When Your Partner Won’t Change

“Jane” came to therapy because she didn’t know how to deal with her partner.  She complained of feeling devalued, unappreciated, unloved.  She felt frustrated and angry about her partner’s lack of responsiveness to her unhappiness.  She described what sounds like a pretty unsatisfactory relationship with a partner who had no interest in participating in therapy, who made no attempt to change despite all of the arguments and pleading to do so.  She didn’t want to lose her relationship and hoped to figure out both what’s wrong with her partner and how she can make her partner change.

“Jane” is a fictitious person representing an all too uncommon scenario in my therapy practice.  The question is, what can be done here?

The answer, on a superficial level, is very simple.  Jane needs to make a decision about whether to stay in or leave the relationship.  If Jane chooses to stay, and her partner won’t change, then she has to change. 

On a deeper level, the issues of staying, leaving, and changing are more complex.  Staying or leaving a committed relationship depends on each individual’s values, emotional feelings towards the other person, practical matters such as children or finances, unmet needs from childhood which often play a part in what we think should be supplied to us in a relationship, fears of being alone.

Changing can seem horribly unfair when the person who comes to therapy is the person with the least amount of changing to do.  After all, they at least can see there’s a problem!  Change is also often difficult and frightening.  But while change can’t always be made externally in one’s environment, change can be made in one’s self.

A therapeutic environment can help you sort out your expectations and feelings, perhaps ultimately determining whether you want to stay in or leave the relationship.  It is a decision only you can make.  It can also help you make changes leading to your own personal growth, which will be helpful no matter what decision you ultimately make about your relationship.

Depression: You May Be the Last To Know

As we come out of the intensity of the holidays and enter the midst of winter, many people will be struggling to find ways to cope with depression. For some people, depression descends suddenly, however for many, the initial signs of depression are subtle. The signs of a developing depression are not yet as intense as major depressive symptoms and the person with the developing depression may be the last to know.

Some common experiences of people with developing depression:

• Decreased motivation
• Difficulty sleeping or sleeping way too much
• Increased substance use
• Decreased appetite, or increase in comfort eating
• Becoming more disconnected from people, or increasing contact with people to distract from negative feelings
• Increased defensiveness, irritability or anger
• Feeling life is unfair to you
• Becoming more judgmental
• Wanting to run away or wishing you just weren’t here anymore
• Feeling your friends or family should be more understanding of you
• Receiving complaints from friends or family that you’re not doing enough
• Receiving complaints from friends or family that you’re not sensitive to their needs
• Being unwilling to hear the cues you are receiving from family or friends

As depression creeps into your life little by little, you sometimes unconsciously seek to do only the things that feel good for you. As your motivation decreases, you may begin to inadvertently leave more of your responsibilities for friends or family to handle, while simultaneously expecting them to provide you with increased validation and support. You may not realize that you have gradually begun to do all of these things in an effort feel better. Furthermore, when they express frustration with your behavior, you may become defensive or angry, not only due to your increased irritability, but because people tend to become more self-focused on their thoughts as depression increases, resulting in less sensitivity to the needs of others.

The people who care for us serve as mirrors of our behavior. At times, those mirrors reflect parts of ourselves we don’t wish to see. Allowing yourself to hear what those who love you have to say, no matter how painful, can help you get treatment for your depression before it worsens.

What Gets In The Way of Connection?

This TED talk by University of Houston Professor Brene Brown really gets to the core of why we seek deeper connections and what we allow to stand in our way.

Couples’ Communication: Keeping The Goal In Mind

Our ability to communicate verbally with others is valuable and perhaps often taken for granted.  We have an abundance of choices when we communicate—what words we use, what inflection we place upon them, the speed of our speech and how loud we say what we want to say.  Do we say what we mean, or what we think someone wants to hear?  Do we say what we want to hear?  Do we say nothing?

Before we utter the words we cast through the air to be caught by another person, we must first determine the purpose of our communication.  What is our goal?  Are we communicating to create an impression?  To be understood?  To comfort ourselves? To ease a pain?  To cause one?

Take for example a man and a woman in a dating relationship who are spending much of their free time together.    They very much enjoy each other’s company, but the woman is beginning to feel she needs more time away from her partner. (Goal:  more time alone) She does not say anything to him because she is concerned that saying something will hurt his feelings.  However, her feelings build and after several weeks she vents her anger, telling him she cannot stand his clingy, needy behavior.  What did she achieve?  Well, she achieved venting her anger, which feels good for a moment, and he most likely did feel hurt, especially by the words she chose to use.  What if she had taken a moment to sit down with him, and say, “ I feel like I need to spend more time by myself.”  In this instance, she states her need, without any implication the problem lies with her partner.  If he perceives that she means anything other than the words she said, it is his choice.  Now, one can easily ask, what if her partner is way too clingy and needy?  As stated above, the goal is to get more time alone.  Will telling him he is clingy and needy accomplish that goal?

I Messages

The purpose of using “I” messages is to adequately and accurately communicate our feelings.  It is to let people know what is going on inside of us at that moment in time.  It is about being aware of what the receiver of our message will hear.

