How Should You React When Your Partner Asks You To Change?

Researchers break down what to do when your partner asks you to change for the sake of the relationship.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | April 29, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explores adaptive ways in which a 'changing partner' (person being asked to change in a relationship) can manage their negative emotions while incorporating a change that the 'requesting partner' (person asking their partner to change) asks of them.

I recently spoke to researchers Natalie Sisson, Grace Wang, Bonnie Le, Jennifer E. Stellar, and Emily A. Impett to understand the delicate process of requesting partner change. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the suppression and reappraisal in partner change outcomes, how did you study it, and what did you find?

My interest in partner change (i.e., changes people ask their romantic partners to make) began when I noticed how much it seemed to be a focus of popular culture surrounding relationships.

The question is always "Can people really change?" and research suggests they can and do change over time, but way less is known about how people can effectively change to meet a partner's request.

Being asked to change can evoke some intense emotions, and so looking at ways people being asked to change could manage these emotions in an adaptive way seemed like a natural place to start.

We investigated how romantic partners being asked to change (i.e., changing partners) managed their emotions in response to change requests through suppression (i.e., concealing their negative emotions) and reappraisal (i.e., changing the way they think about the situation).

In Study 1, we examined partner change in the laboratory where couples discussed requested changes, and we followed up with them two weeks later.

In Study 2, we examined partner change in daily life by asking couples to complete weekly online surveys over the course of 8 weeks.

Changing partners reported the extent to which they engaged in suppression and reappraisal and both partners reported the extent to which they felt changing partners made progress towards changing (in both studies) and how well changing partners were meeting the requesting partner's ideal (i.e., their concept of an ideal romantic partner) (in Study 2).

We found that suppression was not linked to better or worse change outcomes. Although changing partners who suppressed their emotions in the short-term (more than they usually did) reported being closer to their partner's ideal, changing partners who suppressed more than others felt further from their partner's ideal.

However, changing partners that engaged in more reappraisal reported better change outcomes, and their partners (who requested the change) also felt that changing partners who reappraised more made more change progress.

Reappraisal was also linked to changing partners feeling closer to meeting the requesting partner's ideal.

Overall, this research highlights reinterpreting change requests as a potentially helpful strategy for managing negative emotions and promoting more successful partner change.

Why might asking a partner to change cause negative emotions such as anger and embarrassment in the changing partner?

Receiving a request to change from a partner might lead to people feeling negative emotions because it may serve as a signal that they are not living up to their partner's expectations or that their partner is unhappy with them or their relationship.

Given that people in romantic relationships generally strive to meet each other's needs, hearing that they are failing to do so can be upsetting and even demotivating.

If they disagree with their partner and think that they do not need to make the change their partner is requesting, this may also fuel conflict and resentment toward the requesting partner.

What would suppression look like emotionally for an individual asking for their partner to change? What might the effects of this be?

While the main focus of this paper was reappraisal and suppression by the changing partner, we did also measure emotion regulation in partners requesting the change.

Suppression in the partner requesting change may involve trying to conceal or minimize their negative emotions about the changing partner or what they would like them to change.

For example, requesting partners may hide how much the changing partner's behavior upsets or frustrates them, or may act like the change request is less serious than they feel it is. They may also hide negative feelings like anger or sadness that could come from feeling like the changing partner is not making enough effort toward pursuing the change or trying to meet their request.

I suspect that this would make it harder for requesting partners to clearly communicate with the changing partner about what they would like them to change or how effective their efforts are, which we know is detrimental to change outcomes.

In some additional analyses for Study 2 (where we examined partner change on a week-to-week basis) we actually explored how suppression by requesting partners was linked to outcomes.

We found that requesting partners who suppressed their emotions more than other participants reported that the changing partner was further from their ideal over the course of 8 weeks.

This also suggests some potential drawbacks of requesting partners suppressing their emotions, but further research is needed to understand the implications of emotion regulation in requesting partners.

Please describe what the process of reappraisal would look like in the context of trying to change for a partner?

Reappraisal generally involves thinking about a situation in a new way to alter its emotional impact or personal meaning. In the context of partner change, changing partners could choose to reinterpret a request that may make them feel inadequate in their partner's eyes as instead a signal that their partner wants to help them grow and become a better version of themselves.

