This week I have been working with a lot of couples who are hell bent on attempting to change their spouse by complaining to them over and over and over. I suppose this isn’t such a far-fetched idea. If you pound a nail into a piece of hard wood over and over again, eventually it will sink in.
What really happens if we continually give our spouse the smack down in hopes that something will sink in? Lots of things. But one thing that will NOT happen is the change in the other that you think you need to see to be happier. Not only will they most likely not change in the direction you think they should go, they won’t even change in the direction they think they should go. Instead they freeze, or they rebel or they become passive aggressive, or they become resistant and defensive. They might even temporarily look the way you want them to look but it’s only temporary if they are doing it to get you off of their back. Then you have this false hope disappointment thing going on. They are only reacting to your anxiety. This is a mess, a real mess I tell you.
Here’s what’s happening. We all only have so much energy. If you are spending all of your energy on attempting to change the thinking and ways of another human being, you are wasting precious energy that could be spent on perfecting your own life goals. And for the spouse that’s “not changing,” instead of spending their precious energy on their own life goals and figuring out what they want to do with their lives they’re busy defending themselves, fighting you, or convincing you why they’re not going to do what you want them to do. The bottom line is that focusing your energy on what someone else should be doing that they are not doing is a big fat waste of time.
This is a tough situation. What if you have begged your spouse to get a new job so he can be around more often on the weekends because your losing it? Or what if you have begged your spouse to help you around the house more because you’re feeling overwhelmed and they just haven’t? What about if you have begged your spouse to actually finish a project versus starting it and then abandoning it with shrapnel left all around? What if it feels like you are at your breaking point and if this thing doesn’t change YOU will be miserable? What are you supposed to do?
It might feel hopeless and overwhelming but what I can say is whatever you have been currently doing, stop. Just stop. Let’s start there. Stop waiting for the other person to change so that you can be happier because it’s more than likely doing the opposite. Your expectations that aren’t being met are making you more miserable. Understanding some fundamentals about relationships and how they work is important and might lead to some resolution of the above questions.
So, take a deep breath and understand that all relationships can be challenging and that just because you want to kill your spouse right now does not mean you need to be calling lawyers. You are in it for the long haul and relationships are really just a series of ups and downs that need to be managed until the kids go away (hopefully) to college. After they leave, the turbulence decreases. Unless of course you have been ignoring each other for the past 18 years in which case those quiet skies become deafening loud.
The other thing I believe is important to understand is that the dependence we have toward each other goes beyond just needing the other to bring home the other half of the mortgage money or to take care of the kids while the other works. Without realizing it, we have become increasingly sensitive to what the other is doing or not doing, saying or not saying, that we begin to make decisions based on this information instead of the information that is within us (our own thinking and perceptions). When this sensitivity goes both ways, as it does in all relationships, this is called reciprocity. He does one thing, she reacts. Then he reacts to her reaction. Well, then of course she has to react to his reaction which he can’t not react to. What’s lost here? The entire original topic of discussion! The issue has become the relationship and then the original issue never gets resolved. How is this dependence? We get to the point where we can’t even think for ourselves anymore, we are only thinking in reaction to the other person. We are dependent on what they are thinking in order to form our own thoughts. Yikes, lost self. Put out an APB. Become an expert in how this reciprocity works in your relationship. In what ways are you simply reacting to what your partner is doing or not doing? If the original issue is that the house is a mess, the result shouldn’t be relationship murder. Find the original issue and trace it back. You’ll see.
Let’s say the problem has been clearly defined. The house is a mess. Notice how the reaction to the issue is quite different for both of you. For some a messy house creates a visceral reaction which quite literally makes the skin crawl. For the other, it might seemingly cause no reaction (although not caring about a messy environment can also be a sign that one is shutting down and distancing). So, there’s the difference in the thinking. Believe me, this difference was there when you got married. Here is where change comes in. If these two people weren’t married, it wouldn’t matter that there was a difference. He could keep living like a frat boy and start cool projects that don’t get finished, and she could continue keeping herself busy and calm by cleaning all the time. But you’re married, so you have to change…a little.
Heres how change has worked in my house on this issue. My husband is cleaner than I am. I can admit that. Now before you get all jealous and think I’m lucky, let me tell you it’s not all sunshine and rainbows living with someone who needs tidiness. For a long time, he begged me to be cleaner. I couldn’t hear him because I was busy being defensive and irritated at his desire to have me be any different than my wonderful self already was. Plus, he was the crazy dude who needed everything clean, not me. When, and ONLY WHEN, I realized that my disorganization was not serving me as an individual well AND it was causing problems in my relationship did I find the impetus for change. But here’s the thing. Change isn’t easy. It’s not natural for me to do or clean things as soon as I notice them. If I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t naturally do it. I had to retrain my brain to become a more organized individual. (I can hear my husband saying, “You did?” YES, I did.) I had to come to understand that the thought, “I’ll do it later,” really meant, “That’s not something I feel like dealing with now or probably for a long time, if ever.” I have made it my own personal rule that I am not allowed to say, “I’ll do it later.” Some people might be able to put things off and then actually do them later. Not me. Instead the task gets pushed deeper and deeper below the present until it’s lost and seemingly doesn’t exist anymore until it pops up and surprises me and I become a scurrying madwoman. It’s just how my brain works. You have to retrain your brain to lose weight, or to exercise more, or to become more motivated, or to stay calmer as a parent, or to be more patient with your mother, or to finish projects when you are used to doing them only half way, or to overcome the impulse to buy everything, or…you name it. You must retrain your brain to change.
