Most of us probably know people that we’d like to see change. I mean if they would just do this or that differently things would be so much better. Admit it, you’ve had that thought. Maybe with a close friend or a partner.
Clients often come in to therapy and say “I need my partner to be more of this or less of that.” Often they have a point. Their partner has certain behaviors or patterns that aren’t helpful with the relationship. When the partner begins to understand that fact and make changes every should be great, right?
The trouble is that it isn’t nearly that simple. Because we are always operating in a system. One of the characteristics of a system is that when one part changes the rest of the system has to change in response. So what does that mean? It means that if your partner makes real change in their behavior, you ultimately will have to change in response.
Therapists often use this process in reverse to create change in people that aren’t even coming to therapy. A simple example is when on partner of a couple comes to therapy and would like to see different behaviors in the other partner. Obviously the therapist can’t directly help create change with someone that isn’t there. But since the partners are in a system, change can be created by changing the behaviors of the person that is coming to therapy. The non-therapy person has no choice but to adjust to the new behaviors.
So when is this a “bad” thing? It really isn’t ever bad but there is a situation where some people feel it is bad. It usually plays out like this (I’ll use a couple as an example here). The couple comes in and one partner explains how the other person needs to change. They point out the many ways in which the other person’s behaviors are hurtful, destructive, etc. And they are right. So the other person begins to make changes. Serious, real changes.
Sounds great, right? But this is where it can become difficult. If one person changes the other inevitably needs to change in response. And sometimes that original partner didn’t bargain for that. They want their partner to change but they don’t think they should have to do anything themselves. But it doesn’t work that way.
One common way it happens is that one person in a relationship may get very loud and angry, leaving little room for the other person’s opinions or thoughts or emotions in the relationship. That often makes the non-angry person seem like a victim. But when the angry person begins to change, making room for the “victim” to come forward, suddenly it becomes more apparent what behaviors the “victim” is contributing to the situation. And they no longer look like a victim but rather a co-contributor to the old pattern. And that means they need to take ownership of their behaviors and make changes, too.
Sometimes that really irritates people. They get used to being the one that is mistreated or disrespected or unloved. But now that their partner is changing it becomes obvious they need to change as well. This isn’t what they bargained for! They came in to get their partner fixed, not work on themselves!
So be forewarned. You have a powerful tool at your disposal. Changing your own behavior can create change in others. But it is a two-edged sword. If you get others to change you are going to need to change in response. And that is actually a good thing.