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When You Want to Change a Loved One

When You Want to Change a Loved OneWe know that we can’t change others. But many of us still try.

“More people suffer from trying to change others than from any other sickness,” according to psychologists Henry Cloud, Ph.D, and John Townsend, Ph.D, in their bestselling book Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life

Many of us try nagging, begging, yelling, guilt trips, even throwing temper tantrums and other ploys to get through to a loved one.

Or we realize that controlling someone else is simply impossible. And there’s absolutely nothing we can do – even when that person’s behavior affects us for the worse.

Or is there?

In Boundaries Cloud and Townsend share 10 laws for setting limits. One of their laws is called the law of power.

According to the authors, while we can’t control others, we can influence them by focusing on ourselves.

Since you can’t get them to change, you must change yourself so their destructive patterns no longer work on you. Change your way of dealing with them; they may be motivated to change if their old ways no longer work.

Once we relinquish the need to control others, an incredible thing happens: We become healthier (maybe even more at peace). And that person you finally stopped trying to control may even “notice and envy your health. They may want some of what you have.”

The reality is that nagging someone to change their behavior — along with other similar tactics — only perpetuates the problem.

Instead, the best approach is to accept how someone is, respect their choice for being that way, and establish clear-cut consequences, according to the authors.

In other words, this means setting solid boundaries. It means figuring out what you’re comfortable with, and what you’re not comfortable with. It means clearly communicating to others what you’re willing to tolerate and the consequences of crossing those boundaries.

As Cloud and Townsend write, it means taking power over what you actually do have power over: yourself.

They feature several examples of this approach in action. For instance, before setting a boundary, an individual might’ve said to someone: “Stop yelling at me. You must be nicer.”

On the other hand, after creating a boundary, the individual would say: “You can continue to yell if you choose to. But I will choose not to be in your presence when you act that way.”

The first statements rarely work. They put you at the mercy of someone else’s actions. In the second set of statements, though, you ensure that you’re protected — regardless of whether the other person decides to meet your request.

Similarly, saying the following won’t get you very far: “You’ve just got to stop drinking. It’s ruining our family. Please listen. You’re wrecking our lives.”

However, the below statements focus solely on you and your actions, clearly communicating your boundary and the consequences of crossing it:

“You may choose not to deal with your drinking if you want. But I will not continue to expose myself and the children to this chaos. The next time you are drunk, we will go to the Wilsons’ for the night, and we will tell them why we are there. Your drinking is your choice. What I will put up with is mine.”

We may not be able to control others’ negative behavior. But we can empower ourselves by setting strong boundaries and following through when someone breaks them.

This may not feel easy or natural at first. But keep practicing. Setting and maintaining our boundaries isn’t just an empowering act; it’s a liberating one that helps you lead a healthier life.

When You Want to Change a Loved One

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). When You Want to Change a Loved One. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 31 Dec 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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