Change Looks Easy When You Ask Your Partner To Do It


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By Maureen McKane, LCSW

When we ask the other person to do it, change looks easy. Is that the truth or just what we tell ourselves? Read on and learn to how have realistic expectations.

Today a discouraged wife said what I hear often, “It would be so easy for him to just . . .” The sentence might end in “say something nice once in a while,” or “pick up after himself,” or “do what he said he would do,” or a number of other changes we all wish from a partner. Tomorrow a husband might say, “I don’t ask much: just let me be!” Or, “It’s not hard: why can’t she be nice to my mother!”

Why is it that we find it near impossible to eat right, or exercise or remember to do what our spouse has asked a million times that we do and then we look at him or her and think it’s easy? Imagine a world where we took on our own changes easily and we gave a pass to the other guy.

To lock into the idea that your requests are easy, mires you in swamp water. Pretty soon, by habit, you have persuaded that beloved one never ever to give in on this particular point.

When I was in 8th grade my mother used to bellow up the back stairs for me to “Get out of that bed!” If I were to get up at that moment it would be seen as doing so because she said so. Therefore, I had to stay longer under the sheets. If I delayed too long she would try again, telling me it was already 7:30 when I knew it was 7:10. Again I had to stay put to make clear that getting up was on my terms, not hers. Eventually I would tear out of bed, into my clothes and run to the bus. Many a day I ran bus-less all the way to school.

So turn things around. How? The trick is to keep to the do-unto-others rule. Each of us has unique priorities and unique hang-ups. Yours are different from your spouse’s. It takes a shift in thinking to remember that both carry equal weight in writing the script of the partnership. If you overlook your own hang-ups, you must overlook the other’s. If you admit to yours, it is okay to ask the other to admit as well. But be honest: do you really admit to your stuff or just to the stuff that’s easy to own? In this case, ‘your stuff’ means the parts of your personality that upset the other person.

Try these ideas to start that mental shift:

  1. Spend half a day reminding yourself of what you most loved about your partner in the beginning. Then remember, that is what counts.
  2. Spend a week treating your partner like you would an invited house guest.
  3. Give a small gift as token of good intentions; a favorite coffee, unasked? Being on time when you are usually late? Saying thank you for ordinary duties? Replacing a criticism with a smile?
  4. Figure out what your partner would say is the thing that should be easy for you to change. Instead of telling yourself why it isn’t easy, do one act toward making it easy.

If you are feeling particularly brave here is an exercise we sometimes do in my office:

  • Choose two chairs facing each other. One is You, where you will pretend to be you. The other is Partner, where you will pretend to be the other. Sit in the You chair and begin a conversation. Say what the other one needs to change. Tell them why it hurts you. Now sit in the Partner chair. Be that person and answer, honestly. Remember your partner wants to be happy and wants you to be happy. Go back and forth with the conversation, remembering to get up and change chairs, until there is no anger. This is not a debate. This is a search to understand why, really, we each act this way. Understanding is where we find connection.

Marriage or committed partnership is a complicated endeavor, a love affair between a Great Dane and a Sheltie. What a fine combo they make when you match their assets and what a jumble of opportunities they find to get in each other’s way. Bring your good will and humor to the task and stop expecting any of it to be easy.

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