7 Step Process if You Want to Influence Your Spouse to Change

Everyone has something they'd like to change in their partner. As a therapist, you know that the biggest improvements in a couples' relationship come when both people change and grow. Couples' relationships present an interesting paradox. Growth is spurred by partners pushing up against each other and challenging one another to change. This pushing and challenging can result in positive developmental changes and the softening of defenses. However, too often partners request change in a way that is controlling, demanded and entitled. These requests lead to power struggles and very painful interactions.

But sometimes one partner has a legitimate desire to see a change in their partner. And this format can help them. We invite you to share it with your couples.

Here is a 7-step process to create change in your partner. The key to the success of this process is that it makes your partner want to change – instead of feeling coerced. Why? Because your gain will not feel like their loss.

Here's what you do.

1. MAKE A LIST of the top three behaviors your partner does that annoy you. For example, leaves messes around house; pouts; doesn't do their share of household tasks, etc. Then, select the one problem that has the best chance of your partner responding to your discomfort. You will increase your chances for success dramatically by focusing on one problem at a time. Let's go for a big one here and say the problem is that your partner is not pulling their weight around the house.

2. DESCRIBE THE PROBLEM in clear detail. This includes what they do and your reaction to the problem. For example: “Honey, there is a problem I need to discuss with you. When you come home from work and start reading the mail, change your clothes, turn on the news, return a phone call without looking around and noticing the kids are cranky, squalling for dinner, and I'm up to my neck in getting dinner ready, I see you as a blind and insensitive clod. This problem has persisted for over a year now with little relief in sight.”

3. DESCRIBE YOUR REACTION to the problem. “When you act so oblivious, I think you care much more about responding to your own needs first and foremost, and you pitch in only when it is convenient for you. I feel angry, alone, and resentful. When I feel that way I end up being chilly to you and withdrawing any spontaneous signs of affection. I don't like how I react but that is what I have been doing.”

Here is the “formula” for describing the problem.
A) You have specified the behavior of “not pulling his weight” by giving specific examples.
B) You have given your reaction to it by stating: “when you do (their behavior) I think_____ (you're inconsiderate…) and feel _____ (angry, alone, resentful), and then I do _____ (withhold affection). It is important to let your partner know what your complete response is to the behavior that is a problem. Especially let them know what you do when you think and feel the way you do. This really informs your partner of the consequence to them when they do the undesired behavior. Include in your reaction the meaning of the problem for you. For example, not pulling their weight represents not being loved, respected, or valued.

4. BE EMPATHETIC. Tell your partner why you think that would be hard for them to change the undesired behavior. This lets them know you see the problem from both perspectives and that you have an appreciation for what you're asking them to change. For example, “Honey, I think pitching in when you get home would be difficult because you feel depleted and want some time to yourself in order to regenerate. I think pitching in at the level I want is a lot to ask of you.

5. DESCRIBE HOW YOU WILL HELP. Because you're not “just” going to make a request and then hope for the best, (this hasn't been successful in the past, neither has been nagging or pleading) the next step is to describe what you will do to help your partner make the change you want. For example, “Honey, your pitching in is so important to me when you get home that I will do _____________ (fill in here what you think will be a high motivator for your partner to make the requested change).

6. ASK IF THEY ARE WILLING to make the change you're requesting. They may agree to all or part or none of your request. They might say “no” to you but would be more willing to consider the change if you offered a different motivator or inducement to change. Then you can decide if it is worth your efforts.

7. FIND OUT WHY. Regardless of whether they are willing to change or not, ask why. Knowing why they are willing to change will help you understand what motivates them. You'll be able to encourage them better along the way. If they don't want to change, finding out why will help you determine how to move forward. In that case you still have 2 more options. One, you can ask if this is a temporary or more permanent condition. If it seems there will be no change for now, let them know the consequences – how you think, feel and act – and then drop it for now. The second option is to go to the second problem on your list and repeat the sequence described above.

When you give couples this information, “The 7-Step Approach to Influence Your Partner to Change,” they have both the tools and the motivation to move forward. If you help them work through the steps for the first time in a session, they'll be better prepared to continue their progress at home. You'll also find that couples who work on it at home come to their next appointment with new, relevant issues to discuss with you.

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When talking with your partner, always use I statements. When a person starts off a conversation using you statements, it may come off sounding like the person speaking is blaming the other. One cannot hope to try to help influence positive change in another is one comes off sounds like one is blaming the other or just comes off sounding like one is complaining. By use I statements, the blame disappears.


this is a horrible article. “I see you as a blind and insensitive clod”.
Are you kidding me? What horrible advice.

Reply to  Kyle

That wasn’t advice that was the way the wife was seen the situation doesn’t mean it was right

Reply to  Joyce

The way the wife was seeing the situation I meant

Dr. Ellyn Bader

Dr. Ellyn Bader is Co-Founder & Director of The Couples Institute and creator of The Developmental Model of Couples Therapy. Ellyn is widely recognized as an expert in couples therapy, and since 2006 she has led innovative online training programs for therapists. Professionals from around the world connect with her through internet, conference calls and blog discussions to study couples therapy. Ellyn’s first book, "In Quest of the Mythical Mate," won the Clark Vincent Award by the California Association of Marriage & Family Therapists for its outstanding contribution to the field of marital therapy and is now in its 18th printing. She has been featured on over 50 radio and television programs including "The Today Show" and "CBS Early Morning News," and she has been quoted in many publications including "The New York Times," "The Oprah Magazine" and "Cosmopolitan."

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