Sometimes the more you try to make something happen, the less success you have. This is often true when you’re trying to get someone you love to change.
The change you wish for may make a good deal of sense. Hence, you try to explain your reasons to your loved one. He(or she) may even agree with you, saying he’ll “try to change”. Yet he doesn’t. You feel increasingly frustrated. You criticize. You nag. You argue. You demand. You yell. You cry. You punish. You withdraw. And still – no change. What’s going on here?
A basic truth. People don’t change when others tell them to. They change when they, themselves, are motivated to change.
But what makes a person become motivated to change? I wish there were a simple answer to that question but I’ve yet to find one. Some people do have to hit rock bottom before they change. Or, be jolted by their reality. But even a startling reality doesn’t always work. It’s not unusual to see people with lung cancer still puffing away. Or, to see a college student on probation still refusing to crack open a book.
So what should you do if a loved one won’t change, despite all your efforts to make it happen? Here is your best hope:
- Save your energy. Admit the futility of seeking to change someone who is not open to changing.
- Decide how you will respond differently (not to force change on the other person) but to take care of yourself. When you do this, the dynamics of the relationship change.
Consider how this advice worked for Jill. Here’s how she described her situation:
“I love my husband but our communication is so limited, it’s pathetic. I ask him how his day was, he grunts okay, then flips on the TV. I want to talk with him but he has the attention span of a flea. I’ve asked him to come to therapy with me but he refuses. What can I do?”
Jill had tried everything she knew to get her husband to be more communicative. In addition to asking him questions, she was forever initiating conversations hoping to get him involved. Figuring that it might be easier for him to open up later at night when the kids were asleep, she scheduled “talk time” twice a week. Her plan backfired when it became obvious that Doug felt trapped, resentful that he was being “forced to do this.”
Jill gave up. She felt abandoned and unloved. Since Doug wouldn’t go for marriage counseling, she decided to try psychotherapy for herself. When I met Jill, it was obvious that she was too invested in getting Doug to change. I suggested that she stop initiating conversations and let go of structured “talk time.” If she felt the need to talk with someone, she could always call her friends or her sister. Since she had expressed a need for more activity, I also suggested she join a gym and take an adult ed class.
Jill didn’t like my suggestions at all. She was afraid that such changes would increase the distance between her husband and herself. I reminded Jill that I wanted her to do these things to take care of herself, not to improve the relationship.
With some hesitation, she decided to give my suggestions a try. Within a few weeks, she noticed that she was feeling less resentful even though Doug, true to form, was still his non-communicative self. A month later, she was surprised to hear Doug complain about how busy she was with things that didn’t include him. He admitted to feeling lonely. He wanted her to spend more time at home.
Jill was careful not to drop her new activities and return to the way things used to be. Instead, she responded affirmatively, “You’re right. I have been out a lot. This weekend, however, would be a good time for us to be together. Anything in particular you’d like to do?” Doug responded, “No, just want to be around you.”
Jill smiled, feeling pleased with herself that the “change for one” plan was beginning to work. No longer was she actively pursuing Doug, practically begging him to be with her. And though Doug was still deficient in the gift of gab, still reluctant to venture into emotional terrain, she did appreciate that he cared and wanted to be around her.
Over time, Jill noticed that the less she pressured Doug to talk, the more he opened up. Strange the way some things work paradoxically.
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.”
Linda Sapadin, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior.