The first principle in the “Stay Sane in Your Relationships” Class 2021 is to Focus on what you can control.
How do I get my partner to change?
When I first started teaching marriage classes for the Utah State Extension Office, one of the most common questions I would get was: How do I get my partner to change? How do I get them to do what I want?
Obviously we all have things that we wish were different about our partners. But the answer to this question is you can’t control your partner. You have no control over them. You can try to manipulate or coerce or persuade them, but in reality, they are choosing how to respond to your actions. You don’t have any power over them.
For me, this realization was rather freeing. I had spent a lot of time trying to think about how to change my partner or my kids. When I realized that the only person I can control is myself, it gave me a newfound sense of power and direction. I don’t need to spend my time trying to control other people. I can direct that energy towards something more useful: choosing how I will think and feel and act.
Spend your energy on something you can actually change: You.
So where do you spend most of your time and energy? Do you spend your energy thinking about how to change your partner? Or do you spend it trying to change yourself?
To start figuring out what you spend your precious thinking power on, do a simple thought download. Write down all your thoughts for a few minutes. Then take a look. Are you thinking about things that you can control or things you can’t control? The brain REALLY likes to solve problems so if you give it a problem that it can’t solve (because it isn’t in your control), it will keep working on it and working on it. Instead of spinning about something you can’t control, learn to direct your brain to something useful: working on something you can control.
Here are a few examples of how you can start to direct your brain to more useful problems to solve:
If you are sad that I haven’t told you how to change your partner, don’t give up hope. Human beings are very social, relational beings. We often feed off each other’s energy and moods. Have you ever noticed that when your friend is mad, you get mad too? Or when you child is sad, you take on that emotion as well? This is called mirroring emotions. Sometimes we choose to mirror each other’s emotions. So if you focus on changing yourself and you are able to be more happy and loving to your partner, sometimes your partner will choose to be more happy and loving as well. So in that way, changing ourselves can change our partners (if they decide to respond). We just need to remember that they still have their agency. So any change for the positive is entirely up to them.
We can also look at this from a family systems perspective. The marital relationship is a system consisting of two parts. If one of the parts changes their behavior, it could change the system. But the only person in the system you can control is yourself, so let’s foucs on that!
Here is a video example of me applying this principle.