If your relationship has hit a rough patch, or is in generally less-than-optimal shape, I want you to consider a fundamental relationship principle: trying to get the other person to behave more in line with your expectations is a road to nowhere. By the time people are in their 20s the essence of their personalities is set, as are their patterns of behavior. If you’re married to a guy who always seems to be telling you what to do, or dating a woman who is too self-centered, or partnered with someone who takes ten minutes to decide which of five entrees to order, or chronically forgets to take out the garbage, or exhibits whatever other behavioral pattern annoys you, you’re going to need to reach some degree of peace with the pattern. Warning them to change, criticizing them, trying to guilt them into change, or taking a passive/aggressive approach (e.g. by shutting down communication or withholding sex) is probably just going to create resentment, and may in fact result in a hardening of your partner’s position. When was the last time you fundamentally altered your way of interacting based on your partner’s negative feedback? True, you might attempt to be more vigilant in avoiding things that trigger him / her, but more often than not that vigilance will result in a feeling that you’re “walking on eggshells” – the opposite of what you need to foster greater connection and intimacy.
This does not mean that change on the other’s part is impossible. It’s simply that change is far less likely to occur when negativity is used. Think about some significant change that has occurred in your behavior. What was the process that led to it? Was it in response to someone berating you, or was it through a process of self-examination? I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of the time it was the latter. That self-examination is the key to the great success of the various behavior change Anonymous programs (Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.), whose Twelve Steps are designed to point toward inward analysis.
How to encourage self-examination that may (or may not) lead to change?
It’s tempting to ask for behavior change. Instead, if you’re finding it impossible to appreciate a particular quality I suggest you demonstrate a genuine sense of curiosity, coupled with an even-handedness that will foster dialogue rather than rigidity. For example if your partner is chronically late you might ask something along the lines of “I wonder why our views of punctuality are so different? I know that in my family it was a cardinal sin to keep anyone waiting past an appointed time”. If your partner is a workaholic, inquire about the pressures he feels that lead to working so much. Needless to say, if you’re upset by your partner’s actions in the moment you should NOT embark on this conversation – choose a time when you’re feeling calm.
As I’ve written previously on this blog, much of what you think of as the love that you have for another actually comes from the feelings that the other engenders in you. You probably first fell in love primarily because of how fantastic you felt when you were around that person, or thought of her. If you and your partner can reconnect with the amazing feelings that originally brought you together you’re much more likely to be able to initiate a conversation that will result in internal reflection on your partner’s part. So instead of asking if he remembered to pick up the dry cleaning when he or she walks in the room, look at him. More than that, have your eyes light up. Touch. Caress. Show that your partner is REALLY IMPORTANT to you. It will make him / her feel important, too, and from that happier, more secure place be more likely to be easy to be with. On the other hand, be sensitive to the fact that sometimes your partner just wants some quiet time alone – don’t try to push affection on him if he clearly doesn’t want it at that moment.
3 & 4. Admiration and Appreciation
Remember to overtly admire the qualities in your partner that are special. Over time it’s easy to let those qualities fade from your awareness and to take your partner for granted as just part of who that person is. If she’s generous and always leaves a nice tip, or reads your four-year-old a bedtime story, or is especially nice to minimum wage workers and old ladies, let her know that you noticed, and that you admire her for being that way. Not every time, but often.
Similarly, show that you appreciate the little things that your partner does for you. Whether a back rub. a bouquet of flowers, volunteering to do something you may have forgotten, or telling your mother how delicious the overcooked turkey was, everyone likes knowing that they made their partner feel good. So let your partner know.