Dealing With a Partner Who Doesn't Want Change

Couple arguing

Does your partner complain about not feeling well but won't see a doctor? Does your partner make plans for a romantic evening or getaway with you and then ruin it by being too tired or not feeling well? Does your partner make promises that aren't kept? Does your partner acknowledge that there are problems in your relationship but refuses to change behaviors or see a counselor with you?

If your answer is "yes" to all or most of these questions, it sounds like you have a spouse or partner who either refuses or is not motivated to change. This can create problems that create conflict, hurt your relationship satisfaction, and potentially destroy your relationship.

It is important to find ways to address the issues with your partner and explore options that can help you cope and plan your next steps.

"Change can be a scary word for many people," explains Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Kaiser Permanente in Rockville, Maryland. "It's is a difficult topic and should be managed with great sensitivity."

Here's how to recognize the signs that something needs to change, how to approach having this conversation with your partner, and what to do if your partner does not want to adjust their behavior.

Issues That Damage a Relationship

The frustration of your partner's lack of follow-through on good intentions, saying one thing and then doing another, or breaking promises can slowly erode both the emotional and physical intimacy in your relationship. This frustration can be heightened if your partner refuses to seek couples counseling with you.

What can you do when faced with a partner who has a serious problem or troubling behavior? Here are some examples of a partner's behavior that could destroy or cause major friction in a relationship:

  • Doesn't make time for the children or you
  • Emotionally or physically abusive
  • Frequently unfaithful
  • Gambling
  • Getting drunk often or drinking too much
  • Having a very negative attitude
  • Not able to hold down a job
  • Spending too much money

If your partner won't change, isn't willing to work on improving your relationship, or won't seek help, you may be on the path to a breakup or divorce. There are no easy answers when your partner can see no reason for a change.

Some situations can be dealt with and other situations are deal-breakers. Only you know what you can tolerate and still be emotionally healthy yourself. That said, never endanger yourself or your children by remaining in an abusive situation.

How to Respond

If your relationship is suffering, it is essential to start taking steps if you want to prevent an unhappy relationship from taking a toll on your mental well-being. Some ways you can respond that can help include

Remember You Can't Change Your Partner

It's important to accept that you can't change your partner. You can only change yourself and your own reactions. Changing your own behavior may trigger your partner to change. However, it is not your responsibility to change your partner. You can find ways to support them, but it is up to them to make the change.

Try responding differently to difficult situations. If you've had the same argument over and over, state that you will not rehash the issue and leave the room. If you haven't expressed your feelings previously, share how you feel with your partner.

Sometimes, adjusting your own response to your partner's behavior can shift the conversation in ways that are helpful.

Know Yourself

Get to know yourself and look at your own attitudes, behaviors, expectations, hopes, dreams, memories, concerns, behavior triggers, fears, etc. Ask yourself how long you think you can stay in your relationship if things don't improve.

Consider individual counseling to prevent feeling depressed or helpless, to understand your role in the conflict in your relationship, and to clarify your plans for your future.

Decide which of your partner's negative behaviors you can live with and which ones are deal-breakers. Determine if you can adjust to the irritating and hurtful situations in your relationship.

"Try rating the issue to determine how much that particular issue impacts you on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 equals the greatest severity," Simmons recommends. "This will help you prioritize the issues and gain clarity on whether these are deal-breakers or if you are willing to compromise."

Face The Issues

Your partner may not be as frustrated and unhappy as you are. When sharing your love for your partner, express your concerns and fears about the future of your relationship. If you are having doubts about your love, make a list of what you love about your partner.

Talking about your concerns is not always easy, especially if it is a sensitive topic or if the problem has been simmering for a long time. The only way to change the situation is to tell your partner how you feel and then have a serious discussion about what you can do, both as individuals and as partners, to address the problem.

Don't postpone having a conversation with your partner. Instead, try to identify the behaviors that are creating problems in your relationship and initiate a conversation about what you can both do to improve the situation.

