March 1, 2017

When Change Happens

Predicting change is a tricky business, if you use predicting weather as a guide. Change takes place when intentions are mobilized, reinforced, and become part of your infrastructure. Couples and individuals often ask: “When will my spouse change?” My response varies somewhat from person-to-person (because I use their first name) as I respond: “When you do.”

That doesn’t immediately fit within the framework they had in mind. The opposite of self-actualizing could be described in one word: blame. Blame is an insulator. It protects us from facing the realities that come from taking responsibility for our own actions, behaviors, and truths. Individuals often lament lost opportunities and lifestyles through blaming, by use of three strategies. These are: justifying, explaining and defending. I call it “JED” thinking and behavior. These get honed so finely in their marriage, friendships, family, work and casual experiences that living an authentic life is exchanged for complacency, predictability and, sadly, boredom.

Couples are frequently looking for change in the treatment they receive from, or the intimacy they experience with, their spouse/partner. I regularly hear about the efforts that one individual in the relationship has extended, hoping to motivate a reciprocal relationship. As relationships form or become unbalanced, partners succumb or resist. Out of frustration, couples sometimes vent those feelings to trusted friends and seek advice from others. Women often give each other advice on how to “spice up” a marriage or improve communication with tips received from their own experience, published magazine articles or stories they have heard first-hand. Men routinely report that they shy away from obtaining or sharing tips because it reveals their “secrets” or exposes insight into their intimate life which they often don’t care to share.

There is much research and science associated with the field of marriage and family therapy which can help couples struggling to survive or looking to enrich their experience together. For example, John Gottman has researched couples for decades to identify the common traits of successful and unsuccessful couples. One consistent ratio he has quarried from these interactions is what he calls the “5-to-1” rule. Briefly, it means that it takes 5 positive interactions with your partner to compensate for only 1 negative interaction. Those 5 positive efforts only bring your relationship back to a neutral position. When couples learn about this ratio, sadly, they start to count the number of negative interactions in their head and begin to appreciate how much effort will be required to turn back the tide of negativity in their relationship. The good news is that change is possible.

Sometimes the family rules we grew up with assist us in being effective in committed relationships and sometimes they don’t. Change is often something within that gets a shift in priority or intensity instead of getting it “from” our partner. Just because your mother or father was comfortable with behaving a certain way or managing their family in a certain style doesn’t make it effective in your relationship. They might have grown up in a very different family with rules that require teamwork instead of single authority. Their mother may have been more independent out of necessity, and opinions were shared openly. Their father may have been raised without a father, financial support or expressions of love. Sometimes what we want to change about our partners is just to become comfortable now with what we were familiar with then.

A variety of tools are available to couples to improve themselves as individuals and as a couple. Each couple has unique aspects to learn about, examine together and assist with tools that work for their special circumstances. We call techniques used to create change “interventions”. Many interventions used for one couple simply don’t apply to another couple. Therapists tailor the therapeutic process for every individual and couple. So, change for them can be as significant as a change in seasons, or as subtle as a change in fragrance. Often the opinions of well-intentioned friends will frustrate the process and progress that spouses/partners are making. Interestingly, change makes people take notice of their own comfort levels, and sometimes people are not comfortable with change at all—even change which is positive for others. For them, change of any kind is difficult to handle.

Just as winter yields to spring, the transition of personal change can be abrupt, gentle, noticeable or subtle. I see individuals who want more intimacy, less hostility, more accountability, less blame, the appearance of love and the elimination of physical and emotional abuse. In a family system, when one person starts to change, it impacts the entire family in some way. There could be resistance to the very strategies and tactics which can assist the change desired. Change is possible, and it can be most effectively started within you.

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About David Nutter, LMFTA'

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