It is rare to come across couples who have decided to attend couples therapy without each hoping the other will change in some small or large way. It would all be so much simpler if the other person changed. In fact, the problem would not exist at all if our partner did what we wanted them to do, was who we wanted them to be, and changed their behaviour to meet our needs- right?
The problem with this of course is that each person hopes for change in the other, unaware of the fact that they do not have the power to change them. The only power they do have is to change the way they respond to their partner.
And yet, we live in hope…
Keeping the focus on the other- on what they are doing or not doing, on how they are interacting with us, on whether they’re meeting our needs or not, without also keeping the focus on ourselves is a process most of us are all too familiar with. In fact it seems counterintuitive to re-direct the focus on ourselves. As human beings we are primed to keep the focus ‘out there’ and we convince ourselves that the more we strive to change the people or circumstances outside ourselves the happier we will become. Sometimes this works, our wife, son or employee does what we want them to do, or we get the job we desired, the holiday we needed, the opportunity we wanted. When things go our way life seems (and in the short-term is) easier, smooth-sailing, stress-free. It is when things don’t go our way- our partner doesn’t come back when they said they would to look after the children, our parents don’t accept the career we’ve chosen, our daughter goes out with a friend we do not like- that problems in our relationships start to surface.
It is often not the issues that couples come to therapy with that are the actual problem- be it sex, time together or apart, distance, conflict, parenting, housework or money- it is how each person is approaching this tension between them that is the problem. We know through John Gottman’s longitudinal studies that 69% of perpetual problems in couples never get resolved when they are embedded in fundamental differences in each person’s thinking and values. What couples can work with is how they relate to each other in response to their differences. When the problem is seen to reside with the other person there is usually a tendency toward blame, criticism and defensiveness. When the focus is narrowed in on the other as the cause of our relationship unhappiness we cannot see how we are contributing to the pattern.
The work of couples therapy is to be able to broaden the view to see the cause of our marital problem beyond our partner. When we are able to zoom out of this narrow focus, we start to see how we also play a part in the cycle of relationship disharmony. This paradoxically gives us a great sense of freedom from the shackles of control. We begin to observe that we can in fact affect and enhance our relationship by what we do and how we do it rather than by pushing our partner toward change. When we start to take responsibility for our part we can also be who we want to be and behave how we want to behave. We do not stay stuck in resentment and contempt, waiting in the vain hope that our partner will one day change. We start to understand that if we have the willingness and openness to focus on our self we can change the steps in the dance. We have the choice, power and agency to change ourselves, now, one step at a time.
We slowly but surely become a change catalyst in our relationship system. We can choose happiness over the need to be right or win an argument. We can practice generosity, support and praise. We can practice calming ourselves down when things get difficult and staying connected rather than cutting off. We can practice engaging in difficult conversations rather than sweeping things under the carpet. We can practice keeping the communication open versus closing the conversation down to keep the peace or retreat in our comfort zone. We can practice warming the relationship up or cooling it down when the other person is behaving badly. We can learn to have a strong voice and maintain clear boundaries. We can practice setting limits. We can be honest and listen. We can learn how to choose the right time to bring up a hot topic and know when to keep quiet.. We can practice softening the beginning of a difficult conversation, making it easier for our partner to hear us. We can learn not to take the bait. We can practice defining what we are willing and not willing to do rather than blowing up, stonewalling or bad mouthing our partner. We can practice responsible language- using ‘I’ instead of ‘you’. We can practice initiating repair after an argument and not rejecting our partner’s repair-attempts when they come our way. We can be the partner we want to be. We can live with ourselves more easily, lessen our guilt and self-blame. We can quit ruminating and quarrelling inside our mind. We can be happy with how we are behaving toward our partner and equally toward ourselves.