Compare the statement; “I feel hurt by that” versus “You hurt me”.  In the first sentence, you (meaning yourself) is the subject, and you are stating what you are feeling at the time. Your feelings are facts, and no  one can tell you that you shouldn’t have a certain feeling (although they might try!).  Therefore, “I feel hurt by that” is a statement of fact.

“You hurt me” is more of a subjective statement.  You are letting the receiver know that something they did resulted in you being hurt in some way, but it leaves too much open to interpretation.  This is important because you can never control how someone interprets what you say.  For instance, are you trying to state a fact to the receiver or are you accusing them?  Did the receiver hurt you, did their action hurt you, were you hurt physically or emotionally?

Examples of “I” Messages:

I feel angry when you make jokes about the way I dress.

I want to take five minutes to sit down and talk to you about something.

I need more time to think about what you just said.


Using “I” messages is not difficult, yet it is common for people to feel uncomfortable with trying to use them for some of the following reasons:

  • Habit.  We have to relearn how to phrase our thoughts.
  • Emotion.  The reason we are trying to learn to use “I” messages is to be able to communicate our emotions in a different way.  It is a challenge for many people to communicate about emotionally laden topics.
  • Doubt.  If people are getting the gist of what we want to say, why do we have to put effort into phrasing our thoughts in “I” messages?  We use “I” messages because we want the receiver to get an accurate picture of what is going on within us, without judgment and leaving little open to interpretation.
  • Fear. We are resistant to using “I’ messages because of fear. A common fear many people have is not being normal.  When we use “I” messages, we are saying what we think or feel about something that has occurred, but we are not assigning fault over what occurred.  In reality, many times we are trying to assign fault.  We want to establish that what the other person is doing is wrong, that any reasonable person would think it was wrong, and therefore we have a right to complain about it.  Our fear that our feelings are not “normal”, or that we will be judged as not normal, leads us to begin building a case against the other person for our right to feel the way we do.  If we truly accept for ourselves that feelings are facts, we will not feel so strongly about building a case to defend our feelings.

While simple in form, it can take some practice to get used to using “I” messages, however, the result of having clear communication with one’s partner, unencumbered by hurt feelings and resentments, makes the effort worthwhile.

Talking Sex

Recently I was asked how I became interested in becoming a sex therapist.  I had no short answer and instead went on with geeky enthusiasm until my listener’s eyes glazed over!  Most of my life I’ve been interested in what happens in particular moments when people come together.  When one person’s history, needs and perceptions joins (or collides) with the history, needs and perceptions of another.  So much more goes on than meets the eye when people have sex!  Sex therapy is about misconceptions, anatomy, arousal and fantasy.  It is also about grief, vulnerability, attachment, medication, the brain.  Did I mention safety, health choices, obstacles, orientation, gender, identity, being categorized, as well as the refusal to be categorized.  It’s about love, like, lust, trust, pain, frustration and fear.

Taking all of the above into consideration, it is astounding that we think we don’t have to talk about it to make it work!

What’s Important?

Although I see clients for a variety of different reasons, I find the subject of relationships runs like a thread through the narratives of people’s stories.  Whether it’s a couple wanting to make their relationship better, or an individual coping with depression and anxiety, the concern about finding someone to love, being able to live happily in a loving relationship, or the fear of not being loved is with us in therapy sessions.

What are some of the issues causing problems in relationships?

  • Differing expectations (due to family, culture, class or gender differences)
  • People having emotional needs they are expecting their partner to meet
  • Wanting their partner to relate the same way (communicate in the same way, show love in the same way)
  • Having one’s own issues with depression or anxiety that prevent intimacy
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Inability to communicate in a way that encourages stronger connection
  • Unrealistic expectations of relationships

Whether someone is in a relationship now, or desperately seeking one, people often define their lives by what’s happening now, and what they’re feeling now, and forget that “now” is but a brief time in the course of their lives.  What’s important in the “now” is to work on being the best and most loving person you can be.  This is what you can give a relationship that is lacking in love.  This is what you can do for yourself to be sure you’re ready when love comes along.

Attachment, Part II

Further consideration of our attachments in life bring to mind the Buddhist view of how attachments cause stress in our lives.  This speaks more to our attachment to worldly goods, our attachment to “how things should be”  our attachment to our perceptions of situations, other people, and even our view of ourselves.  Dr. Steven Hayes, developer of Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and author of Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life, has said that suffering results from what we do to avoid emotional pain and our adherence to our own story.  The first attachment Dr. Hayes refers to is the thinking we attach to something or someone that causes us pain.  We work to avoid the pain that is aroused by those thoughts with denial, distraction, blame, even substance misuse.  The second attachment has to do with our “adherence to our own story”.  This is the story we have developed about ourselves or our position on a certain issue which we refuse to relinquish.  Consider the following questions:

  • When is the last time you knew you were right about an issue and wouldn’t budge?
  • How about the last time you were sure it was the other person who had a problem and not you?
  • What feelings did this kind of thinking bring up in you?
  • What kind of resistance was created by the rigidity of such thinking?
  • What if we let go of our attachment to how things should be or how people in our lives should behave, and simply acknowledge the loneliness, fear and disconnect we feel in our lives?
  • Wouldn’t that be the most honest place to start?