How do I ask for things to change?
This is a popular question and it’s one I get asked a lot as a psychotherapist and counselor. A lot of you out there want to make changes or ask for something different in your relationships, but you are too afraid to ask.
Reasons vary but these fears (common as they are) are rooted ultimately in the fear of conflict and confrontation—afraid the person on the other side will get mad, get defensive (and fight), will feel hurt and trigger guilt for the asker.
It’s true: When someone makes a shift with a partner, that partner can and sometimes does flip out. This doesn’t mean you have done anything wrong. The reaction is based on a psychological dynamic called System Resistance.
What is System Resistance?
Most people quite naturally resist change because, for good or for bad, all systems want to continue behaving and acting as they always have. Think of it as smooth sailing. Then comes change, and changing a system is disruptive in some way, no matter what.
When an intimate partner makes a shift or asks to change some aspect of a relationship, even if it is a simple, “I would like us to start hanging out with my friends” request, it triggers an unconscious fear of abandonment. With fear comes what: conflict.
- What do you mean by that? I never asked you to give up your friends?
- It isn’t my fault that you always say, “I don’t care what we do,” and now you are upset with me?
Use reassuring statements such as, “Honey, I know it can bring up uncomfortable feelings when somebody in a relationship suggests changes, that is so normal. I care about you, I am not going anywhere, I am just trying to reevaluate some things in our relationship that could help me to feel more comfortable. That is only a win-win for both of us.”
Another good response goes like this, “Thanks for listening and let’s think about how we can both get what we want. I know we can do this. We have so many great strengths in our relationship.”
Discomfort in change is normal. If the fear is too strong, the person may suffer from control issues. You can still use the same approach, but you might experience more resistance.
If you’ve had a courageous conversation, good for you. How did it go? It’s better to say what you want, rather than say nothing and feel resentful. A healthy relationship is not without challenges, but the core condition of the healthy relationship revolves around personal freedom, mutual respect and admiration, and feeling supported and encouraged.
Cherilynn Veland, MSW, LCSW, is a counselor and coach based in Chicago. She has been helping individuals, couples and families for more than 20 years. She is author of Stop Giving It Away, a new book about developing healthier relationships with yourself and others. The Stop Giving It Away movement aims to stop the detrimental level of self-sacrifice in which many women live and work. For more insight, get a copy of Stop Giving It Away.