How Do I Get My Spouse, Family Member, Friend, or Coworker to Change?
If you have ever wanted to change another person’s behavior, you are not alone. Many people get into an intimate relationship with a spouse or partner and realize that there are a few habits that you dislike. Maybe it’s a simple as picking up after themselves or as complex as a serious addiction. Often, we want family members to learn and grow but they seem determined to stay stuck in their old ways. We can usually see what their issue is and we encourage them to make changes but they resist. It can be difficult when we see what is wrong but they can’t or don’t. Worse yet, they may see what’s wrong but refuse to do anything about the problem!
“Although circumstances may change in the blink of an eye, people change at a slower pace. Even motivated people who welcome change often encounter stumbling blocks that make transformation more complicated than they’d originally anticipated.” – Amy Morin
How To Motivate Someone To Change
A quick google search reveals that there are 1.27 BILLION search results for “how to change your husband” and 2.5 BILLION results for “how to get someone to change.”
I am afraid that I have some bad news for you – you CANNOT make anyone change.
Humans are complicated and change is difficult. If you have tried to break a bad habit yourself or make a healthy change, you know how difficult it is even if you want to change. If you don’t, well forget it. The same is true for others – change is difficult and if the person you want to change doesn’t want to as well there is no way to make them. Even if they acknowledge a problem, they still may be unwilling to change anything!
Whether your want your mother to stop criticizing you; your sister to realize her husband is a no good cheater; your husband to put his clothes in the hamper; or your wife to keep the kitchen cleaner, changing them is going to be difficult if not impossible. You may have tried to bribe, shame, or otherwise motivate your loved one, to no avail. You may have tried being nice and supportive or turned to being critical and trying “tough love” but nothing is working.
How To Change Your Partner
1. Find a new partner
The quickest way to change your partner is to get a new partner. Beyond that? It’s tricky.
Here are two examples of couples where one partner wanted the other to change.
A Partner Who Needs To Lose Weight
Jane wanted her husband to lose weight, for his own good. She had noticed that his weight gain had led to him having less energy. He struggled to do basic tasks because of weight related health issues. He kept buying larger and larger sizes in clothes but she wanted to be supportive. She waited for him to notice that his weight gain was an issue but he didn’t. He was defensive when she brought up the subject. She tried to motivate him by going on a crash diet together which was unsuccessful, as deprivation diets usually are. She encouraged him to make better food choices. Sometimes he did and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would eat more healthy foods but in huge portions. She made suggestions of things like keeping track of his calories but he was uninterested. She would send him articles to read and watch food documentaries with him.
She tried shaming him, since encouraging hadn’t worked. She would point out when he was having difficulties due to his weight. She would ask him what he planned on doing when he was in a wheelchair in a couple years because his health had gotten so bad that he couldn’t walk any longer. She would “joke” about life insurance and finding a new, younger partner after he died of weight related illness. Unsurprisingly, this did not work either!
Eventually, she gave up. Jane realized that her husband was going to be in denial about his weight and health issues and there was nothing she could do about it. His health and his weight were up to him and no motivation – positive or negative – from her was going to make him change.
A Partner Who Is An Addict
Kelly was already in love with her college boyfriend James when she realized that he had a drinking problem. Instead of breaking it off, she was determined that she could change him. She did not have an understanding of alcoholism as a disease. She thought he just “liked to party too much” and that once they got married and had a family he would “settle down.” After graduation, Kelly told James that they both needed to “grow up.” Partying was for college students not young professionals. Kelly would have the occasional glass of wine or mixed drink out at a restaurant. James seemed to have reduced his drinking although he still drank much more alcohol than she did. They married, and had their first child. Kelly made excuses for the times that James drank too much at a holiday party or backyard BBQ.
One day, James was pulled over and arrested for DUI/DWI with their daughter in the car. It was then that Kelly learned that James had never reduced his alcohol consumption, he had just been hiding it from her. He knew that she did not want him to drink so he would keep liquor hidden around the house to drink in secret. He tried not to get “too drunk” but rather keep a constant buzz so that it would not be too obvious that he was drinking. James needed a medical detox from alcohol. Neither of them realized that a physical dependence on alcohol is very dangerous, and detoxing from alcohol can be deadly.
James went to rehab and Kelly was left with the shame of the judgement of her friends and family. She was infuriated with him for endangering the life of their child. She was worried about finances since he had to take time off of his job to go to treatment. She worried and worried and worried until he came home from in-patient treatment. Then she set out to watch his every move. She monitored where he was using a phone app. She questioned him every time he left the room and especially when he left the house. They stopped spending time around their friends who still drank alcohol so she felt isolated and alone. When James relapsed Kelly felt helpless, like the world was crashing down around her. She had done everything physically possible to keep him sober! She did not know how she was going to manage to hold her family together, plus work, plus monitor him even more closely than before.
