Yes you can!
When things aren’t going smoothly in a relationship many of us have a tendency to blame the other for all the difficulties. OK, we might take a wee bit of the blame ourselves, but some people tend to lay the majority of blame for the bad stuff on the other.
This is completely normal. It’s a very human reaction. Mentally it can let us off the hook for taking responsibility for our own actions, give us a sense of superiority, or protect our fragile egos.
If you want to change the dynamics of a relationship, whether it’s with a current intimate partner, an ex-partner (e.g., your children’s other parent), a sibling, friend or parent, you have the power to effect change all by yourself. You do not need to attend counselling together.
I can hear you scoffing from here, at the bottom of Australia. But, it’s true.
Imagine if you confronted the other person and decided to tell them exactly what you think of them. You lay every single thing you dislike about that person out on the table. How would they react? What effect would that have on your relationship?
See, you do have power!
Now, I’m not saying that it is easy to effect change. And I’ll let you know right now that the difficulty does not necessarily lie with the other person. It is hard because it requires that you change, and change is hard.
Our brains typically reject change. We humans like routines and habits. Things we can repeat without too much effort. Our brains become hard-wired when we do the same thing over-and-over and changing that wiring takes effort. So, it’s easier just to continue doing the same thing.
I am going to tell you right now, you have to stop doing the same thing, and do something different! You need to take responsibility for your own feelings and actions, and you might even need to get over some of your tightly held beliefs about what ‘should’ or ‘should not’ happen.
First, identify the pattern of discord in your relationship, especially what you do or say that gets a reaction from the other person. It doesn’t matter whether you understand why the other person reacts or not.
Second, identify several options on what you can do differently next time and test them for soundness. How will the other person likely react? Can you really get yourself to do something different and live with it?
Third, implement your idea and monitor results.
I’ll give an example. One couple used to have bitter fights about the cupboard doors. David would open the door to remove an item and then just leave it open. Debbie would walk by, slam the door shut and make some snide comment about his inability to even close a door. This was his opening to make a comment about her inability to park the car straight in the garage, and they’d be off. They were going to get divorced because of a cupboard door.
Debbie’s thinking: He is a grown man and ‘should’ be able to close the door himself. The kids are able to manage it! She ‘should not’ need to remind him, or close it herself. Someone could walk into it and it just looks unsightly. What if all of the cupboard doors in the house were left open all of the time? You’d have to walk around them. Some doors block access to other doors or items in the house. It would be chaos!
Did you catch those ‘shoulds’? Debbie was very tied to those shoulds. They reflect some underlying beliefs she has about how the world ‘should’ work.
Some therapists might delve into power and control issues. How the power battle over the cupboard doors represents the overall power struggle in their relationship. In my experience that’s interesting, but it doesn’t help move towards solving the problem quickly.
Some thingsDebbie could try to do differently next time:
- Ignore the open door. Don’t say anything. Don’t close the door. Take a couple of deep breaths (which reduce anxiety), and casually introduce a neutral topic of conversation, such as what he might like for dinner that night. If David makes a snide comment, ignore it.
- Take some deep breaths. Wait a few moments and calmly close the door. If David makes a snide comment, ignore it. Say nothing or casually introduce a neutral topic of conversation.
- Leaving all of the doors open in the house might be funny, but given the state of their relationship it would likely be seen as a provocation by David. She might have gotten away with that the after the first few incidents early in their relationship. But, after many years of fighting over the cupboard doors, David could easily respond by walking out of the relationship immediately.
Basically, Debbie needed to decide how tightly she was tied to her beliefs in those ‘shoulds’ and whether going through a divorce was worth hanging on to them.
She tried the second option. David actually made a snide comment: ‘What, feeling weak today? You didn’t slam it.’ She ignored it and asked him calmly and nicely if he would like to come home early from work to attend their son’s soccer match that afternoon, and would he like to drive with them so they could get some pizza afterwards. She proceeded to talk about the match, the importance to the season and how their son really wanted his dad to attend. Things moved on. He tested her a couple of times after that. But she reacted in exactly the same way. At one point he asked her in a curious, non-threatening way about her obsession with closing the doors and what happened. She simply responded that she’d decided that their marriage was more important than who closed the door so she just decided to let go of it. Eventually he began closing the doors himself (most of the time).
Can this technique work with your ex-partner? Yes! Will it be harder to do? Probably. But, if you are invested in having as good a business relationship as possible with your children’s other parent then it is worthwhile trying. Try being respectful and polite. Try to give up some of those ‘shoulds’. Try, and see what happens. If you can shift some of the negativity in your relationship everyone will benefit.