Figuring Out the Stages of Change

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Reader’s Question

My daughter is married to a sociopath. She is the breadwinner; they have been married for nine years, and he has never worked except for a couple of part-time jobs, and he was fired both times. He is a graduate student right now. My daughter is under his complete control. Their four-year-old son is very angry and seems to dislike his father. I am very concerned for my daughter, but mostly for my grandson. I want to talk to my daughter and bring this to her attention, but don’t know how to do it without having her jump to his defense, which is what has happened in the past. Is there a good way to talk to her about this?

Psychologist’s Reply

Talking with people about a problem they have yet to even acknowledge can be very tricky. As you pointed out, if you point the finger at her husband, she will feel compelled to defend him and not hear anything you have to say. Her defense could stem from several causes: she may love her husband and actually benefit from her relationship with him, she may not want to look foolish for being in a destructive relationship for so long, or she may not realize that there is a problem. Consequently, if you want her to hear what you have to say, you have to gently point out the issue without getting her back up.

Change is a very difficult process, so you have to understand that this may require some patience and persistence on your part. Your daughter is most likely in what psychologists call the Precontemplation stage of change. This is when people are in denial about the existence of a problem. Strategies that can help move people beyond this stage include encouraging introspection about the situation, and discussing the risks of continuing current behavior. For example, you could mention some general observations about your grandson’s anger and ask her if she’s noticed. If she has, encourage her to talk with you about them. You could then follow up with your fears for him if his anger continues.

Moving past the Precontemplation stage may take time. It may require numerous conversations in which you make some observations, encourage her to talk about what she sees being wrong, and discuss the risks of continuing the behavior. You could even talk about how other couples and families handle similar issues. For example, sociopaths generally do not exhibit much empathy. So, if your daughter says that her husband never comforts their son when he’s upset, you can casually mention how you saw a father at the playground hug his son when he cried or talk about what you do for your grandson whenever he is with you. What you want to do is plant seeds in her head that something is wrong.

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When these seeds eventually take root, she will move into the Contemplation stage of change. This is when people have conflicting or ambivalent emotions about change. Strategies to use here include weighing the pros and cons of change, identifying the barriers to change, and expressing confidence in their ability to change. The final stages of change include Preparation and Action.

It is very difficult to watch someone you love be in a difficult relationship. I think you are wise to take your time and figure out how best to intervene, without shutting down your sphere of influence. If she ever decides to divorce her husband, she will need you.

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