Most of us see ourselves as suffering — at least occasionally — from the bad behavior of our loved ones. “My husband doesn’t show me affection anymore.” Or, “My wife spends too much money.” Perhaps “My wife is too busy with her own friends and ignores me.” And “He doesn’t want to have sex anymore.”
True, there are people who, from the moment we met them, can’t show affection, spend too much money, don’t put time into their romantic partners, or who aren’t sexually attracted to us. But our spouse didn’t start off as unaffectionate, didn’t spend more than they had, didn’t ignore us and most definitely wanted to have sex. These problems developed over time. (If they were there from the beginning, you might want to wonder what made you marry them in the first place.)
At one time or another we’ve probably thought “What’s wrong with them? Why have they changed?” Our reaction is to feel a bit helpless, even victimized, and to wish that they’d change back. Chances are we’ve made that wish known, and that we’ve even gotten into some fights over their behavior. And our partner has probably raised some completely irrelevant complaint of their own about our own behavior. (How dare they?!) That fight probably didn’t fix anything, and since the issue wasn’t fixed we’ve probably gone on to have quite a few very similar fights. If we’ve shared our problem with friends, we’ve gotten the sympathy we deserved and we’re more convinced than ever that everything would be better if our partner would just CHANGE.
Looked at this way, it’s obvious that relationships are a direct line: Our spouse did something that affected us and upset us. End of story. But we communicated our upset to our spouse in some way, and our spouse also had an emotional reaction to our communication. Which they then communicated to us through some behavior, and created a second emotion, which we then communicated to them through our behavior, and so on in a circular fashion.
You may ask: “So what? My spouse started it.” Perhaps that’s true. But trying to prove who started it isn’t very useful in resolving the issue — if it was, you probably wouldn’t still be reading this.
So let’s look at an example of how this cycle of reactions works:
Tracy and John have a reasonable income, but John believes that a big rainy day fund is important, while Tracy is more optimistic about the future and feels that while saving is important, they should also enjoy themselves while they can.
She buys a work outfit that’s a little more expensive than usual and mentions it to him in passing.
He feels a little anxious at the thought of the money that just went out the door, and responds by suggesting that next time, she could shop around a little more to find something less pricey.
She feels criticized, and although she doesn’t say anything, she notes to herself that she did spend a lot of time looking, and anyway, she contributes to the family income so she has a right to go to work looking good. Tracy feels annoyed, and defiantly, the next time she buys something, she deliberately doesn’t consult John, and again spends a little more than she might have.
John’s anxiety over their savings account makes him angry and critical when they talk about it. He worries that she’s not taking their budget seriously, and starts to look at all their credit card statements.
Tracy feels that he’s treating her like a child on an allowance, and refusing to capitulate, starts to see her purchases as declarations of her independence.
This becomes a circular pattern: The more John tries to control Tracy’s spending, the more she spends. And the more she spends, the more he tries to control her spending. John is correct in saying “My wife spends too much money” while Tracy is correct in saying “My husband tries to control me.”
If we believe that the problem in our relationship is located in the other person, and we think that if we could only get them to change then everything would be fine, then we are doomed to failure. We are also doomed to frustration, anger and perhaps depression and anxiety, for we are trying to control something that is fundamentally beyond our control — the behavior and emotions of another person.
So that’s the bad news. The good news is that because relationships are circular, what we do has an impact. Sometimes, the key to changing a relationship is changing ourselves rather than changing the other person. That breaks the cycle and sets up a new dynamic. The other person can’t continue to behave in the same way if we have changed the way we react. And this is the one thing that we do have control over: Our own behavior.
Here’s how that applies to John and Tracy: The more he tries to control her spending, the more she feels controlled. And the more she feels controlled, the more she spends. John can’t break this cycle by trying harder to control her spending. Instead, he might:
Negotiate a budget that would allow them to save a certain amount of money, agreeing that anything over that must be spent, or….
Discuss separating their finances, sharing common expenses but keeping control of their own salaries beyond that, or….
Decide that for the next few years they will save nothing, after which he will discuss a savings plan with Tracy.
The common theme among these tactics is that John changes his behavior, rather than trying to change Tracy. When Tracy feels that he is not trying to control her spending, she may feel less inclined to declare her independence through her purchases. Which in turn will make John less worried and therefore less inclined to try to control her, and so on in a virtuous cycle.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
When we’re in a relationship, it’s often very difficult to see what’s actually going on, to step back and see our part in the maintenance of a problem. And it’s even harder to stop trying to change the other person and focus instead on what we can change in ourselves. Hoping to change another person feels like saying “I’m right”, while changing ourselves feels like saying “I’m at least partly wrong.” It doesn’t feel great to admit that we have any responsibility in a situation where we feel so clearly the victim.
That’s one area where a therapist can be helpful, and why many people who enter therapy do so because they’re dissatisfied with the state of their relationships. Therapists can help people see what is going on in their relationships, and help get past “right” and “wrong” and do what works.