You love your partner. And sometimes you make mistakes that hurt your partner. Some of those mistakes might be from patterns similar to what was modeled to you in your family of origin and the mistakes are inadvertent. Or sometimes you are simply insensitive due to fatigue or carelessness. Regardless of the reasons for the relationship undermining behaviors, you know your relationship is important to you and you’re invested in doing things differently.
You’re off to an excellent start.
You probably have been the way you are for a long time Our personalities are basically set but the meaning we attach to external events and behaviors are pliable, as are the choices we make in how we show up in the world, treat ourselves and behave towards others, particularly those we care the most about.
What this means is that while the notion of changing old habits seems daunting, it’s doable. And the payoff can be priceless in the form of a more secure relationship connection.
5 Steps to Create Positive Change in Your Marriage or Relationship
- Learn to communicate effectively. Educate yourself about this topic as you will need to practice good communication with your partner. It’s imperative that you and your partner speak with kindness and sensitivity to one another. Yes, people argue and conflict is part of most relationships at some point but the key is to be able to get out of those situations as productively as possible. At best, you come to an agreement with no emotional harm done. At worst, you scream at each other, sling profane names back and forth, with no resolution or repair. Essentially, you’ve caused further damage to your relationship. The build up of resentment is one of the most problematic elements of an unhealthy relationship dynamic.
- Fully own it. Owning it means taking responsibility for your actions and validating the emotional implications for your partner. Period. Sometimes people almost get there but then negate much of it by following up with excuses. There may be extenuating circumstances that are relevant to the issue at hand but be careful that they don’t get framed in a way that reverses the original intent. If you’ve fully owned your role, be sure to follow up with a heartfelt apology around causing your partner pain, whether intended or not. It can feel vulnerable to open yourself up in this way but it’s an important part of this process.
- Understand it. Take an honest look at yourself and the behaviors in your relationship that have been problematic. Why have they happened? People tend to operate in learned ways and often times when we “act out,” it’s a cover for personal pain or frustration. Or you grew up in an environment where dysfunctional behavior was rewarded in some way. This can be a tricky step to work through, as many people are not aware of the impact of their prior experiences. The more clarity you can get out of who you are, your influences (helpful and problematic), wounds or trauma, emotional/psychological defenses erected to for protection and function, the better equipped you’ll be to create lasting change. If you’re stuck at this step, consider finding a therapist to help you unpack it.
- Change your brain. This is less daunting than it might sound. What I mean by this is establish new patterns and habits that can eventually lead to brain change. It takes time to alter conditioning but if you identify the specific behaviors you are trying to do more or less of, your practice can pay off in it occurring more automatically. Tell your partner what you are working on so he/she feels part of the process. While transitioning towards change, he/she will also likely feel more compassion if you slip up (which you probably will). If this happens, go back to step two and “fully own it.”
- Give yourself a break. With the likelihood that you will make mistakes as you seek positive change in your relationship, remember to practice self-compassion. Humans are inherently flawed and you are no exception. If your intentions, effort and open communication with your partner are there, you’re on the path. If you make a mistake and revert to old behavior, notice it aloud (to yourself and partner), apologize and stay the course. Don’t allow yourself to get stuck in the “failure” mud. This can be challenging for some but it would be unfortunate for after your efforts to fall victim to yourself in self-sabotage. Keep trying. If it seems your are repeating the same mistakes and feel stuck in this step, might be a good idea to seek out a local therapist. There are many reasons why our past experiences make change difficult. Looking deeper sometimes requires help. If therapy doesn’t resonate with you for whatever reason, my DIY tool for married couples or those in committed relationships, The Marriage Refresher Course Workbook for Couples can help you strengthen your relationship foundation, including positive change.
As a couple’s therapist, it’s always rewarding to see people really trying to be different for the sake of their love relationships. We are born wired to connect and seek secure connections. The romantic relationship is one of the most special places to benefit from this.
You love your partner. You’ve made mistakes. But you can change. Now go do it.