When we want somebody else to change we often make mistakes. We either get too passive and expect change to happen without any effort on our part. Out of fear of rocking the boat we may excuse another’s behavior by saying “Well that’s just the way the other person is.” Alternatively we may try to strong-arm another into change. We may use coercion and threats to get someone else to alter their habits. We may declare, “If you don’t change, then such and such terrible thing will happen to you.” Unfortunately neither the passive or aggressive approach works when it comes to changing others. In fact, such methods actually impede change. If you let someone else off the hook they will be even less motivated to change in the future. If you demand change, then others may only superficially comply with your wishes but soon go back to old methods when the threats are over. Some of us may get so frustrated with others not changing that we vacillate between these methods, often to no avail. Listen to the stories below:
For years I’ve been hoping that my adult son would care for somebody other than himself. He has no wife or kids. He’s like a lot of young people these days. It’s me-me-me all the time. Big cars. Big screen TV’s. Big egos. My son’s no different. He doesn’t go to church. He doesn’t volunteer. He only calls when he needs something. All he ever focuses on is his law career. God forbid he should ever thank me for being a good mother. Oh, I’ve thought about giving him self-help books, asking him to go with me to my Al-Anon group and even imagined offering to pay for his therapy. I’ve even cried in his presence hoping he would get the hint. Oh, don’t get me wrong. My son is a good boy. But at 40 years old he’s not a boy anymore! I don’t know how I will ever forgive myself if he never learns to have a heart!
It’s easy to understand the turmoil of a mother who has serious misgivings about how her son turned out. Most of us parents invest large parts of our own identities in our children. Unfortunately this mom probably has contributed to the irresponsibility in her son perhaps to counterbalance other parts of his life or her life that went missing. Ironically her work in Al-Anon may have freed her from an unhealthy relationship with her ex-mate but doesn’t seem to apply to her relationship with her son, which is undoubtedly deeper. Sadly she isn’t aware of how she can let herself off the hook by allowing her son to be who he is and developing her own identity apart from being a mom. At least she knows she needs to forgive herself and possibly not obsess over her son. She may have many hidden tears over years of grief and heartache. So many of us focus on others as a way of neglecting ourselves.
When I first met Samantha I was very attracted to how shy she was. She seemed way different than the party girls I usually hung out with. I wanted someone in my life who is more reflective and values family life as I do. After getting married and having a two-year-old son everything changed. Samantha hardly has anything to say. We’re always focusing on our son. We do nothing for fun. I am way bored. I told Samantha she either had to go out and start doing some things for herself so that she has more to talk about or I was out of there. She didn’t even budge when I talked about hanging out with an attractive woman at work and how she wanted me to come over to her place. All she said was “turn the TV up” as “The Bachelor” was on. Geez! So I’ve been thinking. Maybe all this hooting and hollering I am doing to get Samantha to change is a waste of time. Maybe it’s me that needs to change. It’s so incredibly hard to go from being a party animal to a caring husband and father. I just don’t know how to do it.
A lot of us point to obvious flaws in a partner when we ourselves are blind to how we are contributing to them. We may endlessly rag on a loved one due to our unwillingness to focus on the harsh realities in ourselves we wish to avoid. Clearly this husband has harassed his wife for change to such an extent that she doesn’t even respond to his threats of his having an affair. Fortunately he also has enough sense to realize that she is not the whole problem in the marriage. Many husbands expect the impossible from their mates because they are not wholly committed to their marriage and being mature. They haven’t made the change from boys to men, as this man attests to. If he were more wholeheartedly into his marriage, it’s likely that his wife will respond more favorable to his needs. He really can be the change he wishes to see in his wife.
How does real change occur?
Real change occurs through partnership. It takes two to tango. It requires us to assertively ask for change in another while also looking at our part in how we invariably contribute to the problem. No problem occurs in a vacuum. Correspondingly, real solutions occur only when we’re in relationship with another. Sometimes even when we ask for change and alter how we are part of the problem, our partners will not reciprocate. After repeated efforts, it’s up to us then to accept that our loved one simply is not ready to change, probably for very good reasons beyond our own awareness. While being grateful for what our partner offers us we need to be completely responsible for our own happiness and develop a life of our own. Indefinitely waiting for our loved one to change is our way of not taking charge of our own lives. So it’s best to take charge. In fact, rather paradoxically, when we accept that another will not change, positive change occurs more likely. Often the change is just in ourselves. Occasionally our loved one may get jealous of our new found serenity and, unencumbered by our nagging, decide to join us in change. However some of us live forever with no change in a partner and we develop such a rich life of our own apart from a loved one that we completely forget what all the fuss was about in the first place. We can all be the change that we seek.
Asking for change
Most of us don’t realize that we need to go out on a limb to ask for change. Such a risky move will humble and frighten us. But it has to be done since other people cannot read our mind nor should they have to. Most of us think we are being clear with what we want from another when we really aren’t. Some of us aren’t even clear with ourselves with what we really want. We don’t have a clue. Before asking another, start with yourself. Ask yourself, “What behavior needs to change?”, “How do I feel about the way things are now?” and “What can the other person do to improve the situation?” Don’t ask for change if you can’t answer these questions first as you will discredit yourself otherwise. If you can’t answer these questions on your own, rely on friends to help you answer them. Then, while making good eye contact with another and not getting melodramatic, acknowledge how you yourself are contributing to the problem and offer ways that you can improve the situation. Such an offering will reinforce the idea that change is a shared responsibility and opportunity. Be very clear with what you are asking for in terms of specific behavior changes. Avoid vague requests, like, “I wish you could have a better attitude.” Instead say, “I wish you could say one positive thing about my proposal.” Remember that behavior change always precedes attitude change. Take one step at a time. Always thank the other person for listening even if you are dissatisfied with their response as doing so keeps the door open for future negotiations. This gracefulness is a wise strategy as most change happens after your request has been turned down. Realize it’s only normal that your partner will likely get defensive with your request but may likely agree with your request later when time has allowed for some self-reflection. Don’t get bent out of shape if you don’t get what you want. Sometimes it’s even better when you don’t. Also realize you have another tool, perhaps an even more powerful one, whose discussion follows below. In any case, to get better at asking, read Your Perfect Right by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons (Impact Publishers, 2008).
The Dalai Lama once said, “Sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” Any of us who has been in hurtful relationships knows that certainly getting what you want is no key to happiness. We may even joke about fated we are in making wrong choices. Don’t sweat disappointment. After you’ve done your best to effect change you may go through a painful grieving process but in the long run it may turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you. At least be open to the possibility that not getting that ideal job, not winning the heart of the one you love and not getting everything that could make you happy may in fact be a good thing. You may eventually learn that the one who got hired for the perfect job has been laid off, that the love of your life turned out to be a real witch and that you are even happier with having fewer things in your simpler lifestyle. In fact, some of us, actually most of us, eventually come up against such personal disasters in our lives, such as having major health problems or losing everything to a fire, that we actually wind up being grateful for the nightmare we endured. Our Higher Power has ways of summoning us to bigger and better things. Many of us in fact get shaken out of our mediocrity simply by having bad things happen to us. We become transformed, not by the adversity itself, but by the love of those who save us from ourselves.
John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St.Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990).