Does the effort of changing your behavior to increase your partner’s happiness make a difference? It turns out it does… but only if your partner sees it and believes it.
In a new Northwestern University study, professors Hui, Bond, and Molden studied romantic couples and found that the more you think your partner is incapable of changing, the more your partner’s sincere efforts fail to improve the relationship. Conversely, the more you believe your partner is capable of change and trying to improve, the more secure and happy you will feel in your relationship. This is true even if you feel they still could do more.
“The secret to building a happy relationship is to embrace the idea that your partner can change,” says Molden, “to give him or her credit for making these types of efforts and to resist blaming him or her for not trying hard enough all of the time.”
What is important about this formula is that there are two parts to it. The first is obvious and one unhappy partners know well: in order for happiness to grow in a relationship, both people have to be willing to grow and change and act in ways that make their partner happier. But the second part of the formula is less commonly recognized: those efforts only work if the other person sees the effort, appreciates it, and believes that their partner is capable of the change.
This second part is key, because so often couples get into a cycle of negative perception of the other and all efforts go unnoticed and/or viewed with skepticism. This creates a cycle of frustration, apathy, and despair, and can often lead to the dissolution of the relationship. However, once both members of the couple begin to believe that the other person is working to better the relationship, and begin to have faith that things could change, they can experience the relationship entirely differently, even if actual changes have not yet been that great.
Growth and change is never easy. It can take time, and often takes encouragement and feelings of success along the way. It is up to us then, as much as our partners, to not only work towards creating a greater happiness, but to also believe in the possibility that growth and change are possible, and that the partner we have chosen is capable of it as much as we are.
Samantha Smithstein, Psy.D.