Helping a Loved One Change

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When loved one’s engage in self-destructive behavior, our loving temptation is to point out just where they are going astray. After all, isn’t nudging/nagging/reminding/rebuking the best way to get someone to change? Obviously not or change would happen more readily because most of us have tried it and bought the t-shirt!

The truth of the matter is that as human beings we are very much aware of the negative consequences of our behaviorsââ?¬Â¦..we see the writing on the wall. However, either we see no other alternative or we use that behavior to mask feelings of fear, shame, guilt, rage, stress, or jealousy. A loved one’s lecture is wasted energy; no matter how lovingly given, it will NOT motivate us to change. What it will do, however, is motivate us to withdraw and become even more secretive with our behaviors.


There is a well-known joke among professionals in the psychology field: “How many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer is, “none; the light bulb must first want to change.” It’s not quite so black-and-white with people. For the most part, yes, that’s true; an individual must want to change. However, there are certain ideas that can help foster change in another. Not through lecturing but through loving. Spare the speech of what you would do if you were in their shoes. You’re not in those shoes so let’s not even try imaging being there. It’s simply not possible to foresee what you would do. And here’s what I’ve noticed: When I start being your coach instead of your cheerleader, I push you even further away. Think of an actual sport being played. Instead of cheering you on from the stands (a healthy distance away, where I’m not running your life for you), I’m shaming you from the sidelines (where I can watch and comment on your every move!) I am now your superior, all-knowing and all-wise, leaving you feeling all-resentful!


The most likely way to help a loved one change is to accept who and what they are. Surrendering doesn’t mean endorsing. You don’t have to agree with it, but please accept the reality. Don’t turn a blind-eye; call a spade a spade; but don’t just set out flaming hoops for someone to jump through. Let a professional like me do that – we can be the bad guy and set down the rules. That way you as a partner can remain loving. We all feel resentful when conditions are placed upon us. We feel manipulated by another’s stipulations; even if they are right! We tug against each other’s judgments and conditions. However, when someone embraces us in spite of our self-destructive behaviors we feel completely loved and safe. If I no longer need to resist you and your agenda for me, I can relax into change more easily.


But just because we can’t force change upon another person doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be able to change things ourselves- even if that means changing our circumstances. Here are the things we can always change: our circumstances, attitude, or reactions. Not necessarily in this order, but the C-A-R spells “car” so it’s easy to remember. While I cannot determine another’s behavior, I always have a choice and free-agency in the face of their free-agency.

Be clear about your boundaries, but if you must make a new decision and even leave a relationship or marriage, leave while loving not loathing that person. There is a huge difference between, “You change or else I’m leaving,” to “I see myself as monogamous or sober (or whatever) so I’m choosing to leave ââ?¬Â¦I’m making a new decision about the relationship.” Boundaries must be set without threat or manipulation. They are matter-of-fact.

Don’t set yourself up with the expectation that someone will change; we have little control over that. Decide a personal timeline for yourself, not the other party. Ask yourself, “If things continue as they are, what will my response time be,” and get things in order. I worked with a wife who was always insistent that her husband take better care of himself; he was overweight, had a heart condition, and refused to see his doctor. All her cajoling was to no avail and just created more tension between them. She finally purchased an additional life insurance policy and had him sign it! She could not change him but she could ensure that her and their children would be taken care of in the sad event of his death.


There is a magical word that we all should consider as we review the bigger picture. This key word can turn potentially disastrous days into productive ones. It is good for your health, outlook, and relationship resiliency. For example, “I’m so upset with my partner that all I want are cookies and ice cream – they always comfort me. Nevertheless, there is a better way to manage my emotions; I’m going to clean out my bedroom closet with all this energy!” Or, “Yes, my partner is still hiding and drinking too much alcohol, nevertheless, I do see that he gets up on time and goes to work everyday and he is playing more with the children after school.”

While there indeed may be one area that’s blaring loudly (like too much drinking or other unhealthy behaviors) there are other things that our loved one is attending to that are working favorably. None of us want another to hold sobriety, church attendance, values, or a healthier lifestyle over our heads. If we are really honest with ourselves we all typically put the brakes on when conditions are laid out. Again, I’m not saying that boundaries should not be determined for yourself, but if you are fixated only on the things that need to change, your heart cannot be open, you will not be perceived as loving and safe, and your loved one will retreat even more.


I am a firm believer in taking action and not just letting things be as they are when a loved one is in serious trouble. But how do you take action without them taking offense?

Wayne Gretsky said, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” Decide you can do something. Stop blaming yourself and the other person for the situation at hand. Taking responsibility is different from taking blame. When a relationship is in trouble, it’s similar to house on fire. We could stand around trying to figure out who started the blaze, why it spread so quickly, and who we’re going to sue when it’s over, or we can get ourselves and anyone else out of the building to safety. Get resources from experts; the problems we have cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them. More damage is done by doing nothing. We suffer “analysis paralysis” when we get so caught up in our churning thoughts that we never take action. Resolution of any situation takes action.

Bottom line: Stay one’s cheerleader; get professional intervention when needed; and love another into a safe haven where change becomes most likely because there is no insistence. And, be willing to know yourself well enough to know your personal limits. If you need to make a new decision about a relationship, accept that you are the one to make the change.