Is lasting marital/relationship change really possible?
I’m not talking about one of those all-too-common (albeit temporary) changes that seem to occur only after you’ve been hit in the face with the fear that you may lose your spouse/partner if something dramatic doesn’t occur.
The sad fact is that often attempts to improve a relationship follow this all-too-familiar path:
- A once-solid relationship begins to falter and slide into a rut…
- One or both parties start to feel restless and unhappy with what feels like an undeserved marital/relationship lot…
- A marital/relationship crisis develops (one or both parties start to imagine a better, more fulfilling life without each other)…
- The crisis leads to a recognition that some type of change must occur in order to save the marriage/relationship…
- A change is introduced that improves the relationship (at least temporarily)…
- The change-efforts fizzle and the relationship problems resurface.
Is this pattern set in stone for anyone trying to strengthen or improve their relationship?
Absolutely not, but the prevalence of this pattern tells us that lasting change is a real challenge for some of us and that additional steps are needed if meaningful relationship change is to take hold.
Relationship Help: 5 Steps to Lasting Marital/Relationship Change
1. You need to take responsibility for what you want to change
Taking responsibility might sound like a no-brainer, but failure to do so is what often derails lasting change. In couples counseling, I frequently see one spouse/partner change in some way (communicate differently, show more physical affection, for example) in an effort to mainly please/placate the other person.
While this might be a genuine act of love and commitment, it is problematic because ultimately your perspective is that the problem really is in the other person rather than in you. So sooner or later you’ll begin to feel pressured or resentful about having to change from who you “really are.”
2. Change is a conscious decision about something specific
“I promise to communicate better”; “I’ll show greater commitment”; “I’ll get along better with your family.”
The above statements are problematic because they are too vague and offer no blueprint for specific actions that need to occur. Once you take ownership of what you plan to change and you’ve made the decision to do something different for the sake of your marriage/relationship, you need to spell out what this change will look like. For instance:
“I promise to communicate better” can become, “Each evening after work I will ask you questions about your day to show that I’m interested in you.”
“I’ll show greater commitment” can become, “I’ll cut back from seeing my friends five times a week to twice a week and I’ll spend that time with you.”
3. Small changes are most reliable
Change is about moving out of your comfort zone—traveling beyond your typical way of thinking, feeling and behaving. In changing, if you leap too far into foreign territory, you’ll stretch yourself in ways that will cause too much discomfort and you’re more likely at some point to give up (returning back to what is most comfortable for you).
And just for the record, big changes aren’t necessarily more helpful than small changes. A big change that doesn’t last will just make you and your partner feel more hopeless—a small change that lasts is what matters (persistence is key).
4. Set up your environment to support change
If you’re trying to lose weight, you’re probably not going to keep Ben and Jerry’s ice cream sitting around to tempt you. You’ll change your food environment to support you new goal of healthy eating. The same principle can apply to your marriage/relationship.
One husband made a list of all the reasons he initially fell in love with his wife and would read this during difficult periods of their marriage. One woman kept sticky notes reminding her that her partner desired greater physical affection.
Can you think of ways to create surroundings that will support your goals?
5. View setbacks as the norm
Change typically means taking two steps forward and one step back. Feeling hopeful about your mate’s new efforts to improve the relationship can quickly turn to despair if s/he returns to his/her “old ways.”
Rather than seeing a setback as the inevitable fate of your union, think of it as temporary and as a learning opportunity to gain greater understanding of what’s needed to keep change moving forward.
So let’s get back to our original question: Is lasting marital/relationship change possible?
Absolutely! It takes effort, persistence, and an understanding of how to bring about the change you desire. Use these five relationship tips to help get you started in the right direction.
Wishing you and your relationship all the best,
Dr. Rich Nicastro