He wants to watch TV rather than spend time with you. She doesn’t have the same vitality and drive that first attracted you to her. He won’t help with the housework. She resists taking that fantastic vacation.
How many times have you wanted to light a fire under your partner to get him or her to do the things they should do (or that you want them to do)? Do you sometimes feel like you are the one making the major effort in your marriage?
Although it can be dangerous to have unrealistic expectations of your partner, there are ways to motivate that will build your relationship rather than harm it.
It’s Not a Statement About You
Often, our partner’s reluctance to do what we want makes us feel unloved.
"If she really loved me, she would want to spend time with my parents." Or, "If he really loved me, he would show more interest in what matters to me."
But this interpretation can go both ways. At the same time you are thinking your partner doesn’t show enough love to you, your partner may be thinking the same of you. "If he really loved me, he would respect my wish to not spend time with his parents." Or, "If she really loved me, she would respect my wish to have time to myself right now rather than having a conversation."
Most of the time, what we sense as our partner’s resistance to us is not really that so much as our partner’s attempt to honor their own needs and interests. For your partner, it’s more about them than about you—and that’s okay.
How We Motivate Our Partners
There are times when you want or even need your partner’s help. The ways of motivating you’ve tried haven’t worked well. Some of them have even caused resentment or conflict.
Are you ready to think about motivation in a different light?
There is a big gap between how we assume people are motivated and what scientific research reveals about how to motivate people.
Daniel Pink, in his bestseller Drive, makes the point that we believe the best way to motivate others is with extrinsic rewards. These are things outside of ourselves, like money, awards, compliments and special favors. They are like the proverbial dangling carrot.
You may have tried extrinsic rewards to motivate your partner: promises, sweet talk, flowers or a chocolate cake. They can work well, but only up to a point and only for a short time.
The proverbial carrot often keeps company with the proverbial stick. The flip side of extrinsic motivation is using the threat or reality of negative consequences. You may lose your temper with your partner and use harmful language. The silent treatment might be more your style. You may have gone so far as to threaten to end the relationship if your partner doesn’t change.
There are times when all of these behaviors are appropriate. You should never allow abuse. Sometimes, it’s necessary to leave a relationship that cannot be salvaged. But these are extreme examples.
Most of the time, using negative consequences and threats is not only unnecessary, it’s counterproductive. Sure, you may get the response you want. Usually, though, the response is insincere and done with resentment or fear. Is that really what you want your partner to feel toward you?
There are times when carrots and sticks are the best tools, but most of the time they don’t get you long-term results and they often backfire.
We use extrinsic reward/threat tactics in every part of our life. Do you motivate your younger children with bribes of special treats or threats of punishment? If you manage others in the workplace, do you rely on rewards and threats for high performance? You may hold power over your teenager through access to the family car, curfews, and special privileges.
A Better Way - Tips from Negotiation
Extrinsic threats work. But intrinsic rewards almost always work better.
What is an intrinsic reward? It’s something that satisfies a deep interest or desire in another person. Money is a great motivator, but money is only a means to satisfy a deeper desire. What is that desire? Is it security, freedom, power, a sense of success, the ability to own things?
Intrinsic desires are different for everyone. When you learn what provides intrinsic motivation for a person, you can then get real, lasting results from your motivation efforts. Here’s how:
1. Ask open-ended questions and really listen to the answers.
When we "know what’s best" for our partner, or when we’re in a hurry, we often ask leading questions. We might seek a yes or no answer. "Don’t you think it’s time to mow the lawn?" "Do you understand how hard it is for me to plan dinner when you’re late?" "Wouldn’t you agree that you spend too much time on your computer?"
Such questions elicit two responses: resistance and shutting down. You may get compliance, but it will be superficial and resentful.
You may truly know what is best for your partner. But that knowledge won’t take you far if they’re not on board with you. It can drive a deeper wedge between you and make it even harder to motivate them.
Instead, ask questions designed to reveal their underlying interests. Questions like, "What would make it easier and more enjoyable to do the yard work? How can I help?" "We both want to eat dinner with one another every night. What would help us cause that to happen?" "Please help me understand why you spend time on the computer."
The next step is equally important. Repeat their answers to them and ask if you understood. "So it sounds like you have a hard time motivating yourself to do the yard work because having a nice yard isn’t as important to you as it used to be. Have I got that right?" The key is striving to understand rather than to judge. Think of the two of you as sitting side-by-side seeking a solution that works for both of you.
2. Check your own motivation.
Answer honestly. Do you care more about changing your partner’s behavior or about being powerful, feeling like a victim, or being right?
If you find yourself thinking condescending thoughts about your partner, you will limit your ability to change their behavior. You sense it when others behave that way with you and you probably don’t like it—neither does your partner.
Sure, you might be able to force your partner to change, but how long will it last? Probably only for as long as you can observe them.
3. Use collaborative language.
So long as you don’t do it in a condescending manner, using your words to help your partner achieve their goals is extremely motivating.
Roger Fisher and Bill Ury, in their classic Getting to Yes, recommend using language to symbolically move the other to your side of the table. Instead of feeling like you are facing one another as adversaries, you both feel that you’re sitting side-by-side facing the problem as the team you are.
This approach can be very motivating. Use open-ended questions like, "How can we work together to achieve that result?" "Since we want the same outcome, how can I support you in making it possible?"
4. Don’t assume you see the problem the same way.
You may want him to spend more time helping you around the house, but he may be motivated to contribute in other ways. You may wish she would break a bad habit, but she may be using that habit to address what she considers a more serious problem.
Ultimately, you both want to contribute to building an inviting home. You both want her success with that underlying problem, but until you acknowledge and address your partner’s primary concerns and preferences, they will resist your efforts to motivate them.
We are intricately intertwined with our partner. As a result, we often want them to change in good ways. Maybe their current behavior hurts us or others. Maybe we recognize their untapped potential. Maybe we want them to change because we love them and want them to live satisfying lives.
However, too often we go about "helping" our partner in the wrong ways. If we really want results and a better relationship, we should update our understanding of how to motivate.