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In my last blog post I talked about a four point plan for asking your loved one to change: acknowledge their good intentions, state your feelings, ask for their help and be patient and persistent. By doing this, you remove the implicit criticism whenever you ask someone to change, and that enables your loved one to meet your needs without having to admit that they were wrong, or bad.
What do you do when you’ve followed this plan carefully, yet nothing changes? You’re feeling pretty frustrated and helpless at this point. The first thing to do is to make sure you’re not subtly criticizing your loved one when you tell them how you feel. It’s very easy to change a statement of how you feel to a statement of how wrong the other person is to make you feel that way. “I felt hurt when you said that” can easily warp into “I felt hurt that you’re so insensitive to say that.” And we’re all guilty of doing this. It often takes many tries for my clients to tell their partner or family member how they feel without blaming the other person for making them feel that way.
So now you’ve ensured that no hint of criticism exists in your communication, and still no change occurs. Your husband continues to offer solutions when you want him to just listen, your mother insists on telling you how to raise your children, your teenager still acts as though you don’t exist or your wife persists in telling you off when you drink at parties.
Sadly, you’re not going to be able to change their behavior. Happily, you don’t have to, because there is one person’s behavior you do have control over: Your own. You get to decide what to do to avoid feeling bad in these situations. Here’s a five point plan for doing just that:
1. Decide what to do. You do not have to tolerate behavior that makes you feel bad. Even though it feels like you are trapped, there are always options. For example, if your husband always offers solutions rather than listening, you can choose not to share problems with him. Or you can end the conversation when he begins to offer solutions. If your mother can’t stop herself from criticizing your parenting, you can arrange for her to see your children without you around. Or limit your visits. Or end the conversation when she begins to criticize.
It’s important that you plan what you’re going to do, and that you make your plan when you’re not emotional. It has to be an action that you can sustain indefinitely, not one done in the anger of the moment.
2. Don’t punish. Your action should be focused on making yourself feel better rather than the other person feeling worse. If your plan is to punish the other person, they’ll sense that and very likely become angry in response. You can figure out what your motivation really is by imagining your feeling once you’ve taken action: If you keep thinking about the expression on your loved one’s face and the regret they’ll feel, then you know you need to reconsider.
3. Set your expectations low. If you hope that the other person will change in response, you’ll be giving up control of the situation. They’ve demonstrated already that they’ve made their choice, and if they sense that you’re doing this to get them to behave differently, they’ll feel pushed around and criticized, which will make them dig in their heels. It’s the paradox of assertive behavior that the less you try to make other people change, the more willing they are to actually change.
4. Inform your loved one. Major changes in your behavior are best done with lots of planning and communication, and when emotions are calm. Perhaps pick a time when things are going particularly well. For example, with a critical mother you might say “It’s so much fun being around you when the kids aren’t here. It is such a contrast with how bad I feel when you give me suggestions as to how I could improve raising them. We’ve talked about this a lot, but it hasn’t gotten any easier for me, so to help me stop feeling so bad, it’s best if I’m not around when you see the kids.”
With a wife who tries to control your drinking at parties you might say “We always seem to get into arguments over my drinking. We have very different views over how much is too much. Let’s try something different — we go to different parties and then meet up later in the evening at home.”
5. Be persistent. When you change, very often the first thing your loved one will do is to try to make you change back. They’re uncomfortable with the new dynamic, uncomfortable perhaps with your new control over what happens in the relationship. You can expect them to try to make you feel guilty. Or perhaps they’ll be angry at you and start some new behavior that you find unpleasant, or simply withdraw in order to punish you. Since they know you very well, you can be sure that they know what you’re most sensitive to, and that’s what they’ll do.
In the face of this pressure you have to remain calm and consistent. If they ask, you can remind them that you’re not criticizing them, that you’re not asking them to change their behavior, that you understand their behavior isn’t an attempt to hurt you, but that for whatever reason, you feel bad and so you need to protect yourself.
What I’ve just described isn’t easy, and it’s not much fun either. It would be so much nicer if your loved one had responded positively to your gentle request that they change. But they haven’t, so you have only two alternatives: Continue to live with the resentment, frustration and anger you’ve been experiencing, or assert your right to alter your own behavior and protect yourself against all these unpleasant feelings.