples get caught up in cycles of rehashing the same issues (what Gottman refers to as the “perpetual problems” inherent to all relationships). Criticism inherently involves focusing on the negative and is not solution-focused. Gottman’s research has indicated that 69% of all marital problems are “unsolvable” due to personality differences and needs intimately tied to one’s core view of the self.

You can change your attitude and behaviors – finding a way that works for both of you in dealing with fundamental differences – or you can trade your current partner for another one with a whole “new” set of differences to work through.

As you reflect on changing your own attitude, actions, and interpretations of your partner’s behavior, can you imagine how your relationship may (or may not) be different if you were to be your most authentic self? Do you feel a sense of commitment, teamwork, love, and friendship with your partner? As you take all of these factors into consideration, remember to take a step back and look at your relationship (and your own relationship patterns) from a mindful perspective.

Many aspects of life are out of your control…
The behaviors of other people, tragic losses, unexpected life changes, and so forth. Your attitude and willingness to assign more positive meanings to your partner’s behaviors are completely within your control – just as you have the choice to stay in or leave your relationship.

As you become increasingly in tune with your true feelings, values, and dreams, allow a “wise mind” to guide your path. Try to utilize the powerful integration of reason with emotion as you embrace what your deepest inner wisdom is telling you. When you trust and know your authentic self, all choices can be made with greater ease.


About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.
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