Should you tell your partner how to be a better person? I mean, doesn’t it make sense if you love them?
Theoretically, yes. But practically, no. It usually backfires. But there are ways other than telling them how to be a better person that can help them achieve their potential–and maybe make your life easier in the process.
Compulsive and Perfectionistic Versus Easy-Going
A very typical conflict occurs in couples when one person is driven, rule-bound, perfectionistic, compulsive, and Type-A, and the other is easy-going. The driven person wants to make their partner a better person by telling them to be neater, more reliable, more reasonable, more efficient, more productive and more thorough.
And the easy-going partner wants to make the driven person a better person by telling them to be less neat, less rigid, less rational, less efficient, and a lot more fun.
Chances are, both parties have good reason to want to change the other. Opposites attract, but conflict inevitably ensues. Which is understandable. And unfortunate.
The Elusiveness of Objective Truth
If you’re driven and have compulsive tendencies, you might think that you know what’s best for others. This would makes sense because you do obsess about what’s right all the time, and so it’s not unreasonable to think that you’d have some answers.
But how do you know that you have the truth? Our perceptions are inevitably clouded by our own needs.
And as my first therapist once asked me, “Who made you policeman of the world?”
I think we need to remember that what we think is just that, and only that. What we think. Not necessarily the truth. There’s another side to every story.
Compulsive Ain’t All Bad
And the easy-going person who wants to change the compulsive person may also need to step back for a minute and consider how subjective their perspective is, too.
People who are driven contribute a lot that may go unappreciated. While they can get out of control with their need to control, they may actually add a great deal of value to the relationship with their planning. You’ll probably get more out of them by appreciating what they do well than telling them what they do wrong.
What’s Your Motivation for Trying to Change Them?
Your motivation for trying to change the other person will make a great deal of difference in how it comes across and how successful it is. We all have a remarkable capacity to deceive ourselves about our motivation, and if we try to make it look like the change is for the other person’s good, they’ll smell it like a fart in a small elevator.
Are you giving them advice because you love them, or is it a rationalization for trying to make them what you want them to be? Does it come out of love, or anger? Caring or righteousness? Their growth or your own comfort?
“Trying to make them a better person” may just be a rationalization for trying to get what you want, or to make yourself more comfortable.
As the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, the most important thing for us to do in a close relationship is to “stand guard over the solitude of the other.”
Telling Versus Showing
But let’s say that maybe you really do have some insight as to how to help your partner be a better person, maybe even a happier person, and you’re clear that your motivation is genuinely caring. What’s the best way to do it?
Notice that the question I began with was whether we tell them how to be a better person, not whether we help them be a better person. There are many ways to help our partners become better people—for instance by building them up with support so that they feel less anxiety, rather than breaking them down with criticism.
While neither the compulsive nor the easy-going partner will show it, underneath any sub-par behavior is usually anxiety. Acceptance and support usually works better to relieve this anxiety than reproach. Reproach usually leads to defensiveness or passivity. Show them that they don’t need to be anxious. Don’t tell them.
How Can John Help Sally?
Let’s imagine that John gets frustrated because Sally doesn’t manage her time well. She’s working on her master’s degree and she’s really busy because she teaches full time during the day. She spends most of her free time on her phone shopping and looking at Instagram. John thinks it’s a total waste of her time and it drives him crazy. She waits to write her papers until the last minute and then freaks out. And then he has to deal with that.
Sally says that it helps her to relax to look at Instagram, and what does it matter anyway? She doesn’t need to get all A’s. Besides, he’s acting like her father when he scolds her.
John thinks she’d be so much happier and productive if she’d just manage her time better and study instead. He doesn’t hold back about all this, and she just feels that he’s controlling and intrusive, not really caring.
If John can help her relax rather than putting more pressure on her, he’ll be much more helpful. Her avoidance and procrastination comes more out of fear than enjoyment. If he really cares, he’ll help her by cooking dinner when she has lots of work to do. And he’ll reassure her that her paper will be fine. He’ll ask what he can do to help rather than badger.
You Make Me Want to Be a Better Person
If you’ve seen As Good As It Gets you may remember Jack Nicholson playing a really grumpy and compulsive writer who falls for the single-mom waitress played by Helen Hunt.
He says to her “You make me want to be a better person.” So how does she do it?
Alright, alright, this is Hollywood, not real life. And Nicholson plays a hybrid character with both OCPD and OCD. Anyone who has had to live with someone who has bad OCPD knows this may be unrealistic. But still, let’s see what we can extract from this.
She looks beyond his callousness to see his good side. He can be very generous. She does what she can to relieve his anxiety. She remembers that she has something to offer him. Anyone as extreme as Nicholson is in this role needs someone to balance them.
And she sets limits.
Setting Boundaries with I Statements
Neither the compulsive partner nor the easy-going should let themselves be treated badly. That would not be helping them be a better person. And, as I’ve said in a previous post, if your partner has a very serious case of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, there is a limit to what you can do other than protect yourself.
Let’s say they’re often late, or expect you to clean up their mess, or seldom plan ahead, or don’t manage money well. These can all have an impact on you and it’s important to let them know that. Use “I” statements rather than “You” statements.
And make specific statements about what they’ve done that was hurtful rather than general statements about who they are.
Returning to John and Sally for a moment. If she goes on lots of spending sprees, he should tell her the impact it has on him, and how it will affect their budget. “We might not be able to afford a vacation.” These are “I” and “We” statements, not ‘”You” statements attacking her character. And still, it’s probably her underlying anxiety that she needs help with, not a lecture.
What About You? The Man Or Woman In The Mirror
So before we start preaching, we should usually ask first: how we might make ourselves better persons in a way that would contribute to our partner’s improvement?
At our core there is a deep desire to grow psychologically. And if you’re Driven, you may have a large dose of it. But when things get tough, when we feel anxious, we may forget about our own need to change, and instead put the pressure on others to do so. If it manifests with an aggressive intensity, question it. What is the anxiety underneath it?
Whichever side of the compulsive/easygoing spectrum you are on, don’t expect your partner to pursue change as ardently as you do.
Here are some things you can do to help your partner:
- Clarify your motivation: if you want to change them, is it really for the other person, or for yourself?
- Appreciate what’s good about the other person rather than try to make them more like yourself.
- Lift them up rather than push them down. Respond to the anxiety underlying their behavior rather than come down at them from above.
- Acknowledge what you need to change about yourself. Unless you’re with a sociopath or narcissist, healthy vulnerability is contagious.