A new study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships explores healthy ways in which a ‘changing partner’ can control their negative emotions while making a change that the ‘requesting partner’ asks them to make.
“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 question,” says psychologist Natalie Sisson of the University of Toronto, Mississauga.
To understand the emotional reactions of changing partners, the researchers conducted two studies where they tracked partner changes in a laboratory setting as well as in participants’ own homes.
Specifically, the study compared two approaches people usually take when met with a request for change:
- Suppression: when either partner tries to conceal or minimize their negative emotions around the request
- Reappraisal: when either partner thinks about the situation in a new way to alter its emotional impact or personal meaning
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 and how well changing partners were meeting the requesting partner’s ideal vision (i.e., their concept of an ideal romantic partner).
- Changing partners who suppressed more than others felt further from their partner’s ideal
- 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 made more change progress.
“Overall, this research highlights reinterpreting change requests (i.e., reappraisal) as a potentially helpful strategy for managing negative emotions and promoting more successful partner change,” highlights Sisson.
Sisson emphasizes that feeling negative emotions such as anger and embarrassment is a completely natural part of the process of changing.
“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,” says Sisson. “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.”
Reappraisal, therefore, proves to be a healthy way in which partners can request as well as incorporate changes in their relationship.
Sisson suggests two ways that changing partners can alter their perspective to better adapt to the change request:
- 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
Sisson also points out that the effort has to be on both sides — from the requesting partner as well as the changing partner.
To ensure a smooth and conflict-free alteration in a relationship, the requesting partner must:
- Make 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. 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.
- Be supportive. A change request should also be balanced with support and validation, given that we know change requests are difficult to hear. It is also important that changing partners feel supported during the change process and that requesting partners provide feedback about how things are going.
A full interview with Natalie Sisson and her colleagues discussing this new research can be found here: How should you react when your partner asks you to change?