Have You Ever Tried to Change Your Partner?

file0001429295404If you have ever tried to change your partner–how’s that working for you? Think about it for a moment…

What do you do when you are trying to get your way? You may be lobbying to go to a certain restaurant that your husband hates. You may be wanting to spend money on something your wife thinks is unnecessary. You may be trying to get your kids to change into clean clothes before your company arrives.

Most of us use different approaches depending on who we are dealing with (friend or telemarketer), what we learned from our role models, and what we imagine might be effective.Think about how you might go about trying to get your way when the person you are trying to convince is resistant–and also happens to be your mate.

Less than two per cent of married couples proudly report never having had a disagreement. The rest of us mere mortals don’t know how that is even possible. Since conflict is an inevitable part of our romantic relationships, it is clearly something important to be smart about. What are the most effective ways to have influence over someone else? (Even though all the self-help books tell us that the only person we can change is ourselves, not surprisingly we are constantly trying to change our partner in little to big ways).

Various Methods of Influencing People: The Good and the Not So Good Waysfile000353140187

Here are the most commonly observed approaches. Most of us have probably tried our hand at all of them. Although I describe them as “strategies,” I don’t mean to imply that the person using each tactic has always made a conscious and deliberate choice to try to get their partner to change via this method. Often we simply fall into the habit of communicating in certain ways–even when they don’t serve us or our relationship.

#1: Compliance-based or the “If you do what I want, I will make your life so much better” strategy

This is an approach where one person tries to get the other to do what is desired by offering positive rewards or incentives to get the other to comply. It can be effective, especially in inducing short-term behavior change. Examples would be “If you make the dinner, I’ll do the dishes,”  or “If you come to bed early tonight, we can snuggle.” This approach backfires if it feels like bribery or is perceived as manipulative and controlling such as in “If you lose twenty pounds, I’ll get you a new wardrobe.”

 #2: Coercion-based or the “You better do it, or else!” strategy

In this more openly aggressive approach, the person wanting to change the other uses any or all forms of threat to try to get compliance.  This might include the use of punishment, criticizing, ridiculing or minimizing the partner’s point of view, or simply using anger, pouting or silence to try to get the other to submit. Examples would be, “You’ll be sorry if you don’t apologize,” or “All your friends think you are nuts when you do that.”

#3: Rational-based or the “Let me tell you all the reasons I am right and you are not” strategy

This method of influence uses logic and reasoning to try to win your partner over. Your husband tries to explain how if you let the baby cry, she will not be spoiled, or your wife lists all the health benefits of  your joining the gym. Of course, what one person finds reasonable is not always universal. This tactic can also come across judgmental and condescending.

file000443155139#4: Relationship-based or the “You should do this for the good of the relationship” strategy

In this approach, you try to elicit change by putting the conflict or desired behavior change into the context of harmony, explaining why the desired response is appropriate given the value both partners place on the relationship. Since in a close relationship, both partners want to please each other, simply mentioning the relationship and emphasizing its importance is a good  reason to consider the change being requested. In this strategy, you couch your request as “normally expected” or “ideal” for the strength of the relationship itself rather than for your personal desires alone.

What does research tell us about what works best?

Clever researchers from Texas A & M, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, observed the naturally occurring strategies used by couples trying to resolve a problem in their relationship, and to see which strategy would be most effective. To do so, they videotaped 123 couples discussing an issue that had been a recent source of disagreement, one in which one or both partners desired change, typically because they disapproved of the other partner’s offending opinions or behaviors.Here’s what they found.

file0001556941298The only effective strategy was #4,  the relationship focused one. Greater use of logic and reasoning was not necessarily conducive to change, and greater use of coercion was counterproductive, leading people to move farther away from compromise or agreement. For those of you interested in effective marketing, Robert Cialdini, best-selling author of Influence, discusses the application of these findings to the business world as well.

The other interesting finding was that the more one person used any of the strategies above, the more their partner used that same strategy in return. In addition, the more one person began to change opinions or positions, the more the partner changed as well. This mirroring was equally true when one person took a negative, polarizing stance. Even in a ten minute discussion, this dance was readily apparent. So next time you are having a disagreement with your beloved, ask yourself the question, “Do I want to be close or do I want to be right?” You are looking into a mirror either way.


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