Strategies for Difficult Conversations

So how should a person approach the conversation where they ask their spouse or partner to change? "During any discussion around change with your partner, it is important to discuss the positive aspects as well as the things that are not working well that have led to the discussion about change," Simmons suggests. 

Consider starting the conversation with the things that you appreciate about your partner. Then you can move on to talking about the things that cause conflict in your relationships and provide examples of things that are challenging for you.

Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente

Be careful to limit the discussion to only one or two items requiring consideration of change and avoid having a laundry list of grievances. Be mindful that the outcome may not be exactly what you are seeking and might require several conversations and compromise. 

— Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente

Dr. John Gottman, a clinical psychologist and founder of the Gottman Institute, says your communication patterns can predict the success of your relationship. When uncomfortable topics come up, try these tips for constructive communication:

  • Agree to set a time frame to re-evaluate how things are going.
  • Be warm and not confrontational.
  • Brainstorm and discuss solutions to the problem. Bring up the possibility of couples counseling.
  • Choose a time when neither of you is tired.
  • Clarify how the problem is affecting your relationship.
  • Don't lecture.
  • Identify the problem.
  • Pick a location for the conversation that is free of distractions.
  • Stay on the topic.
  • Talk about what you want in your relationship, not about what you don't want. Explain what makes you both happy and fulfilled.
  • Try saying something like this: "We disagree a lot and it's causing a disconnection between us. That's why I would like for us to go to seek couples therapy." or "I love you and I care about us. I need some help in learning how to communicate with you better. I would like to try counseling with you."

If They Agree to Try

After you have a conversation, the next step involves trying things to improve the situation. This might involve allowing your partner to make changes on their own.

Simmons notes that it is important to give your partner time to make a change, particularly if it is something significant. She also suggests that change is more likely if your partner feels internally motivated instead of being pressured by external mandates.

Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente

You might find it helpful to offer your partner ways to support behaviors that would help them achieve a long-term change. For example, if you want your partner to reduce their anxiety and make time for themselves more often, offer to watch the kids while your partner does something he or she enjoys.

— Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente

"Couples may also consider couples counseling to help them work through the issue, either lessening the intensity, establishing boundaries, or eliminating the challenge," Simmons suggests.

Should You End the Relationship?

At what point should a person consider ending a relationship if their partner refuses to change? Simmons notes that ending a relationship is a difficult and personal choice. There's no simple answer, but there are steps people can take to help make the choice that is right for them.

Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente

Ending a relationship may be necessary if the issue is a major deal-breaker for you that goes against your values or needs in the relationship, or if your partner’s behavior puts you or your family in danger.

— Carol Simmons, PhD, LCSW, Kaiser Permanente


If things are not going well when the two of you are ready to re-evaluate your relationship issues, think about these questions:

  • Is this a temporary crisis or the end of your relationship?
  • What is the best thing that could happen if you stay together?
  • What is the best thing that could happen if you divorce?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if you stay together?
  • What is the worst thing that could happen if you divorce?

Perhaps the greatest decider is how willing your partner is to engage in the process of saving your relationship. If they won't change, won't make any effort to improve the relationship, and you've already explored other options such as couples counseling, then Simmons suggests it's time to consider ending the relationship for your own sake.

"If you have a gut feeling that the relationship is no longer healthy or fulfilling, despite your best efforts to make it work, it may be time to consider ending the relationship and seeking out a healthier and more fulfilling one," she recommends.

A Word From Verywell 

There are no easy answers when only one of you is willing to address your relationship issues. There are things that you can do that may help improve your ability to cope with the situation, but ending the relationship is also an option. Only you can decide what is right for you. 

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Resources for Families Coping with Mental and Substance Use Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

  2. American Psychiatric Association. Helping a loved one cope with a mental illness.

  3. Gottman J, Silver N. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, NY: Crown Publishers; 1999.

  4. Karney BR. Keeping Marriages Healthy, and Why It's So Difficult. Psychological Science Agenda.

By Sheri Stritof
Sheri Stritof has written about marriage and relationships for 20+ years. She's the co-author of The Everything Great Marriage Book.