The Partner-Improvement Project: What You Need To Know

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Amy: My long career as a family therapist has taught me a lot about couples and what contributes to marital misery. Most people come to my office believing that they can’t change their partner. “My husband is the way he is,” or “My wife is that way with everyone.” They imagine their partner to be a fixed entity. They see themselves as primarily responding TO their partner, a one-way street filled with frustration. People fail to understand the most fundamental Law of Intimate Relationship Physics: Each partner changes and helps to create the other. The only question is how.

Having treated many, many couples over the years, I have ample evidence that each partner in the couple changes the other — for better or worse. In fact, one of my favorite provocative questions is, “When did you stop trying to change your wife ( or husband)?” Imbedded in this challenge is the idea that changing our partners is a natural phenomenon, part of a healthy dynamic. In fact, when one partner stops trying to “change” the other, the relationship tends to slip into a coma which can last for months, or years.

UnknownLet me explain: Early in my family therapy training  I learned about the underpinnings of how couples “create” each other. This mysterious process is not easily visible to the naked eye. And most of us cannot see what we are doing when we’re in it. As a husband in my office commented, “a relationship looks different from the inside out than from the outside in.” This dynamic of couple co-creation takes place over time, in an intricate dance where partners shape and change each other, mostly without knowing it. This intimate duet provides an important basis for our sense of well-being. This organic process, this automatic “mutual shaping” takes place mostly reflexively, outside of our awareness. Most of us don’t really know how we “create” or shape our partners, and it’s usually only when we’re in trouble that we need to find out.

One observation that continually fascinates me is that many professionals — therapists and doctors — identify problems as “individual” in nature when these problems are primarily rooted in the person’s relationship soil. Any ongoing experience with depression, anxiety or a chronic pain syndrome can often be traced to the subtle, though powerful influence of a difficult relationship. Sometimes the relationship is too cold, or too hot, too close, too distant. Sometimes nothing is overtly “wrong” but the the creative tension has dried up and the relationship feels dead or empty. If we look closely, unresolved conflict usually lies at the core. In the busyness of life it’s often easy to ignore these various relationship states. But chronic mood disturbances have a way of letting us know that our lives are out of whack. In my experience, our relationship is often a major contributor.

So what do I mean by “changing your partner”?

When I talk about “changing” our partners, I’m not referring to changing their character or their personality. That is pretty much established from a relatively early age. I mean that we change how they operate in relation to us. In couples where each is “allowed” to change the other, the duet enjoys a sense of aliveness that is missing when the “change” process has been shut down.

Perhaps a brief example from my office will help:

Unknown-1I had begun seeing Nadine and Steve, a 40-ish couple with two kids, in my office when a very clear pattern emerged. Nadine first came to my office on her own. She stated that she felt depressed much of the time, and wondered if she needed medication. She had a job she enjoyed, though work demands at times overwhelmed her. As we explored further, her she began weeping as she talked about her “cold” husband. She longed for more cuddling and physical expressiveness from Steve.

Her husband, Steve, joined us for the second session. As he listened to Nadine, he came across as attentive but rather passive. Frustrated, she complained that though she “tried everything,” he remained physically aloof. Their sex life was okay — uninspired, but still (barely) alive. Nadine was the clearly the fire-cracker in the relationship; expressive, dramatic, opinionated, wearing her needs on her sleeve. Steve, by contrast, reacted slowly but thoughtfully. He said he was never terribly comfortable with open displays of affection, but for many years he dedicated himself to trying to please Nadine in this area. To me HE seemed depressed.

Unknown-2A bit more exploring revealed the nature of this duet doldrum: It’s what can happen to a relationship when a partner quits trying to “change” the other. I learned that Steve had actually been fairly creative earlier in their relationship. He tried a variety of massages which he learned from some books he found. It soon became clear that his efforts were a big, fat failure. He felt clumsy, discouraged, unable to please Nadine; the way he saw himself, he might has well have had the sign “Loser” plastered on his forehead.

It turns out that Nadine’s notion of physical affection was pretty specific, and didn’t include improvisations from her man. There was a “right” way and a “wrong” way to be close and Steve’s efforts were, apparently, wrong, wrong, wrong. It wasn’t that Nadine was exactly cruel to Steve, but she treated his efforts with a kind of condescending resignation. She didn’t realize that she was taking the wind out of Steve’s sails. Nadine had, inadvertently, created a husband who had lost confidence in his ability to please her. He was now more withdrawn and “colder” than ever.

Over the course of the next few weeks, this pattern became obvious to the couple.

As frequently happens, the therapeutic process at times felt prickly  to the couple as they struggled to examine their way of operating. Soon, however, they began to understand how they “created” each other. I challenged Steve for not “changing” Nadine;  I playfully teased him about his tiptoeing around this wife.  I observed  that Steve’s acquired wimpiness with his wife only encouraged her disdain. As it turned out, Steve harbored ideas about how to be close to Nadine, but her previous dismissal of his efforts discouraged him from persisting. I ruminated aloud about how Nadine’s ideas of “closeness” were too limited. She needed to learn to enjoy a taste of something outside of what she already knew. I invited Steve to help her expand her repertoire. Through these sessions, Steve grew bolder in his willingness to “change” his wife, to get her to give his approach a try. Nadine, in turn, slowly responded to Steve’s new boldness with greater respect for his efforts — and for him.

This snapshot of a therapy tells a story that I see over and over again in my office. Once people become aware of how they inevitably shape their partner, they begin to see themselves and the relationship in a whole new light. This method is not for the faint of heart, since sometimes it means learning more about ourselves than we wanted to know. Sometimes our ego gets a bit bruised. But, in my experience, when problems that seemed “individual” become shared problems, a kind of empowerment occurs. The idea that a relationship is co-created transforms each partner from victim to artist. After that, there’s no turning back.


  1. Inspiring permission to actively shape the other. I will take this for the couples I encounter.

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