Thursday, February 26, 2009

Against the Grain Part II: Building A Better Relationship

Elizabeth Zelvin

Note: This is the second half of my Valentine's Day post on relationships.

Two psychologists called Prochaska and DiClemente invented a model of the stages of change that they originally meant for describing addictions and recovery. It works equally well when applied to other processes involving change, including relationships.
The six stages of change are precontemplation, contemplation, determination, action, maintenance and relapse. In plain English:
1. you’re not even thinking about changing, even if the way things are is causing trouble
2. you’re thinking about it, but you feel ambivalent
3. you’ve decided you want to change
4. you do something about it, like changing your behavior or your attitude
5. you keep practicing new behavior and attitudes
6. you slip back into your old ways

I’ve counseled many couples in my career as a therapist, and the stages of change model explains why so often it doesn’t work. Typically, one partner drags the other into treatment. What’s the problem? “I’m willing to change, but he’s not.” (With straight couples, it’s usually the woman who’s more motivated to get help—or thinks she is.) What’s really happening here? What stage are they in? She claims he’s in precontemplation—doesn’t think he needs to change. She thinks he needs to change, all right. But does she realize she needs to change as well? Nope. She too is in precontemplation.

What do they expect from therapy or counseling? Well, he expects torture. And she expects a fix. She wants the therapist to recommend a book (like those by Hendrix, Gray, and Gottman that I mentioned in Part I) and make him read it and do the exercises with her. Yep, she wants to jump right to action. And because neither of them has gone through contemplation and determination, all the exercises in the world won’t heal their marriage or relationship.

So what’s the first requirement for building a better relationship? Two willing partners. If you’re dissatisfied with your relationship, start by throwing away that list you’ve been compiling of all the things your partner does wrong. Ask yourself a few questions.
1. Do you love your partner?
2. Are you prepared to make some changes yourself? Not be right all the time? Let your partner win?
3. Are you prepared to give up “should” and “not fair”?
4. Would you rather be angry or have the relationship? Not a rhetorical question. Ask yourself, and be honest about the answer.
5. How much trust and safety do you have with your partner? If there’s a problem of drinking, violence, depression, jealousy, or lack of support, you may have a genuinely unwilling partner, and you and your helping professional need to know that.
6. Are you willing to get help for yourself if your reactions to your partner come partly from your own history? In the vernacular, are buttons getting pushed? You need to know.

Next on the agenda: giving up blame, criticism, and control. This is very hard to do, but it’s essential to a good relationship. Here are some actions you can take, from sources as different as the three psychologists I’ve mentioned, family systems theory, the twelve-step programs, and a variety of approaches to mental health.

1. Accept your differences. Agree to disagree on “perpetual conflicts.” Accept the difference in gender styles, between “Mars and Venus,”or in individual personal styles, in how you process conflict. Remember you can change yourself, but not your partner or anyone else.

2. Respect your partner’s boundaries. I love the way the Mars and Venus guy talks about it. When men “go into the cave” to work things out, women had better not “sit outside the door of the cave,” waiting to hear all about it. Conversely, men need to try not to shut down emotionally when a conflict needs to be resolved.

3. Stop blaming. One good way is to watch what you say and how you say it, no matter how angry you are. Some communication styles escalate things, others defuse them. You won’t make things better by accusing, critiquing, or even justifiable anger. Tell your partner about your sadness, fear, and anger without saying your feelings are his or her fault.

When you’re moving from determination into action, there are plenty of tools you can use to resolve conflict without the kind of fight that tears relationships apart. Don’t throw the kitchen sink into the argument. Stick with the “solvable conflict” that’s on the table. Let repair attempts succeed: accept laughter or a natural closure to the discussion. Don’t do a Columbo—“And one more thing”—that starts the fight all over again.

Be aware of how the past can escalate the present. Counseling can help with this. Sometimes an intense reaction to what your partner does or says has as much to do with the past as with the present situation. Learn to recognize when your buttons get pushed, and separate that out from what’s going on now with your partner. If your partner identifies a button-pusher, respect it; don’t go ahead and push it. Acknowledge your partner’s vulnerability; admit your own.

There are appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing feelings. “I feel sad,” “I feel scared,” “I feel angry,” and “I feel lonely” are appropriate. “You always,” “You never,” “You should” and “Why can’t you” are inappropriate. Appropriate expressions of feeling get through. Inappropriate expressions arouse defensiveness and escalate the conflict. By the way, “I feel you always,” “I feel you never,” and “I feel you should” are not “I” statements about your feelings. They are merely ways to accuse or blame, and they will make things worse.

One of my favorite ways to put it in a nutshell is the Serenity Prayer, used in twelve-step programs and other spiritual paths. Whether you connect with spirituality, religion, or neither, and whether or not you use the “G” word, I suggest you keep an open mind about the value of “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” It will help you have a better relationship.


Anonymous said...

Good comments all. I think when I got married I harbored the illusion that, although we were different people, we would somehow converge in some happy middle ground. After 30+ years, I guess it's time to accept that some things are not going to change.

I'd like to hear more from you about language, and how long-term couples use it. It seems that every statement, even something as innocuous as "it's a nice day," carries a lot of baggage. Inflection and facial expression play a role, of course. But there's also the long history of prior statements, which prompts responses such as, "So? Are you nagging me about painting the trim?" You'd think we as writers would be better at communicating--but we can't edit our conversations.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, how people communicate and their expectations of each other are important areas that couples can work on, with or without professional help. My first question is: when you say "It's a nice day," DO you hope he'll respond, "Wow, what a great day to paint the trim"? And if so, in 30+ years, has he ever said it? If not, lowering your expectations might help. :)

Sandra Parshall said...

This is all so much work, Liz! No wonder the divorce is sky-high -- divorce is easier. :-)

Julia Buckley said...

This is great advice, Liz! Some things my spouse and I can contemplate after I show him this blog.

Next can you counsel me about my mothering? :)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, a good long-term relationship IS work. Some people enjoy the work, others don't. :) And Julia, my best bit of wisdom about parenting is that NOBODY does it perfectly. :)