I manipulate people for a living.
I mean that quite literally. As a divorce lawyer my job is, in essence, to manipulate the emotional state of everybody in the room. I manipulate the judge to feel sympathy toward my client or outrage toward the other side. I manipulate opposing counsel to feel vulnerable, overconfident, empathetic, or whatever amalgam of emotions is needed. I manipulate the opposing party, my client’s estranged husband or wife, to feel exposed, embarrassed, frightened or generous–again, depending entirely on the desired outcome. I manipulate my own client, to feel protected, confident, and, perhaps most important, satisfied enough to pay my bill at the end of the month.
You don’t have to be a lawyer to spend your life arguing and trying to change the minds of the people around you. We are all, from stay-at-home-moms to electricians, engaged daily in the art of argument. Whether we are attempting to convince our school-aged children to brush their teeth without reminders, trying to sell life insurance, or just hoping to get in and out of the DMV within the confines of our lunch hour, we are all trying to accomplish objectives, big or small, against some measure of resistance.
Our culture is fascinated with self-improvement. From our bodies to our financial lives, the idea and appeal of “transformation” is thrust upon us every day. Whether we are “awakening” the “giant” within each of us or “visualizing” our goals with the objective of “believing” as a means to “receiving,” there’s a widely accepted idea that we can modify our habits or mindset to accomplish our dreams.
But I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s easier to change other people than it is to change yourself.
We’ve been indoctrinated to believe that it’s immoral to try to change someone else. We’ve been told that love, real love, is about accepting your partner “for who they are” but that seems to be one of those things we collectively nod our head at, as a culture, but doesn’t really mean anything. We’re constantly changing our romantic partners merely by our presence in their day-to-day lives. They react to us. We react to them. That’s kind of the point of the whole thing. We influence each other’s behavior and, ideally, help each other, together, be the best version of ourselves.
For years, the most favored model of behavior modification was straightforward: praise the positive and punish the negative. After a couple decades of watching how this traditional model of behavior change hasn’t worked for my clients, I’m convinced there’s a better way. The easiest way for you to manipulate your romantic partner is to not only yes, praise behavior you want to see in that person, but also to praise the opposite of the unwelcome behavior the person is been engaged in (rather than attempting to punish it).
It’s quite easy. Find some nugget in his behavior that you want to see more of, even if it’s a truly little, ridiculous thing that you’re going to have to blow out of proportion to get your point across. Let’s say you feel like your partner is a creature of habit and causing both of you to be stuck in a rut rather than trying something new. You could, in the traditional model, make him feel self-conscious and small when, once again, he suggests you go to the same Italian restaurant around the corner from your house that he always suggests – leading to an unproductive discussion that goes something like this:
“Should we just go to the Italian place on around the corner?”
“We always go to that place.”
“Well the food is always good there.”
“I know but you never want to try anything new.”
“Well if it’s good there why would I ever want to try something different and risk it not being good? And didn’t you marry me because I wasn’t someone who runs off chasing new things every five seconds?”
“I know but it’s boring to always go to the same place.”
“You used to love that Italian place!”
Spoiler alert: nobody is “winning” this argument.
Now try it a different way. Wait until your partner does something, literally anything, that shows some hint of the trait you would need to enhance in him. In this case, to get the restaurant result you’re ultimately looking for, it would be something that has an element of spontaneity. Then praise your partner like you’re praising your niece’s performance after one of those atrocious kindergarten “Holiday Concerts”:
“I love that you wore that new shirt today. You looked so sexy in it. It really makes your shoulders look big. I love when you do something unexpected like that. It’s so sexy. It reminds me of when we were first dating.”
Even if you bought him the shirt, give him the credit for the fact he put it on. Double down on the underlying behavior trait and give it way more effusive praise than it’s due. Make it seem like an inspiring moment. Make it seem like he’s accomplished something profound or demonstrated some incredibly positive trait. If dealing with a man, I’m sure I won’t surprise anyone when I say that sex can also be a powerful incentive and positive reinforcement. Praise the potential until the potential becomes the reality. You think he’s not going to want to show you that trait again, soon, when this is the glowing response he got?
Is this dishonest? I don’t think so. Is wearing makeup dishonest? It’s changing the focus, massively accentuating the positive and distracting the eye from the negative. That’s not the same as misrepresentation. At worst, it’s misdirection which, as any magician will tell you, is a key ingredient to magic. But honestly, it’s just a nice way to get what you need. It leaves you or your partner feeling a little bit better and a little bit more loved and appreciated.
It doesn’t even have to be so secretive, if it’s rooted in the positive. For example: Rather than telling your husband how you don’t like his beard, tickle his chin when he’s clean-shaven, or kiss it and comment on how sexy his smooth face looks. It doesn’t take much for us men. A woman in my life once commented to me that I looked “good, a little like Don Draper” when I was freshly shaved. It happens that I tend to grow some scruff if I don’t have a trial going on. But for the rest of that relationship, I shaved every day, including weekends. If she had phrased it differently and told me how she “doesn’t like scruff,” I probably would have resented it.
Is it cynical and distasteful and just plain wrong to suggest that a good, healthy marriage or relationship might feature a steady diet of partners manipulating each other? Not at all. We manipulate our children all the time – promising them rewards if they win the “quiet game” and manage to make the whole car ride home without talking; telling them that “maybe Santa” will bring whatever stupid piece of plastic crap they’re clamoring for in the store so we can get out of there without having to debate about it – and it would be ridiculous to suggest that in doing so, we somehow don’t love them with all our heart.
And you’re not manipulating to serve merely your needs. You do it to serve the greater union of the two of you. If you do it right, you make yourself happier, your partner happier (or at least no less happy) . . . and the marriage incontestably better.
I can’t think of a worthier goal.