By J. D. Peterson and Gary Krane
So your relationship isn’t perfect—that’s good! If you thought it was perfect, you’d either be in denial, or putting way too much pressure on your mate, or maybe you’re just unaware of your partner’s dark side (we’ve all got one). Still, you think it could be better (and maybe your partner thinks so too), but when it comes down to actually taking steps to improve the relationship, they’re just not putting in the effort.
If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably been weighing your options for some time (and maybe weighing the amount of hair you’ve pulled out in the process too!). Well, it’s time to take a breather, lay your stress out in front of you, and follow along as we tap into your inner dialogue and try to respond to these difficult questions:
Is my partner’s lack of effort a sign that I should give up on the relationship?
There is no easy answer here, because the decision also depends on how willing YOU are to improve the relationship—and, if there is ANY danger or abuse in the relationship you should put a stop to it. Aside from this, research has shown that over two-thirds of surveyed married males and females who have gone through a separation suggest to other couples who are facing such a decision that it’s better to stay together, and to find ways to work on the relationship (Knox & Corte, 2007).
What if I stay, but my partner never changes? I don’t want to feel like this forever!
Relationships are rarely stable in terms of how each partner feels over time. A survey of marital quality over a period of four years shows just how much these feelings can fluctuate from year to year—as much as nearly doubling the level of reported happiness within an eight-month stretch (Bradbury& Karney, 2004). As the circumstances of life change, you can be sure both you and your partner will change. It’s important to take advantage of opportunities for mutual growth, and to monitor how your partner is responding to them as well. A small comfort can perhaps be found in the fact that, “of those who were very unhappy in their marriages at one time point, two-thirds of those who stayed together were happy 5 years later.” (Stanley, 2002, para. 4)
I’ve decided to keep working on my relationship. Now how do I motivate my partner to help?
To answer this question, let us first put motivation in context. According to the Transtheoretical Model for evaluating stages of readiness to change (Prochaska & DiClemente, 1983), which is still widely used, individuals go through 5 stages of motivation:
Individuals in the precontemplation stage think problems lie within other people and usually attend therapy at the request of someone else. In the contemplation stage, individuals acknowledge their role in problematic behaviors but are hesitant to begin the process of behavioral change. People in the preparation stage report an intention to change and have begun behavioral action but may be ambivalent about specific changes and have not made a firm commitment to change. During the action stage people make overt efforts to change with clear attempts to disrupt problem behaviors. Finally, individuals in the maintenance stage work to stabilize new behaviors and integrate changes made into daily life. (Tambling & Johnson, 2008, p. 230)
If your partner isn’t motivated, they are most likely still in one of the first 3 stages. By referring to this model, you can estimate how much change needs to happen and track your partner’s progress. But before we can consider how to encourage this kind of progress, we must first ask what it means to be unmotivated in a relationship.
Motivation is a precursor to action, not merely consideration; it can be summarized as the reasoning behind committed and sacrificial behavior toward a partner, and can be quite different for men and women. According to S. M. Stanley (2002), feelings of attachment may be the prominent motivational trigger for females, while the decision to be committed is the trigger for males. This may mean that something has prevented your woman from growing attached to you, or pushed you farther from her emotional center than you used to be; or that your man has not yet decided you’re the one for him, or is doubting the reality of that decision.
Another study on motivation suggests that a level of responsibility for a partner’s welfare, or communal motivation, must be present before committed and sacrificial behaviors will naturally occur:
…People who have or desire to establish a communal relationship with partners pay greater attention to their partners’ needs, have more positive reactions to their partners’ expressed emotions, and help their partners more when a need is detected. Greater communal motivation also has been linked to blaming partners less for their failures and giving them more credit for their successes. (Yoo, Clark, Lemay, Salovey, & Monin, 2011, p. 229)
This may mean that your unmotivated partner has not yet taken you on as a responsibility in their life, or has been led to believe you are no longer their responsibility. Due to these findings, it could be beneficial to examine with your partner where you both stand on the issues. Keep in mind, we’re not just talking about how much you care for one another, but how much you are invested in each other. Does she feel attached to you, or have there been fluctuations in her feelings of attachment?—If so, when did they start and why? Has he truly made the decision to be with you, and if so, what is keeping him from acting on it? To what degree do you feel responsible for one another?—Is there a significant difference, and what makes you feel that way?
I have an idea why my partner’s motivation is low, but what can I do to change that?
The first thing to recognize is that you cannot change another person. Change comes from within and must be initiated voluntarily. The most you can do is to give your partner reasons to want to change, or remind them of the reasons that are already in place. To accomplish this, Offra Gerstein (2006) advises that “the request for change should be explained as the need of the requester, rather than be associated with the deficit of the compliant partner,” and offers several appropriate methods to inspire a partner to fulfill those needs:
- Model the behavior you wish to receive.
- Describe to your partner the significance their current behavior has on you and the impact the new behavior will have.
- Reach your partner by relating the new behavior to one of their values.
- Avoid comparisons between you and your partner’s ways.
- Phrase your need for your partner’s behavior change as a request and be pleased with the effort made to accommodate you.
Additional considerations that compliment these strategies include:
- Point out opportunities for your partner to assert themselves in the requested behavior changes.
- Volunteer to pitch in on the work your partner must do to achieve the goals you’ve set (if applicable).
- Encourage and reward your partner’s progress.
- Always try to avoid negative motivation tactics and punishments—things like withholding sex, mirroring your partner’s shortcomings, or outright verbal and nonverbal attacks. These will only exacerbate the problem and create a hostile environment between you that will be twice as difficult to mend.
Improving a relationship or healing from relationship difficulties is never instantaneous, and rarely easy. Once you have a plan in place, you and your partner must work together consistently and over time to develop the results you desire. This can be done within the privacy of your relationship, but it’s almost always beneficial to seek outside consultation—whether in the form of a certified professional, a trusted pastor, a community of family and friends, or an online tool that offers a variety of resources like we do at CoupleWise. Never feel self-conscious or overly proud about asking for help! There are countless people in your situation, and the future of your relationship is too important.
If you or someone you know has fought through the difficulties of motivating a partner to work toward a more successful relationship, we would love to hear about it! Please post your hints, tips, and suggestions, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We might even add them to our Motivate My Partner tool!
- Bradbury, T. N. & Karney, B. R. (2004). Understanding and altering the longitudinal course of marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 66(4), 862-879.
- Gerstein, O. (2006). How to motivate your partner to change. Retrieved Mar. 31, 2011, from http://www.relationshipmatters.com/index.php?%2Farchives%2F3008-How-to-motivate-your-partner-to-change.html
- Knox, D. & Corte, U. (2007). “Work it out/see a counselor”: Advice from spouses in the separation process. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 48(1/2), 79-90.
- Stanley, S. M. (2002). What is it with men and commitment, anyway? Keynote address to the 6th Annual Smart Marriages Conference. Washington D. C.
- Tambling, R. B. & Johnson, L. N. (2008). The relationship between stages of change and outcome in couple therapy. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 36, 229–241.
- Yoo, S. H., Clark, M. S., Lemay, E. P. Jr., Salovey, P., & Monin, J. K. (2011). Responding to partners’ expression of anger: The role of communal motivation. Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 37, 229.