7 Supports to Embrace Positive Relationship Changes
Have you and your partner worked together to make intentional changes to your ways of relating? If so, how did it go?
Maybe an example or two will help make this topic concrete:
- “Honey, would you be willing to listen to me without interruptions until I say that I have completed what I want to share?”
- “I am noticing that one of the ways I feel connected with you is when we communicate periodically throughout the day. Since your work day is more structured compared to mine, would you be willing to initiate a text exchange at least once in the morning and once in the afternoon?”
We humans are remarkable creatures – we can adapt to most things and at the same time most of us are uncomfortable with change. Go figure!
The same is true for positive relationship changes. The good news is partners can break decades-old patterns that no longer serve them and choose new ways of being together. I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. It takes effort, intention, and support. If you and your partner feel stuck in some ways and are invested in making those changes together, read on. Below I share 7 ways to (1) make it less painful and (2) increase the odds of your success.
A quick personal non-relationship example is when I was a drummer playing in rock bands … I taught myself how to play drums in my bedroom, sitting on the edge of my bed. Since I was in my room, I played barefoot. My feet were directly against the bass drum and hi-hat pedals. For months, I practiced & practiced, playing along to Rush records, eventually learning to play this way. Then I joined my first band when I was 18. I drove my kit to the practice space and set it up. I sat down to play and I could not feel the pedals. I was wearing tennis shoes! What to do?!?
More on that personal anecdote at the end, but for now back to you and relationships …
When you and your partner agree on ways to improve your ways of relating, how do you decide what to change? How do you work together? How do you know when you’re successful? How do you persevere through the inherent discomfort? What can you do to increase your chances of the changes sticking?
Below I offer some tips in answers to some of those questions:
- Acknowledge that it might not be easy. It is a good start to say explicitly to each other something like “We’ve been doing it this way for so long, it’s not going to be easy or quick to change it. We know that. Let’s be mindful that we’re learning something new and let’s support each other both as we make progress and when we fall back on old habits.”
- Don’t judge. Behaviors are learned. A lot of our relationship habits were learned a long time ago, modeled by our caregivers or other formative role models, back before we had a lot of life experience. Since behaviors are learned, we are not ‘bad people’ because of our tendencies. They can be unlearned. In my coaching practice, what I hear is that people judge themselves or their partner, and. … it does not foster change. Most often, judging fosters defensiveness. Defensiveness reverts us to habitual behaviors and decreases the resources we have available to show up in skillful ways. Feeling judged can be de-motivating too – “Why bother?!?”
When you do judge yourself or your partner, as soon as you recognize it, acknowledge that you did and apologize.
What to do instead of judging? That’s the next item on this list.
- Support & encourage each other. When you notice you or your partner trying those new behaviors, tell them (yes, talk to yourself if it is you) and acknowledge the efforts. When you notice old behaviors, offer something supportive and try to learn from the experience. It is helpful to make some non-judgmental guesses about what led to the current experience, such as “It has been a long day and we’re both tired. It makes sense that we are less resourced now. With more practice when we’re not tired, it’ll become easier.”
- Practice first. Some relevant attributes of practice in romantic relationships: (a) Go slower than usual. Intentionally agree to slow down your interaction. (b) Choose moments to try new things when you are calm and resourced. Avoid times when you are tired or upset. (c) Pick interactions that are lower stakes. You and your partner probably know some of the ‘hot button’ issues that tend to trigger one or both of you. Avoid those when you’re starting out. (d) State explicitly that you’re trying something new. It is helpful to start these conversations with something such as “This is new for me. It feels a little uncomfortable.” (e) Ask for a ‘do over’: e.g., “Hey, that is not what I meant. Possible to let that last part go? I’d like to try again …”
Using my personal anecdote above about playing drums, I did not show up at my first public show playing drums in sneakers for the first time. If I had, I am pretty certain it would not have been my best performance.
- Agree on the specific changes. Discuss the desired changes enough with your partner to confirm that you both have a really clear, specific, shared understanding of the changes you want to make in your relationship. To get to the destination, you need to be going in the same direction. Being on the same page is fundamental, otherwise you might be pulling in slightly different directions. Communication is key.
- Change incrementally. If possible, select a specific change one at a time. Unless there are compelling reasons to do so, avoid making multiple changes at the same time. It is so much easier to invest in one area of change and celebrate those successes before moving on to other areas.
- Check in with each other regularly. Decide on a regular recurring way to check in with your partner about how things are going so far. You can celebrate progress together. You can share how it feels differently when you are showing up for each other in these new ways. You can explore the times you encountered challenges. Since those challenging moments are not happening in the moment, you can offer calm, caring support to each other. If you are both in a place to hold recent experiences lightly, it may even be able to laugh together, such as “Did I really say that to you then? I feel embarrassed. That was my pain talking. I did not mean it. You know that, right?” In these regular, scheduled check-ins, course-correct. That’s part of what they are for. If something is not going as planned, brainstorm together new ways to approach it. The beauty is that you’re not alone – you are a team! – and you’re in this exciting journey together.
I encourage you to dial in these strategies and others with your partner together. How do they sound? Which ones feel like a good fit for you? Which ones might be a stretch or not so much of a good fit? Are there ways to modify them so they may be a better fit for your relationship?
If these tips are helpful, please use the social medias buttons as easy steps to share them with others. To share your experiences with others, please consider using the comments section at the bottom of this page.
To close out my personal anecdote with drumming … For at least the first year of playing at shows, I took my shoes off. To paint the picture, I was on stage wearing white tube socks. True story. (Yes, there were plenty of comments from my bandmates.) I accepted that change was not going to happen over night. At the same time, I started practicing wearing shoes. At first it was uncomfortable. While I was getting used to wearing shoes, I started to doubt whether or not it was even possible to change. I stuck with it and now I feel comfort and ease playing with shoes. It is funny to remember being 18 years old on stage in my socks …