Kelly’s therapist recommended that she go to Al-Anon meetings. She resisted because he was the problem not her. When he relapsed, her therapist brought it up again so she went to a meeting. It was there that she learned that she could find her own serenity, whether the alcoholic was drinking or not.
Learning to Let Go
While most of us do not have a partner who has a serious health condition like Jane, or a partner struggling with addiction like Kelly, it can still be difficult to accept that we cannot change the people we love. However what we can do, is change our situation and change ourselves.
The stages of change have been studied by researchers and they identified the following stages:
The Stages of Change
Otherwise known as denial, in the precontemplation stage the person does not acknowledge that they have a problem. Dr. DiClemente, one of the researchers, has referred to behaviors in this stage as the “4 Rs” reluctance, rebellion, resignation and rationalization.
In this stage, people might admit there is an issue. They may downplay the severity of the problem but admit to loved ones that there is a problem. In the contemplation stage, the person might research their condition or treatment to learn more but make no plans to do anything. In this stage Jane’s husband might have read about his medical conditions and how they are worsened by being overweight. Kelly’s husband James might read about the signs of alcoholism but make no changes to his behavior.
People can spend years in this stage and may never progress.
Finally, in the determination stage the person is ready and willing to make a change. In this stage the person is invested in at least trying to change. They may implement a plan on how to change. This is the stage where someone will go to substance abuse treatment or ask their doctor about ways to lose weight.
The maintenance stage comes after the change has been made. Because habits are difficult to break, and new habits can be hard to form, this is the phase where effort is put into maintaining the change
At this point the change is now the norm. As much attention does not need to be paid. For some people, like recovering addictions, the maintenance phase may be the last phase. Many people continue attending AA or NA meetings for the rest of their lives, although not as frequently. They may avoid going to bars or drinking oriented events forever.
“No one changes unless they want to. Not if you beg them. Not if you shame them. Not if you use reason, emotion, or tough love. There’s only one thing that makes someone change: their own realization that they need to do it. And there’s only one time it will happen: When they decide they’re ready.” ― Lori Deschene (Tiny Buddha)
Am I Codependent?
The desire to control other people’s decisions and actions can be a sign of codependency. The difference between someone who is codependent and someone who just wants their loved one to change is that people with codependency take responsibility for their loved one’s actions. Instead of allowing the person who needs to change to take responsibility for themselves, the person with codependency takes on that burden.
In the above scenarios, Jane is displaying codependent behavior. Kelly on the other hand, did not start to act in codependent ways until after James came home from treatment. When she began monitoring him instead of allowing him to take responsibility for his recovery, she also started behaving in a codependent way.
How To Support Your Loved One
- Let them know that you love them no matter what.
- Tell them that you think/feel that there is an issue.
- Try your best not to be blaming or put them on the defensive. “You” statements such as “you have a drinking problem” are not as effective as “I” statements “I have noticed lately that you drink every day.”
- Be clear that you support them and believe in them.
- Give him/her/them space to think about what you have said. It is possible they are in the pre-contemplation stage and do not agree that there is a problem.
- Focus your energy and attention on yourself.
- If necessary set strong boundaries around your time, resources, energy, etc.
- Remind yourself their choices are their own. Your choice is to either set a boundary, walk away, or accept them as they are.
Offer Your Loved One Acceptance
Please be aware: If you are in a situation of domestic violence or like Kelly you or your children are in danger, you need to leave the situation now. You cannot help anyone if you are not safe. You should not accept physical, mental, and emotional abuse. If you need help visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline website.
For partners and spouses, you chose this person to be in your life. There are hopefully many things that you like about them. If you do not like them as they are, consider seeing a couple’s counselor or ending the relationship. For family like parents, siblings, children, we do not choose them but it is still important to focus on the things we like about them rather than the things about them that we want them to change.
Remember, everyone makes mistakes. It is often much more obvious from the outside when someone needs to change something. While it is easy for you to see, it may be very difficult for them. Supporting them and loving them in spite of their flaws is an important part of being a good spouse/partner/family member.
As above, if you are in danger or you are experiencing abuse of any kind, these are not things you can or should attempt to accept. For things like a partner in active addiction who is endangering only themselves, it is up to you whether or not you can live with that. There are times when the most loving thing you can do is love yourself, and leave the person unwilling to change to face the consequences of their choices.
Stacey is a therapist in private practice in the Jackson, MS area. She works with individuals and couples who are seeking to overcome codependency. If you are supporting a loved one in recovery or a person who is not making changes that you think they need to, talking to a counselor or therapist can help! If you’re interested in seeing Stacey in the Vicksburg MS or Canton MS office please call (769) 224-4234 to make an appointment.
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