Emotional Health · Marriage & Life Partners

On the Bright Side: Making a Relationship Work When Your Partner Can’t Change


Publisher’s Note

Here at womensvoicesforchange.org we have a new series that allows us to look at complex issues from the vantage point of “On The Bright Side.” Today  Dr. Ford discusses how to make a difficult relationship work in a thoughtful and positive way. The Wednesday Five, which covers issues affecting women and girls around the world, presents more feel-good news. Join the conversation by commenting at the end of each post and add your voice to Women’s Voices. We want to hear more from each of you! Patricia Yarberry Allen


NeanderthalIllustration by C.A. Martin

Not all relationship problems can be approached directly. Sometimes your partner is going through something that he needs to work out on his own. Other issues may be a matter of timing, character, or external circumstances that cannot be altered easily. How can you tell the difference between a problem that’s amenable to direct intervention and one that may require a different approach?

  1. Problems of Timing

Some problems are a matter of timing and need to be seen as “developmental.” Although we are more accustomed to thinking of “growth”-related issues as the province of children, psychologists have long recognized that adults, too, go through predictable stages of development. Besides the well-recognized “midlife crisis” that many of us encounter, writer Gail Sheehy identified, in her groundbreaking book Passages, several other key periods in life when it is typical, and “normal,” to suffer growing pains. For example, many adults go through an “age 30 Transition Crisis” during which they question their original choices and may “tweak” them, or even change course entirely.

While not necessarily a cause for concern, these transitions can cause relationship problems. If your husband shows signs of restlessness because of a midlife crisis, it is important not to overreact and, rather, to try to identify the real source of the problem. If you recognize that his feelings are part of an internal process, you will be less likely to take them personally. And you are likely to make more headway if you accurately assess what’s going on rather than assume the worst and get anxious.

Try to be supportive rather than critical, and ask if there are ways in which your can be a helpful partner during this transition.

RELATED: Dr. Ford on Low Sexual Desire in Long-Term Relationships

  1. Problems of Character

This is a murky area, but most psychologists feel that one’s basic nature is not easily changed. It is a truism in marriage that each person’s character strengths come with a downside that may be less attractive. The meticulous, responsible type is also sometimes controlling or dull. The creative free spirit is more fun at play than when it comes to handling day-to-day realities. When dealing with something your partner does that bothers you, ask yourself to what degree this is a matter of habit or a manifestation of something deeper and less likely to change. Your accountant husband may not ever become a free spirit, but he might be able to rein in his obsessional tendencies somewhat for your benefit. Also, he may find he enjoys the complementary traits you bring to the marriage. Often we marry someone who has characteristics we lack so that we can enhance our experience of life, and even live vicariously, through them.

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  • Mickey May 4, 2016 at 2:39 pm

    No, this article would not have helped me stay in my marriage. Now I’m reflecting that although I left and divorced the father, I can’t divorce the son. Sigh. I’m going to a support group meeting today to seek some resources for this relationship which, yes, he is not a partner in the sense of the article. But here we are. Anyway, thanks. It was helpful.

  • Polly May 4, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Thanks for this. It’s good to know that you don’t have to fight everything out. I find that to be counterproductive…you need to choose your battles, and no one is perfect, right?