I recently had a conversation with a young woman who seemed very concerned that she was one way with her friends and colleagues — light, fun and dynamic and a different way with her husband — withdrawn, cranky, timid and on edge. Of course her automatic inclination was to blame her husband for this. She pointed out that he was too critical of her, he was mean at times, she was never good enough or smart enough for him. In her mind, it was he who made her become timid and distant.
This isn’t the first time I had heard someone describe this phenomena of having two faces. Most people who describe themselves as having this experience much prefer the person who can relate to friends and colleagues than the repressed old bag they feel they have become with their spouse. The longer and more intensely one focuses on the other as the cause of their differences in personality, the more they feel distant and panicked at the thought that they should no longer be together. I have witnessed people spend years waiting for the other to change so that they can….be happier, be skinnier, be richer, have more fun, be a better parent, a better host and a better friend. Waiting around for the other to make it possible for you to do and be these things in an endless cycle and energy suck that not only splits two people apart but it splits the individual apart. I believe that not being a consistent person in relationships actually contributes to one’s overall anxiety and even the physical manifestations of this anxiety. It’s a lot of stressful work trying to figure out who to be with whom and when to be it. What would it take to merge these two personalities together to create one person?
Being a consistant person in all of your relationships is the responsibility of the individual. Even having an expectation that someone should or could make this easy for you takes energy away from being able to work on it. I’m sure at this point some of you detest me and are going to go google, “5 steps to changing your man (or women) to be who you want.” You’ll probably find it out there too. But before you go, at least finish this.
Here are (my own list of) 5 things that I think are key when figuring out how to move toward being a consistent self in all of your important relationships. By the way, give yourself the deadline of a lifetime to work on this. Get excited with the idea that you are your own science experiment and a constant source of data for and about yourself. It can take hours, days, months and years to integrate this data in a meaningful way that translates into behavior. So, patience please.
1) Know who you are and what’s important to you and act on it
If being alone, being social, traveling solo, traveling with friends, spending time writing, being alone in a museum, being a nerd and studying something nerdy or whatever it is that is important to you then do it. Don’t give things up because your spouse doesn’t do it, doesn’t get it, or may not approve. Most people in long term relationships give their solo missions and interests up and I’m here to tell you, that’s not a good idea. It splits you. Yes, you’re not a single free floater anymore so schedules do need to be discussed, but there are ways to build it in. Conversely, give your spouse the space and encouragement to do these things too.
2) Manage yourself
If we are constantly in reactive mode we are essentially spreading our own anxiety like a flu bug. It’s highly contagious and there’s no preventative shot for this one at CVS. Rein it in, people, and decide how you want to react in every situation you encounter. Yes, if your wife or husband is acting bitchy it is understandable that you would snap back because, Dammit! They can’t treat you that way. I’ll have you recall however that simply reacting contributes and prolongs the problem. What if you took yourself off auto pilot and purposefully and thoughtfully changed the pattern by responding differently. What if you made a joke and shocked the heck out of her? Loosen up and find the flexibility to react in a way that doesn’t just keep the wheel spinning. This requires thought and discipline and a lot of deep breathing.
3) Awareness of when you are blaming others
It’s just so boring to blame everyone else for the things going on around you, but it feels so damn good! It is so tempting to blame your husband for your distant and cool behavior. After all, it is he who seems so grumpy and irritated and when we just ping off his mood we don’t have to think for ourselves. Blaming others for your own moods and actions keeps you stuck in the endless cycle of misery in the home. Take accountability and see what happens when you blame yourself for choosing to be shut down and icy. I actually don’t like the word blame but I’m using it to get you charged up. If you can plow through others emotions and stay true to who you are and how you are versus getting sucked up into their vortex, you will have graduated from blamer to liver of your life. Ahhhh, short term pain for long term gain.
4) Banish the expectations of how others “should be”
A dream is but a dream and its time you wake up. You have an idea of how your spouse should be and its holding you back and making you resentful. I promise when you drop the monkey off that is wishing someone was different than they are, you become lighter and less burdened. When you become lighter and less burdened you enjoy who you are with more. When you enjoy who you are with more, you are more free to be yourself. When you are more free to be yourself, you are actually more enjoyable to be around. When you are more enjoyable to be around, you might find miraculously that people are lighter and more fun too. Yes, it starts with you, and yes, the harder you try and change someone to match who you think you want them to be, the more stuck the relationship will be. Look at who is right in front of you and respect and appreciate them.
5) Write, write, write it out
The best way to integrate changes so they stick is to work on it every day. Not every other day or once a week or in fits and spurts. Everyday, multiple times a day. Repetition is the only way to build new neural pathways in the brain which will eventually become your automatic way of living. Writing down what you are working on, positive thoughts, the script for how you want a particular interaction to go, your strengths, what you are excited about, what you appreciate about your husband/wife/partner, what you are hopeful about and what you are grateful for is singlehandedly the best way to do this. I had a client who every morning upon waking immediately began a negative spiral about her life, her husband and her day. I suggested she get a journal and write down the above and read it and re read it first thing in the morning. At first it was a stretch and she wasn’t even sure she believed what she wrote but within two weeks she noticed a difference in her outlook on life and her relationship with her husband. Her experiment was to keep it going for 3 months consistently. Change is not for the faint at heart. Be tough and work it.
Move on from blaming others for your lack of being a consistent self and take the reins, the wheel, the handlebars or whatever drives you and steer.