A common question many therapists get is, “Is he/she going to change? Is my romantic partner going to change?” I’ve been asked this question by both men and women, but recently I've noticed it coming a lot from women with male partners, wondering if the man in their life is going to eventually stop behaviors that are unhealthy or unhelpful to the relationship. One client recently asked me, “Am I foolish for believing that maybe he might change? Am I foolish for having that faith in him?”
The answer is no, you are not foolish for believing that people are capable of profound changes. Maybe that's just part of me being a clinical psychologist - I believe people are capable of change, big change in fact, in their life. However, here's the thing: Change requires effort. We know this because it’s one of the key rules of neuroplasticity (meaning, brain change). To change your brain, and to change your life, requires sustained effort, and a lot of times it's hard to do this. Change often requires a struggle, so it can be a difficult thing. So, what you must do is ask yourself, “What prompts someone to be willing to put forth the tremendous amount of effort that’s required to make lasting change?”
I think a lot of times the answer to this is that people change their behavior when it stops working well for them, or starts costing them something. Maybe it’s making them suffer or lose something important to them. That distress is what is often required for change, and is the same distress that leads people to seek therapy. If you notice that your partner keeps doing the same things over and over, and you really want them to change but they refuse to, the reason is likely that their behavior is still working for them in some way. Until that changes, they probably won’t!
Ultimately, we can only change ourselves, not others. However, one thing that you can do is to take steps to better understand the unhelpful dynamic you’re stuck in. For instance, when your partner engages in the hurtful behavior, how do you respond? Is there any way that you might be accidentally reinforcing that behavior? If the behavior sometimes stops, what might cause it to stop?
Here's a classic example of a way in which someone may unwittingly reinforce a behavior that they don’t like. I had one client come to me with the main complaint that she feels like she “does it all” around the house. She lamented that she does everything around the house, all of the housework, all of the laundry, and all of the cooking, all while working a full-time job. I asked this client to describe how this happens – how the dynamic flows – and she responded that she always asks her partner. When I asked her how it plays out, she said, “I tell him that I need help and give him a list of what needs to be done, but he doesn’t do any of it.” The next question I had for her was, “What happens next?” The client then admitted that due to feeling stressed and angry, she often ends up doing it herself, thinking that it’ll be faster if she just takes over.
What is happening in this situation is that the client, unintentionally of course, is reinforcing the unhelpful behavior of her partner not helping around the house. That’s just one example, and it’s not always the case that people do things to reinforce problematic behaviors, but it is something you can check in with yourself about when you find yourself stuck in an unhelpful or unhealthy relationship cycle. And if you are unintentionally reinforcing the dynamic, remember, you’re the one person who can change you!
For the original vlog this post was based on, go here!