In couples therapy, I ask clients to move back and forth between wanting to change their partner, and wanting to change themselves. It’s so easy and so natural to see everything your partner is lacking and to feel like the problems in the relationship are their fault. If he could just stop closing me out, I’d be happy, one person says, or I just need her to quit yelling and we’ll be fine.
Of course it’s good to identify and ask for what you need. But that’s only one side of the equation—and it’s not even the helpful side. The more useful step is to look to yourself to see what you can fix. If you can change either:
- The faults that you bring into the relationship or
- Your reaction to your partner’s faults, that’s where you have a recipe for real growth, and a chance to be happier in your partnership.
It’s not one person who causes problems in a relationship
That’s the truth. (Well, okay, occasionally there’s one terrible partner, but that label is reserved for abusers.) The problem is more usually the dynamic between two people, what expert Susan Johnson calls “the dance” in her wonderful books. The very word conjures up the image of two people moving back and forth, leading and following, influencing and supporting each other. There is no individual in a pas de deux.
It sounds counterintuitive—if I change me, I’ll like him better. But it’s also a source of power. Sitting around struggling to “fix” someone else rarely works. It’s frustrating, often makes you feel as if you’re not being heard or understood, and causes your partner to feel criticized. If instead, you put energy into understanding why you dislike what you dislike about him or her, and what you do that aggravates the dynamic, you have a much stronger chance of making a difference.
Let’s look at both steps of this process
It’s important to recognize what YOU do to create conflict
Sometimes one partner looks much more blameworthy. Maybe she cheated, or he rages. Even in those cases, maybe especially in those cases, I turn the spotlight equally onto the other partner, the one who often looks more passive. Passivity goes under the radar because it’s quiet and calm, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful and damaging. Some common ways of being passive include shutting down and refusing to engage, refusing intimacy, closing your partner out emotionally, acting martyred or relying too much on others outside the relationship. Any of these rebellious acts push the other to act louder, and angrier, or to shut down in response.
What do you do to contribute to the issues in your relationship?
In my point of view, they often relate to what you learned in childhood, either about how marriages work or how you “should” communicate with others (by trying to be perfect, by pleasing others to your own detriment, by bullying, etc.). In individual or couples therapy, you can explore how your past affects your present and offer this as a gift to your current relationship, and your general happiness.
The second piece lies in understanding how you get triggered by your partner’s ways of communicating, and how you can change how you respond. Sometimes just taking a “time out” and getting calm before discussing things can cause a huge improvement, by reducing drama. John Gottman has studied in depth how our nervous system becomes immediately aroused when we feel attacked or angered, and how this catapults the angry partner into a fear response. As soon as we get mad, our pulse quickens, the blood rushes away from the brain, and we’re no longer engaged and listening. It’s better at that point to step away and calm down before resuming the discussion.
It takes deeper exploration to understand what infuriates you so much
Perhaps when she gets whiny, it reminds you of your mother’s demands for your attention. Or when he spends too much money on a night out it makes you feel like your needs and interests don’t matter. After you figure out what exactly you’re responding to, you can take steps to recognize that you might be overreacting, or forgetting to ask for what you really want—usually respect, or love. Then you can stop the dynamic in its tracks and turn the conversation back to a productive one.
While knowing what you want from your partner is important, looking to yourself as the key architect of change for your relationship will make you happier and more satisfied in the long run. Whether it’s on your own or with the help of a therapist, looking within is a key way to feel more powerful.