How to change without leaving your partner behind


change with your partner

You’re taking positive steps to improve your life. You’re getting unstuck! But your partner? Not exactly.

So, how can you inspire a similar change with your partner without hurting or potentially alienating them?

It’s a tricky yet common question that one of my clients, Collin, wrestled with. Fed up with feeling low and depleted, he transformed his habits. He started running, changed his diet, and lost 30 pounds. Collin was happier and healthier than ever. But his wife didn’t catch the fitness bug. She had no interest in jogging or the new personal development books that graced their bookshelf. What could he do to support her and keep their bond strong?

When it comes to trying to change other people, that old proverb is true: You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. Coercing your partner to change doesn’t work and could also cause harm. On the other hand, if you are both flexible and willing to communicate, you can make a change with your partner while maintaining a happy relationship.

For some guidance on moving forward, follow these do’s and don’ts so you can grow together, not apart.

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DO respect and praise their process

Make sure that you’re continually making deposits in your “relationship bank” in the form of kindness and praise for your partner’s efforts. Focus on what’s going well instead of criticizing what might seem wrong.

Honest, specific praise is most effective for boosting motivation and inspiring growth-mindset in others. You’ll find focusing on the good and expressing genuine love and support may spur your partner’s internal motivation for change.  

In Collin’s case, he realized that he was projecting his own high standards on his wife. He recommitted to getting healthy for himself and accepted that his wife’s journey to change would be just that — different and uniquely her’s. He flipped his unrealistic expectations to unconditional love.

DON’T give advice

No one likes being talked down to or being told what to do. Unsolicited advice often leads to reactance, a type of psychological resistance. If you really want to encourage behavior change, listen to your partner more than you speak. They battle with fear and self-doubt, just like you do, so use your empathy skills to get to the bottom of what might be holding them back from making positive changes.

Avoid saying things like “You need to… (drink less, get a better job”) or “Why don’t you just…(get organized, go to the doctor).” These belittling non-starters shut down constructive dialogue.

Instead, replace advice-giving with questions like, “How can I best support you right now? What would be helpful?” Being fully present and attentive to your partner’s concerns creates trust. It lays the groundwork for collaborative problem-solving, letting your partner open up about their goals.

DO make change with your partner fun

Sharing experiences brings couples closer, fostering love and a feel of belonging. If you’re concerned that you’re growing apart, find ways you can involve your partner in your new habits or lifestyle. Collin and his wife started organizing a monthly dinner with his running buddies and spouses. Expanding their social circle and spending more quality time together helped Collin and his wife improve their relationship.

You might also tackle 30-day challenges as a couple. Serve as each other’s accountability partner. Gamify it and make it fun. For instance, reward yourselves with a trip or a nice date night if you meet your joint weight-loss goals.

Growth is a vital part of any relationship. Although, it can be challenging when one partner evolves faster or differently from the other. When you lower the stakes (and stress), making a change with your partner becomes much easier.

If you want to help your partner change, support them in finding their own path. Let them know they can count on you to be a cheerleader along their way. Everyone needs someone in their corner when they go through the very vulnerable process of getting unstuck.

 

Melody Wilding

Melody Wilding is a coach and licensed social worker who helps ambitious high-achievers manage the emotional aspects of having a successful career. She also teaches Human Behavior at Hunter College in NYC. A popular speaker, Melody has delivered talks for TedX and others. 

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