couples therapy
imago therapy

Not again

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    November 2011

I recently came across this quote by Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.” Interesting! This is a reminder of how crazy we are when we repeat certain dysfunctional patterns with our partner and then get angry when we experience the same upsetting outcome. Yes, it’s true that our partner is acting in an infuriating way. But, guess what? Often, so are we! As the old song goes: “It Takes Two to Tango.”

That we are part of the problem is a difficult truth to accept, much less act upon. I did some self-confronting on this issue recently. It was the beginning of a four-day weekend, and I couldn’t wait for my husband to come home from work, so we could begin to spend some time together. But, as is sometimes the case, he came home and just needed some time alone to unwind. I made a resolution to myself that I would leave him alone as he asked, but, somehow, I couldn’t. At some point, he angrily explained to me that the pressure I was putting on him was making it harder for him to relax, and that he just needed time to relax in order to rejoin me and connect in the way we both needed and wanted.

Somehow, this frustration of mine became a time of self-exploration. Sure, he was being a royal pain, but what was the matter with me that I couldn’t just do as he asked, let go, and give him the time he needed? The rational part of me knew it would turn out OK; we’d been through this pattern before and always came out of it. Why couldn’t I just back off and let some time pass? I wanted to act rationally, yet I watched my emotional needs arise within me and erupt like a volcano (a little overly dramatic image, but that’s how it felt) and before I knew it, I would be approaching again and getting the same negative results.

I knew that my irrational behavior was making things worse, and I sat there realizing that a large part of this problematic pattern was me, and that it was up to me to make some behavioral changes.

So, how do we make this change? Obviously, it’s easier said than done. Some changes, like adding a new behavior that immediately brings good results, are easy. Other changes involve behaviors so entrenched in our personality, that changing them might be something we work on forever more. I talk to people in my practice who see themselves repeating the same behaviors with their partners that went on between their own parents — and made their childhoods living hells. Now, they are becoming aware that they might be doing the same thing to their own kids and are miserable over it.

Other couples are starting a relationship that finally seems like the one they’ve been searching for, but they’re already fighting and acting out, and come to counseling to figure out what’s really happening. There probably are no stronger motivations than these. Apparently, awareness and motivation are not enough: they are just the beginning steps in the laborious process of changing our part of the interaction.

The only promising path toward changing dysfunctional relationship behaviors like these is to share the issue in a collaborative talk with our partner, trying for agreement on what the pattern is and the importance of starting to change it. (This talk, of course, has to be planned for a calm, appropriate time.) When we acknowledge the part we want to change in ourselves, and see the relief in our partners’ eyes that this is their wish as well, then we might be able to enlist their help and support.

Ideally, our partners can offer us small new behaviors in exchange for ours, which would make change easier for both of us. For example (and I’ll suggest this to him) if my partner would come to me first with a long hug and a request for a little time to unwind, maybe I could be more comfortable backing off until he’s ready.

Working together on a pattern that is interactive obviously makes sense, makes it feel a little less lonely, and removes the stigma that one of us alone is the villain.

But we do play a part, and once we know what it is, we have to commit to efforts to do things differently. Exerting this kind of conscious self-control is extremely hard. It’s also important to remember that we may not have the final solution right away; just making small changes in the unsuccessful way we used to do things is enough for beginning steps.

If you, dear reader, have found methods for changing your unwanted behaviors, send them in, and I’ll share them in a future column. Meanwhile, we are all in agreement about how hard personal change is; but we also know that it’s a growth experience, and a necessary ingredient for a couple with a hopeful future.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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