Fifty shades of grey: 7 ways to promote change in your partner


Since writing the article Fifty shades of grey: awakening women’s sexual identities many readers have asked me to elaborate on a variety of topics related to the best-selling book series Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.  One question that has repeatedly come up is ‘How can I promote change in my partner, the way Ana did in Fifty Shades?’  As a clinical psychologist in private practice, I often help people improve their romantic relationships by helping them build communication skills, gain insights to their own perceptions about dating and marriage, and develop existing social skills so that their relationships are more fulfilling and enjoyable.  It’s not uncommon for people to want their partners to change as a way to improve their relationship, much like the characters in the book Fifty Shades of Grey.  This article serves to offer professional advice from a clinical psychologist on how to get what you want from your partner, and improve your relationship for the better.

1. In order to get what you want out of a relationship, you have to ask for it. 

  • It sounds simple, but a lot of women assume that their partner should know what they want.  Girls are often socially reinforced to be more socially subtle and indirect, while boys are often socially reinforced to be more direct and straightforward in their communication style.  So when women expect men to pick up on subtle clues about their needs in a relationship, and then get angry when their partner doesn’t “get it” this only leads to further miscommunication and fights—not change.  Ask for what you want, and explain your reasoning (using both logical and emotional sources).  Then give your partner a chance to share their perspective, and give them the attention/consideration you’d like to receive.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Ana was initially reluctant to share with Christian her desire for a deeper emotional connection with him.  Like many women, she was afraid of wanting ‘more from the relationship’ than her partner, so she chose to wait for him to take these steps on his own.  She tried to engage in the relationship on Christian’s terms, in spite of her obvious discomfort with some of his sexual preferences/habits, and his inclination to keep her at arms length, emotionally.  Ana eventually came to realize she couldn’t be happy with what he was offering her, and chose to walk away when he struggled to meet her needs in their relationship.  When Ana finally made it clear what she needed from the relationship in order for it to work, Christian began the process of challenging himself to compromise and change himself in order to meet her needs. 

2.  Timing is everything (when it comes to communication!)

  • When initiating some conversations, especially ones that are likely to be emotional in nature, timing is essential.  Men are generally more comfortable and willing to open up to the possibility of change when they don’t feel pressured and put on the spot.  A lot of guys need time to think and analyze the situation before they are ready to respond, let alone agree to change immediately.  By giving your partner time to think over your concern without pressure, you’re more likely to get a positive response.  It can also be helpful to raise certain topics during an activity, like a long walk, drive or other simple task, rather than saying “we need to talk” and then expecting them to engage in long, emotion-filled, face-to-face conversation.  While women are often accustomed to simply chatting with their girlfriends, men are often more comfortable having conversations with their friends while doing a mutually engaging activity.

In Fifty Shades of Grey, Christian demonstrates to Ana he needs time to absorb and consider the changes she needs in order for their relationship to work.  Initially, his reaction to her is “this is who I am, and I can’t change.”  Further, Ana and Christian attempt to resolve their conflicts when both of them are already emotionally and/or physically charged, which proves to be unsuccessful in several scenes.  Both of them often needed time to cool off after an argument, and re-assess where they were willing to make compromises for each other.  The author made a point of allowing their relationship to develop and overcome obstacles in small, realistic steps.   

 3.  Lead by example.

  • It’s often very helpful to take initiative in a relationship, and lead by example.  Be willing to find out if there are things your partner would like to see you change, and take them into serious consideration.  Take the approach that you want the relationship to grow in a positive direction for BOTH of you.  If your partner sees that you are willing to meet his needs in a way that might be initially challenging for you, he will be much more willing to change for the sake of the relationship too.  Try to resist the urge to keep score.  No one wants to feel like they’re in a relationship with the relationship police!  As long as both people are working on change, this is positive growth.  It’s not a competition and there is no finish line.  Aim to use positive reinforcement and support, and express appreciation.  You’ll likely receive it in return.  Both men and women are naturally attracted to people with ‘good energy’ versus, nagging, critical energy.

Ana was willing to demonstrate to Christian that she could change her ideas of what sex ought to be like- instead of ‘vanilla sex’ she was willing to experiment with his preference for BDSM-style sex.  With time, Ana was also willing to accept Christian’s gifts and lavish lifestyle, in spite of her discomfort with wealth, and all that it represented to her.  I believe her willingness to change for the sake of the relationship and positive encouragement allowed Christian to open up to the idea of change in himself.  For example, he became increasingly willing to allow her to physically touch him in ways he’d never allowed himself to be touched before.  She was also sensitive to moving forward at a pace that was comfortable to him.  The author writes about this dynamic of their relationship very realistically, which is why I believe the book captivates such a large audience.

