What beliefs do you have about the process of change, that may hold you back from creating the relationship you want?

Whether we realize it or not, we all have strongly held beliefs about pretty much everything - including what makes change happen. Often couples come to counselling after a long time of at least one partner trying to create change by complaining, yelling, criticizing....

These attempted change strategies may work in the short term. For example - I yell at you to take out the rubbish, you do it, but in your head you're resentful and angry about being yelled at, and may even feel like a 'naughty child' being told what to do. Next time, you 'forget', but a part of you may have already decided to practise a form of indirect resistance against being talked to in that way.

For those of us who are deeply committed to the idea that change happens by giving our partner (or ourselves, for that matter) a 'kick' and a harsh word, it can be quite scary to reach the point where you realize it's not working. What if I can't make my partner understand that I really need him/her to change? Will I be stuck forever - having to either settle for not getting my needs met in my most important relationship, or having to make the difficult decision to leave?

The good news is - there are other ways to bring about change. Many pre-eminent relationship counsellors have researched this important area as it applies to intimate partnerships - for more information about these, check out, for example, the work of Dr John Gottman  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Eltham-Relationship-Counselling/134525789927605#!/GottmanInstitute and Dr Sue Johnson, http://www.holdmetight.net/ who outline some simple yet profound key principles for creating the relationship changes we truly desire.

If you and your partner are locked in a negative spiral where change seems impossible, how about trying some of these strategies?

  • Try the 'marshmallow sandwich' approach to raising a difficult issue - that is, start by saying something that you really appreciate or admire about your partner, then raise the thing you'd like to be different (it's important here to use positive language), then finish with another affirming comment. For example - "I really appreciate that when you walk in the door from work, you always ask me how you can help with the kids before dinner. What I struggle with, though, is getting the kids settled for bed because they play with you and get wound up. Is it possible that you can just do a calmer activity with them before bed? You're a great Dad - so hands-on with the kids."
  • When direct requests, no matter how positively framed, aren't creating lasting changes, it may be helpful to assume you're missing some key element about what's going on. Try some active listening - one of you speaks about the issue that's concerning you, and the other's job is to simply listen, understand, reflect their understanding and ask further questions to get more information about what's concerning your partner deeper down. When this works well - you may discover something you didn't know before - for example, when you criticize your partner for forgetting to take out the rubbish, it reminds her of Dad hitting her for forgetting to do her chores. She then goes into an automatic 'survival mode' where all of her energy is focussed on avoiding punishment, so she just can't hear you anymore, let alone remember to make the changes you want.

Of course, sometimes it's necessary to get outside help to talk things through where perhaps it hasn't felt possible to create an emotionally safe enough space to find out what's really going on underneath.

Until next post, Vivienne

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