Can We Change in Our Relationships?

change in relationshipsIt’s possible to break free of bad habits when it comes to relationships.

“Can a person really change?” This is a question I hear a lot when people are talking about struggles in their relationships. They wonder if their partner will ever start being more romantic or stop getting in such bad moods. It’s easy to dwell on that which we cannot control, but the truth is there is a lot we can. By taking charge of our half of the dynamic, we give our relationship at least a 50 percent better chance of survival. We can’t make another person change, but we can develop ourselves in ways that would encourage our partner to reciprocate. Then, if we’re still not getting what we want from the relationship, we are in a far better position to make a decision about moving on.

So, how can we make changes that will actually alter and improve the dynamics of our relationship? What attachment research tells us is that real change becomes possible when we’re willing to look at our history. According to attachment research from Mary Main and Erik Hesse, the biggest predictor of how we’ll be as parents isn’t what we experienced as children, but how much we were able to make sense of and feel the full pain of those experiences. This statement can be applied to all of our closest interpersonal relationships.

Our ideas about relationships  are formed very early in our lives. Our attachments with important caretakers create our “internal working models” for how relationships work. Throughout our lives, without even knowing it, we may act based on these old ideas, and many of our reactions in our current relationships may be echoes of the past, a subject I talk more about in the blog “Where Our Relationship Patterns Come From.”

As we uncover the attachment style we experienced as children and the effects it can have on the ways we relate, we can start to better understand our current behavior. We can come to know where our insecurities come from, why we react negatively or emotionally to specific interactions, why we pull away from loved ones, or whatever destructive dynamics we may be bringing to the table. We can learn what triggers us and even uncover the reasons why we choose the partners we do. Making sense of our experiences leads us to no longer be ruled by them. Peeling away our past from the present involves some key steps, which include:

Recognizing negative self-talk. We can start to become aware of a destructive, self-limiting thought process known as the “critical inner voice.” This voice is both shaped by and fuels our negative ideas about ourselves and relationships in general, reinforcing old messages like: “You are undeserving of love.” “You can’t trust him; he’ll leave you.” “She doesn’t really care about you. No one does.”  As we notice it, we can start to challenge this “voice” and its intrusion on our relationships.

Noticing patterns and triggers. Once we understand how our past influences our present, we can recognize when we are being triggered by the past. If we feel flooded by emotions like jealousy, suspicion, fear, or rage, we can start to understand that sometimes these reactions have more to do with emotional triggers from long ago than they do with what’s going on in the moment. We can also see ways we may be projecting onto our partner or turning on ourselves in moments when we’re triggered.

Choosing our actions. When we’re able to stop and notice when we’re triggered, we can make better choices about how we want to act in our relationships. Even though we may be having a strong emotional reaction, we can take some time to calm down, reflect, and choose how we want to act. What actions are in sync with our ultimate goals? Taking this time to pause and evaluate helps us to separate our present from our past and not fall victim to our emotions.

Making better choices. In addition to choosing our own actions and deciding how we want to be in our relationships, we can make better choices about who we want to be with. When we find people who have a healthier attachment style than ours, we can actually form a secure attachment. This helps us to change our internal working models and restructure our ideas and expectations about love.

Everyone struggles to some degree when it comes to getting close to someone else. In a course I co-lead with Dr. Daniel Siegel, “Making Sense of Your Life,” we explain how the steps of creating a coherent narrative can help us to grow and evolve to become who we want to be in our relationships. We can all develop in our relationships when we’re willing to take the challenge of creating this type of narrative of our past, so we can understand ways we may be limiting ourselves in the present. We can even encourage our loved ones to do the same in a way that is compassionate and supportive. By taking these steps, we can achieve real change and become more loving and secure in our relationships.

Learn more about the eCourse with Drs. Lisa Firestone and Daniel Siegel, “Making Sense of Your Life.”

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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Hi, I’m alone for several yarrs after divorcing, I’m so unhappy about that , but I shamed to go to a psychologist or even reveal it to my friends.
I need to find someone, but I don’t know how to do that. I think the only thing that you can’t buy in your life, or even you can’t earn it with your effort , is the somebody’s heart .

Joanna Ruckenstein

Hi Gita,

I’m sorry that you got divorced. Yes it’s true that you can’t buy somebody’s heart. You can only hope they will open it to you and share their intimate selves with you.
I think it would be a wonderful idea for you to talk to someone. I have done it, and still do it. It is so important to know why we are the way we are. I believe that so many relationships fail because partners aren’t willing to look at themselves or make important changes that would help improve their relationships for the long run. If you are unsure of what kind of therapy you need, perhaps we can chat by email and I can give you some options based on what I’ve experienced.

I hope you find the courage to seek help, as going about life all alone makes it much more difficult. When I had to heal from a tough time recently I decided to surround myself with those who love me, coupled with seeking out the right professional help for my healing…and it has made a world of difference. The last time I had a rough patch in my life, I avoided people, I became bitter and closed off…so the healing took much longer.

Best of luck to you and remember the strong person you have always been and the positive effect you have for this world. Nobody and no situation must take that away from you 🙂



Hei, the person You have to love first are yourself, get knowing yourself better, making changes on things that do not make You happy or as You want to be, like been alone. You have to be comfortable and happy been alone first, than been with other will be av choise


I have been in a relationship for over a year and a half. I believe that my attachment and his attachment styles are probably the same and thus we are not compatible. I was abused severely and grossly neglectly as a child. I do feel that I have never been able to form any real bond with anyone until this relationship. I was absolutely disassociative regarding my family as a child and that will probably never change. He was taught early in his life that no one can be trusted and that you can never tell someone the truth or they can hurt you. He witnessed severe domestic violence and likely has never recovered from this. I recently discovered he has cheated on me multiple times. He stated that this is a form of Sexual addiction manifesting since he has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse and been in recovery for close to 2 years. I have felt that none of my needs are met, but since the confrontation and confession he seems interested in applying his knowledge of AA to his sexual addiction, newmy aware he has this problem. I would like to know if there are any books regarding this type of situation, or if you would recommend something specific


Hi Amber,

I am a love addict and have found Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous meetings supportive and helpful. It was not easy or an overnight process to learn how to fill my own emptiness (also from lack of emotionally available parents), but each day was an opportunity for me to practice learning how to bring love within myself. My heart goes out to you and your partner as you reassuring you that it is possible to move beyond from the challenges you grew up with.

Nikki Brown

I am in a relationship that I know isn’t at all good for my self-esteem and it makes me have very little respect for myself.
I have been known to get involved in these types of relationships thst leave me feeling disgusted with myself.
Every man I have been with in some sort of way ended up treating me very porrly.
My current situation the man is 9 years my junior and he has issues with outburst if anger, rage, cursing or he will not speak to me at all. Yet I find myself not having the ability to walk away
I have always found it important to not go to sleep or leave the home from one another angry yet he seems to not care about those feelings that I have on the matter so it seems like each day I wake up and because he seems to be happy to feed on his positive energy forgetting about the night before.
Until of course it happens again.
This man does a great deal of nice things for me in my life.
This also has influenced my decision on leaving him or letting him go.
However, his distance and his anger and cruelty has caused me to have such a great deal of depression.
I need help and I feel like I have no one to turn to.
I need some advice on how to become strong enough to stand up to his negative behavior.
To know if i am trule casuing this .

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