How do you make difficult decisions with your partner? What is the best way to go about the uncomfortable task of asking your significant other to change? The Medium recently sat down with Ph.D. student Natalie Sisson to discuss the issue of change in relationships.

            Sisson first got interested in researching romantic relationships during her undergraduate studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. She was originally interested in narcissism and in how to change maladaptive habits in partners. Sisson then joined the U of T community for her Master’s degree and is currently completing her Ph.D. degree at Dr. Emily Impett’s Relationships and Well-being Lab.

            Her current project is examining better ways to ask a partner to change. “What’s in the partner regulation body of research is that change is really difficult. It’s one of the ways people try to tackle persistent conflicts in the relationship [such as] how to spend money or lose weight or stop smoking. I was really interested in how we could better facilitate solving these persistent conflicts,” explains Sisson. 

            The first important thing, she notes, is that being direct is always the best way to approach change. Though it may be uncomfortable, “the research has shown that being direct and clear about what you want is much more effective than being indirect, or not asking at all.”

            Sisson also stresses the importance of motivation when it comes to making change. Gratitude, they’ve found, is a big facilitator. When an individual feels that their partner is more grateful and appreciative of their efforts, they are, in turn, more motivated to continue to change. This is driven by a concept Sisson identifies as “self-focused autonomous motivation.”

“What we’ve found is that people who feel like they’re really [making] this change for intrinsically motivated [and] autonomous reasons, because it’s something that feels personally meaningful and satisfying, are more likely to keep making an effort to change,” Sisson says. 

            This view of motivation comes from what is known as the self-determination theory. “Self-determination theory posits that people have three important needs: a need for competence, relatedness, and autonomy.” Being asked to change can negatively impact the sense of control and competence while gratitude can go a long way in regaining it. Sisson explains further: “People in romantic relationships are generally very motivated to meet each other’s needs, even if that requires that they make a change, so when they get the message that they’re meeting those needs and helping their partner, it can feel very positive.”

            When tested against other positive forms of feedback, gratitude was associated with greater motivation, especially in terms of resulting in self-focused motivation. Sisson is part of a group which aims to test this phenomenon further through a recently-launched study tracking couples in their efforts to change across nine months. The experiment will be conducted by examining longitudinal diaries through which the team hopes to determine whether motivation actually maps out onto long-term change and whether gratitude can help maintain this motivation.

            The way one expresses gratitude can also play a huge role. When thanking your partner, it can be more beneficial to highlight how they helped you instead of referencing the trouble it may have taken them. “People like to hear that what they’ve done did actually help their partner,” Sisson advises. This idea parallels the growing popularity of items such as gratitude and mindfulness journals which aim to encourage daily feelings of reflection and gratitude in all aspects of life including romance.

            Sisson concludes by reiterating how communication through the whole process is key. “It’s not only important how you ask them to change, it’s important how you recognize and respond to their efforts to change.”

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