written by: Kosjenka Muk
Trying to change a partner
When I work with couples (and individuals, too), in their bitter criticisms of their partners I can often guess what a person wanted to say to their parents, but for whatever reasons couldn’t or didn’t dare. (Sometimes I can literally see their eyes lose focus, as if they don’t really see the person in front of them anymore.) With at least 95% of people I work with, the connection between their adult intimate partnerships and their childhood conditioning becomes soon quite obvious. One of such patterns is the hope that a partner would change in a way a problematic parent never did. Sometimes this is already clear in early stages of a relationship, but more often it shows up later, after several months or even years.
Such hopes can keep some people in low-quality relationships for a long time, self-sacrificing and suffering. Some others might keep accusing, punishing, demeaning and even abusing their partners trying to make them change. What approach a person will choose, depends primarily of survival strategies learned in their early family, as well as parental role models, usually the parent of the same gender, but not always. Perceived similarities of a partner with a parent often results in presuming bad intentions (projection of resentment against parents), which is often a “killer” of intimacy. This easily happens even when the partner’s faults are small and unconscious, such as forgetting things, not answering a text message quickly enough, different level of tolerance to mess and similar).
When something in a partner’s behavior triggers childhood memories (“age regression”), few people are able to recognize what happened, even when they are theoretically aware of such a possibility. The most obvious signal of childish emotions being triggered is an unusual intensity of the reaction. So if you feel intense anger, followed by mental accusations of your partner, I suggest you consider if such a reaction might be at least partly related to something in your past (even if the partner’s present behavior might be realistically irritating, adult irritation would usually still be milder).
Since unresolved emotions related to parents are usually based on some form of belief of one’s own inadequacy, rejection-related trauma, not being loved and similar, trying to change a partner is basically striving to finally achieve the approval recognition and appreciation some child parts of us crave. Such a hope is an intense motivation, which keeps many people bonded to incompatible or unhealthy relationships. Yet even is such a hope is fulfilled, external experiences usually don’t reach the subconscious mind (“inner child”), emotions from the past are left unresolved and can erupt again at any new provocation.
If a person didn’t have a chance as a child to learn to value balanced responsibility, or to be self-reliant, they can perceive an intimate partnership as a chance to give up on some parts of their own responsibility. It might be the responsibility for their own emotions, or for practical chores. Sometimes such people can see a partner as a source of what they need, but sooner or later the partner feels reduced to the role of a servant.
If an emotional bond is based on childish emotions, one can perceive it as natural that a partner should be perfect, understanding, love and give unconditionally – which is actually normal in a parent-child relationship. When the partner turns out to have their own needs, expectations and requests, such a person can feel hurt, even betrayed in some way, and they can react accordingly. The more a partner is a parental substitute, the less we can allow them to be imperfect and have their own identity. The consequences are easily predictable, and many people live them.
Neglect followed by panic
If we observe a small child with a parent, especially the primary caretaker (usually mother), we can see that as long as everything is normal, the child takes the parent for granted and focuses on their own desires and needs. However, as soon as the relationship with mother is in serious danger – the mother is for whatever reason unavailable (i.e. illness, long working hours, emotional coldness, and for babies even mother being out of sight can be enough), a child usually starts to panic, crying, screaming, and slightly older children might try apologizing and promising they will be good from now on, whatever the cause for the mother’s absence might be. Yet as a safe routine is again established, the child usually forgets their panic and turns back to their own interests.
Emotionally immature adults often show a similar pattern of behavior: taking the partner for granted until the partner announces they had enough; after that panicking, apologies, promising the world, bringing stars from the sky and such ensues – but when the relationship is back to normal, they start to ignore their partner’s needs again (which often includes demeaning, abusing and cheating on them). In the stage of panic and regret, such a person can be genuine and very convincing, and keep pulling the partner in an exhausting cycle of hope and disappointment. We can guess that such a partner keeps reliving their own childhood memories of alternating hope and disapointment with an irresponsible parent, as the unhealthy entanglement is usually mutual.
The more responsible person in such a relationship usually has a vision of how nice the relationship could be with mutual respect, consideration and understanding. They believe their partner must be aware of it too, or at least it shouldn’t be so difficult to make them aware, and that the solution only requires some reasonable conversation and sharing perspectives. Yet, as people are emotional rather than rational beings, if the partner has a strong need to avoid responsibility, no reasoning or explaining makes a difference… just as nothing made a difference with an irresponsible parent (but the child kept hoping, because they couldn’t imagine to lose hope).
For an irresponsible partner to change, they need to be willing to change some of their essential life values, which rarely happens in normal conditions. People usually need to experience significant suffering as a result of their life decisions, to truly understand that their old value systems damage rather than help them. Some people don’t change their values even if such a thing happens. Therefore my recommendation to the partner of such a person is to primarily focus on changing their own emotional conditioning which keeps them bonded to such a relationship, rather than hoping that their partner would change.