Reappraisal may also involve seeing the change request as a sign of their partner's commitment to them and improving the relationship, which may be both more motivating and less upsetting.

While we did not investigate the particular ways in which our participants reappraised in response to change requests, this will be important for future research to explore.

This is because reappraisal can also be maladaptive in certain contexts. For example, trying to reduce the emotional impact of a change request by thinking that the requesting partner was joking or not serious may make the requesting partner feel ignored and would likely fail to help motivate changing partners to make change progress.

Why may a changing partner lack the motivation to change as per their partner's request? What would cause this change to fail?

This work suggests that changing partners who struggle to manage their negative emotions about being asked to change in an effective way (e.g., they may suppress their emotions more than people typically do) may also struggle to make progress towards their partner's requested change.

These potential consequences are highlighted by the finding that changing partners who suppressed more than other participants reported being further from the requesting partner's ideal over the course of several weeks.

Previous research also suggests that suppressing one's emotions can feel inauthentic, which might also make it difficult for changing partners to pursue a requested change.

However, suppression was not consistently linked to better or worse change outcomes, which suggests that contextual factors such as the difficulty of the requested change may shape when suppression is more or less harmful in ways that research has not yet explored.

I suspect that there are also additional factors that might lead to changing partners ultimately failing to change. Specifically, it is likely that changing partners who are not given a clear change request would struggle to find concrete ways to work towards their partner's request.

For example, asking a partner to put more effort into the relationship does not make it clear to the changing partner which behaviors the requesting partner is referring to. This could refer to any number of domains, including helping with chores, communicating more, or even planning date nights.

Further, changing partners may also lack motivation to make changes they think are impossible or beyond their control.

For example, changing partners who believe that personality is stable and does not change would likely be reluctant to try and become more extraverted if their partner asked them to.

What practical advice do you have for couples trying to elicit change for the better of their relationship? What do you want them to take away from this study?

From partner change literature more broadly, we know that this begins with an effective change request. A clear and direct change request (as opposed to one that is vague or implicit) communicates that there is an issue in the relationship and may help changing partners determine what they can do to meet their partner's request.

However, this should also be balanced with support and validation, given that we know change requests are difficult for people to hear. It is likely important that changing partners feel supported during the change process and that requesting partners provide feedback about how things are going.

For example, letting a changing partner know that their efforts to change are making a difference may go a long way in not only promoting change success, but also bringing couples closer together by helping to resolve conflict.

This goes hand in hand with the main takeaway from this work, which is that changing partners may also play a role in change success by managing their negative emotions in response to change requests through adaptive strategies like reappraisal.

Did something unexpected emerge from your research? Something beyond the hypothesis?

Interestingly, we found that suppression by changing partners in the short-term (i.e., engaging in more suppression than usual) was linked to both partners reporting that changing partners were closer to the requesting partner's ideal, whereas changing partners who generally suppressed their emotions more than other participants reported feeling further from their partner's ideal.

This is in line with some recent research suggesting that suppression is not always costly and may even be beneficial in some cases.

For example, suppression may lessen the impact of having an insecurely attached partner on relationship outcomes.

In the context of partner change, suppression in the short term may help changing partners be more present and attentive to their partner's request and keep conversations from escalating into an argument.

However, continually suppressing emotions over time may make it hard for partners to understand or support each other and could even amplify the negative emotions partners are attempting to manage.

Overall, our research highlights that one factor that may shape whether suppression is helpful or harmful is whether it is employed in the short term or is a more consistent habit.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on this topic go in the future?

Yes, we do have plans for further research on partner change. The current work focused on ways in which changing partners might manage their emotions to promote more change success, but of course, the partner requesting the change plays a role in change success as well.

Generally, partner change research has also focused on the initial pieces of the change process (i.e., how partners request change and how changing partners respond to that). However, a key and understudied piece of the process is how partners making the change request respond to changing partners' initial efforts.

We are currently investigating ways that requesting partners might respond to changing partners' efforts to validate the progress they are making or show their appreciation for their partner's efforts to promote more motivation and change success over time.