So, here’s an interesting thing. In just shy of 30 years of doing counselling, only once or twice have I heard a client say, “I want to learn to be a better partner.” What I do hear is, “My partner is a jerk, and s/he needs to be fixed!”
In couple’s therapy, we talk about change. However, I seldom hear, “I want to learn to do things differently.” Clients are often baffled as to why their partner won’t change — they say, “If you loved me you’d do this for me.” I ask them what they are willing to change, and hear, “I’m not doing that!”
They miss the irony. Each expects the other to change; neither thinks they need to change. The self-responsible person asks, “What can I do to act like the person I want my partner to be?”
I was walking through a mall, and saw a mom shaking her 8-year-old a few inches from her face and screaming, “How many times have I told you not to hit your sister?” Hmm… wonder where he learned to use physical force to make his point?
One of my clients hates it when her husband yells at her. So, she yells at him, “I hate it when you yell at me!” The woman yells at her husband because she thinks she has the right to do so, since he did. The odd part is, in a previous session, she said, “That’s it! I’m never going to yell at him again! It doesn’t work!” So I asked her about that promise.“Well, yes, I did promise, but really, anybody would have yelled over that!” Not much of a promise, eh?
The reason relationships get into trouble is often that one or both of the parties think their job is to ‘sort out’ their partner. One of my clients refers to her husband as her ‘fourth child.’ Nothing he does is right, and she endlessly tells him so.
I think the purpose of a relationship is to relate. And to do that, I have to meet my partner as my equal, not as someone I need to fix. Here’s the truth: Your partner isn’t broken, and your job is to work on yourself.
Here are five ideas to help you make that happen.
Secrets have a way of circling back and biting us. People get into the “I have the right to my privacy!” stuff, but here’s a suggestion: if you want secrets, keep them. Just don’t be in a relationship. Most of the mess we find ourselves in has to do with not being truthful. We don’t talk about what we are thinking, what we are feeling. We even may assume that our partner ought to be a mind reader—ought to ‘just know.’ Honesty is about describing what you know about yourself. You can’t know a thing about another person [you make guesses, but if you pay attention, you’re mostly wrong] so all you really can talk about is your own behaviour, and internal theatre. Putting off talking about what is going on for you both delays the inevitable, and sets you up for fights, once the truth comes out. Better to tackle things head on.
2. Fair fighting
Fair fighting is an agreement to use self-responsible language, and to separate out angry emotions. For instance “I’m noticing that I am making myself angry about the story I’m telling myself about…[the problem] and I’m wondering what is going on for you?” In this example you’ll see you’re speaking only for yourself. “I am making myself angry” is true. No one “makes me” angry. In order to get angry, I have to tell myself a story. And stories are by definition fictional. Works for all emotions, not just anger.
There’s an exercise called a Vesuvius, designed by Joann Peterson of The Haven. There’s an area of floor, say 8 ft x 8 ft. The angry person stays in this area, perhaps with a pillow to hit. The person can say or do anything within the area, for five minutes, except break things, or touch people. What this accomplishes is upping everyone’s tolerance for angry sounds, while letting the person express the emotion safely. Fair fighting means sticking to the topic, stating your side, and listening to the other person, just like in the above example. It also means taking turns to express, aiming for solutions and not aiming to ‘be right’.
3. Treat your partner as you wish to be treated
Mostly, we’re sitting around, waiting for others to go first. “I’ll stop yelling when you do”, “I’ll speak for myself after you do.” We are excellent at putting the other to the test, and often fail at doing what we say we want to do. “Do unto others…” is a tenet in most religions. There’s nothing in it about waiting for the other person to go first. It’s about integrity: “If I say I will do something, I will do it. My behaviour is not contingent on another’s.” So, what kind of person do you want to be in relationship with? Be that person.
- If you want honesty, be honest.
- If you want good communication, take a course and learn how to be a good communicator.
- If you want to be listened to, stop talking and listen.
- If you don’t hear what you ‘want’ to hear, be quiet and listen some more.
Doing this is the only way to shift your relationship, as you are shifting the only thing you really can—your own behaviour.
4. No blame
Here’s a tricky one. Watch yourself, and listen to yourself. When something goes wrong, even little stuff, like getting cut off in traffic, we immediately blame the other person. They go from being wrong, to being bad, to being ‘out to get me, just like everyone else is.’ We learned as kids to point at other people, and to make it their fault. But nothing happens inside of you without you setting it up. It’s why two people have different reactions to the same situation. Situations don’t cause reactions. Things happen and we react. We might begin to feel uncomfortable, and our instinct is to blame someone. Our partners are typically around quite often, and therefore get a lot of blame. We need to learn to stop ourselves by repeating, “Things happen, and I choose my response.” I can use honest communication and then ask for change, such as: “I’m wondering if you would be willing to discuss how we could do this differently.” Blame games lead to going around in circles, and everyone is in pain. Not a good strategy!
In the end, here it is: You are who you are, and your partner is who s/he is. And who each of you are is captured ONLY in what you do. In other words, if I say I am a fair and compassionate person and act like Attila the Hun, the truth of me is ‘Attila.’ Words are cheap, actions priceless.
Acceptance is about waking up each morning, looking at your partner and saying ‘Reset to zero.’ The person opposite you, and all you know about that person, is who s/he is right now. If you can’t accept this person 100 per cent, you’re already in trouble. This ‘reset’ means that I put behind everything that has been discussed, and resolved, and now, we start the day afresh. My choice is to accept my partner just as she is today. I then begin again, with honesty, openness, dialogue, and self-responsibility. I treat my partner as I wish to be treated, day after day. In the end, the part we can fix in any relationship is our part. The best way to do so is to treat others with dignity, respect, compassion and heart. Anything else misses the point. I learn about me, as I relate with you.
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