10 reasons not to change can actually promote change in marriage
I want to take some time in this post to talk about an uncomfortable topic...change in marriage. It’s a word on the lips and in the hearts of many of the couples that come to see us.
Sometimes one partner has a list of reasons not to change a thing. Other times a partner has a list of ways that his partner should change.
Change in marriage is the gravitational center of our work as couples therapists. Every day I, and the rest of the Couples Therapy Inc. team, help couples to spark change in their relationships.
Just as often, however, we are helping couples to navigate changes that are happening around them; new babies, new careers, grief, illness, moves and more.
Yet, this idea of change in marriage is also a loaded one.
Often the ideas of growth and change are used interchangeably, this is a mistake. It might give the impression that if there is constant change in your marriage (perhaps even chaotic change) then you must be growing as a couple.
The reverse of that is to see all change in marriage as bad. This thinking is also mistaken. Certainly change is needed in our lives and in our relationships.
So what if we took a moment to pause in our list making and got curious about what staying the same might look like. Take that list of ways she should change or the relationship should change and imagine each item staying the same. Let’s think about all the change in marriage you’re hoping for, and imagine all that staying the same as well.
Sounds counterintuitive, right?
It’s a powerful practice, let me explain why.
The 10 Reasons Not to Change and How They Came to Be
Early in his career, Dr. Ross Ellenhorn was a young social worker working at a clinic in Waltham Massachusetts.
He ran an open-ended, ongoing day treatment program for problem-saturated patients with extensive histories in the mental health system.
Ross enjoyed a continuous flow of new patients as more seasoned clients cycled out, a new client always took their place.
As Ross settled into his therapeutic routine, he began to wonder about his troubled clients' reasons not to change.
He asked himself, why are my clients resisting the life-changes that they so obviously need? He relentlessly asked this question of every new member in his group therapy.
Eventually, Ross sat down and organized their answers. And he discovered something interesting about these answers. They were all coherent, reasonable, and logically consistent. Ross thought about these responses more deeply and noticed that The 10 Reasons Not to Change assured a certain set of experiences that would be unavailable if the patient actually changed.
The 10 reasons not to change intervention
Dr. Ellenhorn's next clinical move was inspired. He created a handout for the group entitled "The Ten Reasons Not to Change."
The 10 Reasons is a classic example of a paradoxical intervention. These kinds of "reverse psychology" and "ordeal-oriented" interventions were quite popular in the early days of family therapy, but paradoxical interventions have fallen into disuse somewhat over ethical concerns.
What Ross discovered was remarkable.
By imagining sameness as a potentially sensible course of action, my clients often found it easier to make changes in their lives. Like Houdini in a straitjacket, relaxing in order to escape, his body compressed with the pressure of the belts, chains, and canvas, moving in the opposite direction from where you want to go often frees you to get there. Dr. Ross Ellenhorn.
As a Social Worker, Ross says he adheres to the maxim "Start where the client is," and that fundamental value breaks down resistance to change by curiously honoring why they might want to stay the same.
A good couples therapist might look at any desired change in marriage the same way.
The 10 reasons not to change
How do these 10 reasons not to change impact the idea of change in marriage?
Your partner is not going to change. In other words, you can’t change a cat into a dog. Love just isn’t enough to change a person’s basic nature and upbringing.
If you fall in love with someone who is reserved and you are more outgoing and need outward signs of affection to feel secure, you’ll feel chronically dissatisfied.
Most likely, these differences will probably eat away at loving feelings over time and erode positive feelings in your relationship.
Rather than seeing change in marriage as synonymous with “fixing” your partner, focus on improving your own life instead.
Many people stay in dysfunctional relationships with the unconscious desire to change their marriage by only changing their partner.
This pattern is common and couples often remain in highly dysfunctional relationships resulting in emotional gridlock.
Focusing on changing your partner can prevent you from focusing on the issues at hand. Ask yourself: what am I trying to accomplish? Avoid name-calling and don’t attack your partner personally.
Remember anger is usually a symptom of underlying hurt, fear, and frustration so keep things in perspective. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
When you change your perspective the way you look at things will change. This doesn’t mean you should tolerate any kind of abuse or disrespect.
It means that your expectations impact the way you feel about your partner and his/her action. In general, you will be as happy or disappointed with your romantic relationship depending on how well your perceptions of what is happening match your expectations.
Fear of change and the blame game
It can prevent you and your partner from communicating honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns and express your thoughts, feelings, and wishes in a respectful way.
Stop the “blame game” and examine your part in disputes or conflict. What does healthy change in your marriage require of you?
Focusing on changing someone allows wounds to fester. Challenge your beliefs and self-defeating thoughts about your partner’s behavior when you find it to be negative.
Listen to your partner’s side of the story. Don’t let fear of change prevent you from seeing your partners’ side of the street.
Are there times when you feel mistrustful or hurt even when he/she presents evidence to the contrary about your grievance?
Stop encouraging your fear of change by focusing on your partner's issues
Trying to change your partner interferes with your ability to practice forgiveness. Forgiveness isn’t the same as condoning the hurt done to you but it will allow you to move on.
Fear of change in marriage is sometimes a struggle around forgiveness or acceptance by an injured partner.
Try to remember you are on the same team.
Some therapists advise hurt partners to accept that people do the best they can and try to be more understanding.
But that notion that “people do the best they can” is merely a useful lie.
This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view, which gives them less power over you.
If your relationship is basically healthy, cultivate a mindset of acceptance and forgiveness about daily disappointments. After all, none of us is perfect. Try to let go of small, petty annoyances. Positive change in marriage is sometimes about the ability to let go of old hurts and attachment injuries.
Take responsibility for your part in the conflict or dispute and you will promote good will. One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship.
Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.” Apologize to your partner when appropriate. This will validate their feelings and promote forgiveness and allow you both to move on.
Trying to change your partner can lead to the end of your relationship. In Dr. Gottman’s acclaimed book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail he posits that criticizing your partner is one of the main causes of divorce.
It is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. Consequently, you are cutting to the core of their character when you criticize.
For instance, a complaint is: “I was worried when you were late. We agreed that you’d call when you were running late.” Versus a criticism: “You never think about me, you’re so selfish!”
Focusing on changing your partner doesn’t allow you to be vulnerable. While self-sufficiency and autonomy can help you weather the storms of life, it can also rob you of true intimacy.
For a relationship to be balanced, partners must be able to depend on one another and feel that they are needed and appreciated for the support they give. Trying to find change in marriage by changing your partner can prevent you from influencing each other and achieving a deeper intimacy.