A friend asked an interesting question. “Can I love someone into changing?” She is married to a man who has many issues, and she’s finding it is harder and harder to live with him.  She wonders why her love hasn’t been enough to inspire him to change. Doesn’t love conquer all?

Forget all the romantic movies you’ve seen that portray the power of love reshaping a partner into a new person. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but that script doesn’t typically translate in real life. However it doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do.

You can support a person who decides to make changes in their life. And you can love them through the process. But you can’t force the changes for them. They have to want to change, think it is important and then do the work. If they are serious, change is possible. In fact, when I hear someone say, “This is who I am. Take it or leave it. I can’t change,” I don’t buy it. What they really mean is they don’t want to change or are truly afraid they can’t.

Also keep in mind: Change is not dependent on how others act. Yet so many people use the excuse, “If only she or he would …” If you believe this excuse, you will  wait a long time for change because it’s the wrong focus. Change is not about what other people do.

Think about it. How many approaches have you tried to get another person to change? Maybe you tried to build their confidence, give advice or even suggest a good self-help book. You thought, if only he or she would get their act together, they would be such a great person. Maybe. But when is that going to happen?

Then you start to doubt yourself. Why isn’t my love enough? Why doesn’t all my support make a difference? I love this person, but it hurts because they won’t work on their issues. Deep down you know that you can’t be responsible for another person’s thoughts and actions.

So, while you can’t make another person change, you can encourage change in a good way. Here are a few healthy ways:

  1. Work on changing you. People notice when you make a significant change. For example, let’s say you stop being rude and your friend says, “Something is different about you. What’s going on? You are kinder to people.”  Working on yourself may inspire others to do the same. This is also called leading by example. So tackle a change you need to make and see if others follow.
  2. Avoid the righting reflex. When someone is ambivalent about change, don’t give advice and tell them what to do. This urge to fix others is called the righting reflex. It is the need to advise someone as to what they should be doing. The problem is that when you do this, they often resist even more. And your advice has the opposite effect. Think about it. If your co-worker nags you to clean up your desk, does it motivate you? Or do you think to yourself, he doesn’t tell me what to do! And the desk stays a mess? Most of us fight against directives preferring to maintain the status quo. So resist the urge to tell the person how they need to change. Instead, ask about their motivation to change. How would their life be different? Does a problem get in the way of their goals, etc.? Avoid giving advice unless they ask you for it.
  3. Give less information and do more listening.  When someone needs to make a change, they may want to process the possible ramifications of what that would look like or mean. And they most likely already know what they need to do. So giving a boatload of information is not always helpful. For example, the doctor tells you to lose weight and gives you a list of diet instructions. The information isn’t helpful because you well know you need to lose weight and have  already tried what is on the list. That’s not the issue. You didn’t need more information. So instead of piling on information or advice, try being a good listener. Most people will come up with their own ideas of what works for them when they are ready to change.
  4. Talk about the obstacles to change. Most of us get stuck because of the obstacles to change. Obstacles are important to think about because they prevent change from happening when not addressed. If you want to be helpful, talk about what makes change difficult. What gets in the way?  Ask the person how they would deal with those obstacles. For example, your friend wants to cut down on drinking but goes out after work with people who drink. Every night. In order to cut down drinking, she would have to stop joining the work crowd or, choose non-alcoholic alternatives. Could she do either of those or would she still be tempted? What does she think would work?  Ask how she would handle this tempting situation. Get her to problem-solve how she could reach her goal. Clearing the obstacles is key to success.
  5. Reinforce previous change. To do this, simply talk about something the person has successfully changed in the past. Focus on that win. How did they do it? What did it take to make that change? These thoughts will serve as a reminder that change is possible. They’ve done it once before. Sometimes we need to remember our successes to encourage change.

In the end, change comes when the person thinks it is important, has the confidence to do it and is ready. Your love can’t short cut that process, but you sure can support it.

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