4.  Understand that a man shouldn’t be expected to ‘change for you’ he should ‘change for himself’. 

  • A lot of men develop habits in their life because it suits them during certain phases in their life.  These habits aren’t necessarily indicative that he’s ‘not ready for a serious relationship’ it just means he hasn’t found reason to behave differently.  This does NOT mean however, that a man should be expected to ‘change for you’.  If a guy sees that certain behaviors aren’t going to fly with you, he’ll figure that out, and decide on his own to internally motivate and take a new direction if he believes he’ll be a happier version of himself as a result of what this change can offer him.  

In the past, Christian was involved with many women in various capacities.  However, he’d never been inspired to relinquish his rigid sexual and relationship preferences.  When Christian fell for Ana, he realized he wanted to experience more with her, both emotionally and physically.  The author captures the tremendous challenges he experiences as he attempts to hold onto a woman who wants things he’d never thought possible to give someone.  When Ana questions his ability to be fully satisfied with her (as someone who doesn’t share his affinity for strictly BDSM-style sex), he explains that he no longer needs to maintain that lifestyle because he is happier with her than he’d ever been before.

5.  Don’t fight your differences, appreciate them.

  • We’ve all seen that great couple in action- they seem to compliment each other and because of that, their lives are happier, healthier and less stressed.  Each of us have strengths and weaknesses in our personalities.  As much as we’d like to think we’re pretty close to perfect, we can often benefit from partnering with people who help ease us out of our rigid habits.  People who are planners and highly organized can often benefit from being partnered with people who are spontaneous and make do with completing things ‘at the last minute’.  Just because two people think/behave differently, doesn’t mean they need to try to change the other person.  In fact, these differences actually result in a couple that is capable of both planning AND living with spontaneity and flexibility- all skills that are equally important for a well-balanced life. 

Ana and Christian’s relationship is a great example of how two people can benefit from their personality differences.  Christian successfully introduces Ana to a sexual lifestyle that is highly fulfilling to her, and one that she might not have ever enjoyed had she not become involved with him.  Ana successfully introduces Christian to emotional intimacy, and helps him to trust and let go of his rigid need to control others- skills he might not have developed without a relationship with Ana.  Together, their qualities create a relationship that captivates readers because it is so obviously fulfilling and enticing to them both physically and emotionally. 

6.  Learn to get your needs met in a variety of ways, rather than looking for your partner to ‘be everything’ for you.

  • Everyone should aim to develop and utilize a variety of ‘self-care’ habits, tools, and social support as a way to cope with the stressors in their lives.  Our partners can’t possibly be held responsible for changing in every way we’d like them to, and even if they were willing to try, it wouldn’t be possible.  Be aware that when you are stressed, you become more irritable and more likely to focus your attention on the shortcomings of your partner.  Don’t let stress accumulate and destroy your mood, leading you to believe your relationship is inadequate at making you happy.  No relationship should be held responsible for your happiness.  Only YOU can put to use a variety of resources that are effective in helping you distress.  Then you can go back to enjoying your partner, who hopefully is also working hard to do the same.

In this example, Christian is the one in the relationship that has to grow to accept that Ana needs to maintain parts of her life separate from him (working and developing her career, spending time with old friends, etc.) and can’t be available to him all the time to meet his needs.  Ana helps him realize that they can remain close and intimate without sacrificing their respective need for independence.

7.  Recognize that some urges to ‘change others’ have origins in your past. 

  • Each of us can benefit from looking at our familial upbringing and preconceived perceptions about intimate relationships as a way of better understanding what we expect from our relationships.  When necessary, be ready to seek the expertise of a mental health professional to help you gain insight, understanding, and coping strategies when your past is keeping you from enjoying your intimate relationship.  If you feel that your partner’s past seems to be getting in the way of his ability to enjoy the relationship, support and encourage him to figure out ways to work through these issues, and also consider seeking professional help when necessary.

Fifty Shades of Grey illuminates the various ways in which Christian’s dysfunctional childhood shaped his overall outlook on interpersonal relationships, limiting his ability to trust and connect with others.  In the past, Christian’s only way of engaging in physical intimacy was through domination and control.  While Christian is able to successfully engage with Ana in the creative fantasy world of BDSM, he is also forced to examine his upbringing as a root cause for his rigid need control others, lack of trust, and need to keep people at a safe distance.  Through the use of effective, ongoing psychotherapy and support from loved ones, Christian is able to challenge himself and change in ways that allow him to reap the benefits of a loving, romantic relationship.  

Dr. Christina Villarreal is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Oakland, CA.  For professional inquiries contact her at



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