(3 minute read)
Most arguments between romantic partners are over what seem to be silly things. But underlying that ‘silliness’ are messages that each party is giving to the other — and those messages are deadly serious.
Let’s take an example: Sophie and Andrew get along pretty well most of the time. She tends to take the lead on leisure time activities and Andrew’s happy to follow since he’s generally content with a range of activities and foods. But he’s noticed that when they’re walking on the street, Sophie makes the decision on which route to take, and if he suggests otherwise, she has reasons why her route is better. One day he decides to insist on the way he wants to go:
Andrew: We can walk through the park and then through the mall.
Sophie: No, that’s out of the way. Come this way, along the road.
Andrew: I don’t want to walk along the road, it’s noisy and there are too many cars.
Sophie: But it’s much quicker my way. It doesn’t make sense to go your way.
Andrew: Why do we always have to walk the way you want? Can’t we walk my way for once?
Sophie: Why are you making such a big deal about this? It’s much shorter this way.
Andrew: It’s just that every time we go out you choose the way, and you also criticize my choice. It’s fine if we go your way, just don’t act like I’m stupid for wanting to walk a different way. Who cares if it’s a bit longer anyway?
Sophie: So now I have to watch everything I say to avoid hurting your feelings? I take care of everything in the house and now I have to watch my tone of voice and my choice of words?
At this point, with Andrew and Sophie aware that feelings were raw, both subsided into an angry and hurt silence. On the surface, this was a silly argument over which way to walk. However, underneath that superficial issue was something more significant. Andrew’s message was “I don’t like that you push me around on this issue and that you don’t take my feelings into account. I want you to change.” Sophie’s message was “There’s nothing wrong with my behavior so I’m not going to change. You’re just too sensitive. YOU change.” Both sides felt angry that the other person’s behavior was wrong, and yet they were the one who was being asked to change.
With many couples, this argument would never have been settled. Both sides would have put it into an account labeled “Unpleasant Characteristics of My Partner” and dredged up from time to time as evidence in other fights.
However, Andrew and Sophie had had some couples counselling. And one of the lessons they’d learned is that you CAN’T change another person. You can only modify your own behavior.
Andrew started off gently, with an apology. “I should have let you know as soon as I noticed what was going on, instead of waiting months until I was irritated. That was my mistake and I’m sorry.” Then Andrew made the key move: “I don’t need you to change. If the way you are bothers me, then I have to figure out a way to deal with it.” Sophie was understandably suspicious, so Andrew had to repeat this several times in different ways. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re right and I’m too sensitive, or I’m right and you’re pushy. The important thing is that I have to figure out a way to make this work. You don’t have to behave differently at all.”
This may sound like a total surrender on Andrew’s part. But in his mind, he had developed different strategies for dealing with Sophie’s insistence on choosing the route. First, he could walk the way he wanted to, telling her, for example, “I’d rather walk through the park, so I’ll meet you at our destination.” He wouldn’t try to convince her to do anything different; instead, he’d simply exercise his two-legged right to walk where he wanted to. Second, he could tell her “I find that when we walk someplace together, I get annoyed at not having a say in the route. I don’t like feeling annoyed with you. So in future, let’s just meet at wherever we’re going and eliminate any chance of bad feelings.” Third, he could just accept that this is one of Sophie’s quirks, and that no one is perfect.
Andrew was ready to adopt a mixture of these strategies: If he was feeling calm and relaxed he would walk with her, but if he was on edge and irritable, he’d walk alone. Importantly, he wasn’t trying to punish Sophie. “I’m going to walk alone to our destination until you feel bad enough to change” would only cause more resentment. He had to accept that her behavior was not going to change, and it was his responsibility to find some way to deal with it.
Once Sophie realized that Andrew was no longer criticizing her behavior and had backed off from his insistence that she change, she was free to consider her own actions. Changing her behavior was something she could choose to do, or not do, because that decision no longer meant that she was right or wrong. Accepting her partner’s choice of route didn’t mean that she’d been pushy before, or that Andrew had been over-sensitive. All it meant was that she had, of her own free will, decided to do something to make Andrew feel better.
And that’s exactly what happened. Without saying anything, Sophie made an effort to accommodate her partner more often, and Andrew became more accepting on those occasions when she didn’t accommodate him.
Within this story lies the paradox of change: The harder we try to get others to change, the less successful we will be. It is only when we accept the other person as they are and focus on managing our own reactions to them that they become free to change.