When couples (especially young ones) come in for marriage therapy, they usually believe that it is the other person who needs to change. If only it would work! First of all, most people don’t want to change. And even if they want to, more often than not true and lasting change is so difficult and painful that people resist it with all their might.
However, change is possible. From my work with couples I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two levels of changes in relationships.
One level of change – the surface level
One constitutes changes on a surface level, changes that don’t touch the deeper structures of personality or the core issues. This can be something as simple as holding your partner’s hand in public (if this is something that is important for her/him). It can also be bringing flowers, acknowledging something nice they did for us, helping around the house, putting your socks into a hamper, or pouring water into the dishes in the sink. Although changes like these might seem insignificant, they can actually shift a relationship considerably and increase the satisfaction of both partners. According to Gottman’s research, for each negative interaction, a couple needs to have five positive interactions (a compliment, acknowledgement, gratitude, a nice gesture, acts of attention, kindness, maybe a little present) to restore a positive attitude. This is the first level of change. On this level we can ask and expect that our partners will accommodate our needs and desires as long as we ourselves are willing to accommodate their own needs and desires.
Second level of change – the deeper level
There is also another, deeper level of change. And this is the stage where we can always hope, but can never presume that the other person is going to change as it involves their core issues and values. Changes on this level are the sole responsibility of each partner. By “core issues” I mean the unique problems each person brings into a relationship from their past, from their original (biological or adopted) family. It concerns “unfinished business” with our parents. All the emotional needs, such as safety, acceptance, love and support that were supposed to be met by parents, but were not. Core issues are often expressed by such phrases as “I am not worthy of love,” “I will be abandoned,” “I am never good enough,” or “I can’t trust anyone,” etc. It helps if each partner understands the core issues of the other partner as they will be able to react less intently when those issues are triggered. Very often these core issues are similar (or complementary) in both partners and this is exactly why these people were attracted to each other on the first place! So, triggering a core issue in one person might indirectly trigger a core issue in the other.
For example, one partner feels disrespected, (“I am not good enough”) because of something the other person did, or said, and withdraws as a result. Then, this withdrawal triggers an “I am abandoned” core issue in the other. If the second partner retaliates, the problem will escalate to the point of an emotional explosion, or rupture in relationship.
Positive change on this core level is difficult since the negative, destructive behavior happens unconsciously. It might be possible to partially resolve these core issues on your own, by educating yourself, trying to understand dynamics, becoming more aware of your own feelings and behavior and by learning how to effectively communicate with your partner.
However, changing our core issues is a long and winding road which easier to travel with the help of a marriage or couples therapist. But even if each person decides to do it on their own, without an awareness of each other’s core issues, especially if they are deep and intense, it will be difficult to build a harmonious and close relationship.
So, before you ask your partner to change, consider what level of change will be necessary. Ask for minor changes and together work towards deeper ones.