We now know that the brain is maleable. You can create new neural pathways. But it takes three things to create these new neural pathways (or, in other words, change our patterns of behavior).
1) Motivation — A lot of it. It has to come from an original spot in your being.
2) Increased awareness — This is a daily, hourly, and a by the minute thing. You need to be more present and connected to your thinking and actions constantly.
3) Repetition — Do the new and desired behavior over and over and over again until it feels more effortless. The “new” behavior eventually will become second nature.
While this seems like a simple process, let me assure you, this is the major leagues. This is the exact reason why attempting to force someone else to change in a way that will benefit you is absolutely absurd. Without the above three things at play, patterns of behavior will remain what they are. Actually, when someone is busy defending themselves or focusing on and being dissapointed in the other, there is no mental space left to change. None.
You have the absolute right as an individual to say what is important to you and to express how you think and feel about any given situation. But there is a productive way to do it. Here is an actual example of an exchange between two people who understood the need to both shift their automatic patterns a little to be able to coexist peacefully. (P.S., this did not take place after their first session.)
“It is important to me that my living space stays clean and organized. When it isn’t, this weird thing happens in me where my brain feels like it’s going to explode and I can’t focus on anything other than the mess I see in front of me. It makes me unpleasant and I hate feeling like the bitch who is on your back all the time.”
(Meanwhile, observe the reciprocity…the messier your spouse seems, the more you feel you need to clean, the more you clean and act nutty, the less your spouse cleans and the more he avoids you because you’re acting like a nut job. It is never free from a reciprocal pattern. You are always contributing to the dynamic.)
“Huh, that’s interesting. (I always, always encourage people to become interested in the differences not critical of them) That doesn’t happen in me. I usually can’t even see the mess until it’s really obvious and then I do a mad sweep. What’s challenging for me is that you walk around annoyed and pissy and even if I do clean up it’s never good enough for you. I find myself rolling my eyes or just ignoring you which I know isn’t OK.”
(It is important that each person NOT have the expectation that the other is capable of doing it just like they want it done. NOT CAPABLE, I tell ya. The purpose of the above conversation is NOT to have the other person agree with you and do it your way. It is only to define what you think and your experience in your world.)
“Let’s each pick one thing this week that we will attempt to change. I will work really hard to not act pissy but instead give gentle reminders. (Get out of the thinking process that he SHOULD know how you feel and SHOULD clean up after himself, he’s a damn adult after all! Drop that should. It’s useless.) I will also keep working on my expectations of how clean the house should be with three kids”.
“When I hear those gentle reminders I will understand that you are feeling uncomfortable and I will do my best to assist. I will work hard at not just blowing you off when you are angry.”
(You are not allowed, by the way, to say, “I think you should work on this.” (insert loud buzzer sound indicating fail)).
One thing I do want to clarify is that her discomfort does not belong to him, it belongs to her. His irritation at her pissy attitude belongs to him, not her. Ultimately they are each responsible for managing their own discomfort. If they can each assist in this, fine. But really it’s the individual who must learn to take the deep breaths and control their own anxiety and irritation.
Two people who are willing to look at their own contribution to the reciprocity and make shifts that they each for themselves decide upon and decide is useful and contributes to their overall life goals, who are super motivated to keep on working on being their best selves are A-OK in my book. It’s hard to get to this though. Often it’s one person that’s willing and/or able. That’s O.K. if one person can work on self, the whole system will be effected by that change. Is it really worth divorcing your spouse over the spilled milk he or she didn’t clean up, again? Or is it better to manage your reaction to the spilled milk, choose not to cry, and focus on what is working? It’s not about anybody but yourself. You are the only thing in this whole entire world that you have any control over. Why not invest your energy there? It’s a high yield investment.
Don’t wait and badger and beg and be miserable because someone else isn’t operating the way you want them to. That’s so unbecoming and it is not in the recipe for a happy life and marriage. Be the change you wish to see in the relationship. You’ll be amazed at what you see.
Glennon Gordon, LICSW
4545 42nd Street NW, Suite 201
Washington, DC 20016
202-966-1145 x 3
Available for private consultation