Change me or change my mate?

Alice and Jed, like many couples I see in therapy, are nice, bright people who love each other very much.  They long to feel closer and more connected to one another, yet are stuck in a quagmire of conflict, resentment, and emotional distance.  They are having a terrible time finding their way to the relationship they both crave, causing them to have fantasies of escape and divorce.  Yet they also know divorce is not a good solution, and it’s not what they really want anyway.

Two weeks ago I gave them one of my typical assignments:

“Jed, Alice, this week I want each of you to work on changing one thing about yourself and how you behave in this marriage.”

This exercise gets right to the heart of our tendency to sit in blame of the other at the expense of looking at our own role in perpetuating unhappy cycles.  It also serves to highlight our individual power to change those cycles without focusing on changing our partner.

The next session, Alice made a powerful statement that brought to mind a bad habit of my own (dressed up as a virtue) that has helped to keep me stuck in some unhelpful patterns in my own relationships.  What she said went something like this:

“It took me most of the week to realize that what I had at first thought was me focusing on something I want to change about myself was really just another way of blaming Jed for what he does wrong.  I just kept thinking that I need to work on…being more patient when Jed does this…being less reactive when Jed does that…being more tolerant of this flaw of Jed’s or that flaw of Jed’s…whatever I came up with, it was just a sneaky way of continuing to blame him for our problems.  I still haven’t figured out exactly what I need to change about myself, but it was obvious that that was not it!”

Wow, that’s a humbling and powerful insight.  It’s like when people make their “I” statements like this: “What I think is that you’re screwed up!”  Like that’s going to help 🙂

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