Natalia came into my office distraught.
It was her boyfriend again. Nothing she said to him made a bit of difference. He was driving her crazy.
I nodded as she listed off her complaints. He never listened to her. He never thought about her needs. He didn’t care about her. She was so sick and tired of him. She felt like she was going to explode.
“James! This is why I come to you,” she said. “Tell me how to make him change.”
She stared at me expectantly.
Can’t You Change Him?
I would estimate that 90% of the women who come to me want to make a man change.
They want him to be different. They want him to love them. They want him to be the man they’ve always dreamed of.
Instead they’re stuck with a man who lets them down, over and over again.
My office is a safe space to talk about the frustration, disappointment, and despair of loving a man who doesn’t treat you the way you need him to.
Explaining your feelings gives you a chance to hear yourself, and you can find yourself saying things aloud that you never realized you felt.
For Natalia, I guessed that there was more going on than an insensitive boyfriend.
But to get her to dig deeper, I needed to know what she really wanted.
You Know What You Don’t Want, But What Do You Want?
It’s easy to find things about him to complain about.
Even happily married couples have things they don’t like about each other.
But successful couples focus on something else. Instead of trying to change each other, they focus on changing the way they act with each other.
What specific behaviors need to change in your relationship?
List a few things that bother you, such as:
- “He makes plans without me.”
- “He ignores me when I try to talk to him.”
- “He says things that make me feel bad.”
Once you’ve come up with a list, circle the top issue that’s bothering you.
(In relationships, it’s important to tackle one issue at a time. Otherwise, you can get overloaded trying to fix several things at once.)
Next, it may seem obvious why this issue is bothering you.
But often there’s a deeper reason that we can’t see unless we do some detective work.
Ask yourself why it bothers you that, say, he makes plans without you.
You might answer, “Because it makes me feel left out.”
Why does it make you feel left out? Maybe it’s because you don’t enjoy being home alone while he’s doing something.
Why don’t you like being home alone while he’s doing something? Maybe it’s because you hate being alone, period.
Why do you hate being alone? Maybe it’s because you used to get left alone a lot as a kid and you hated it.
That’s an insight that you can share with your partner.
Once you go through this process of inquiry, you often have a different understanding of why his behavior bothers you and what you really need.
You’re less interested in blaming him and more interested in communicating the story behind your triggers.
Now, instead of telling him how disrespectful he’s being by not including you in his plans, you can share with him how much it affects you when you’re left out.
What you really want is to not have that horrible, yucky feeling.
And maybe what you need more than anything is to feel like he’s never far from you emotionally, even when he’s not with you physically.
Because now he understands why this issue matters so much to you, he’s highly motivated to help.
Another reason this strategy works is because starting a conversation with anger—“You always make me feel left out, and you need to stop!”—tends to make him respond in like kind.
Research by the Gottman Institute has found that conversations tend to end on the same note they began with.
Which means you’re sitting in the power seat. The way you broach the topic with him will set the tone for the rest of the conversation.
And if you start the conversation by dumping your feelings on him and telling him to change, it won’t go well.
Neither men nor women like to receive an invitation to change so that we can be less annoying.
If you go to a man with the intention of making him change, he naturally pushes back.
That’s because of counterwill, the feeling of resistance we experience when we sense that someone wants to control or change our behavior.
But when you come to him wanting to communicate an insight about yourself that you think he should know, he senses that you want something different.
You want him to understand you. You want him to help you with these difficult feelings.
And that’s something that any man who cares about you would be more than happy to do.
No one can “make a man change.”
But you can certainly give him information that helps him see the situation in a whole new light.