Preface: I work with high-conflict couples stuck in dysfunctional relationship patterns for many years. This post is for such couples. It does not apply to the average couple who might have short-term disagreements here and there.
The first time I see a couple for an intake session, I take time to explain to them how therapy works. For individuals, I emphasise the importance of the client’s willingness to take up the ownership of his or her own change. For couples, the story is a bit more complex.
I will say to the couple: “Many couples come in to see me hoping that therapy will cause their spouse to change. But if you have been in any longterm relationship, you will know the answer to this question: Is it possible change your spouse if he or she does not see eye-to-eye with you on that change?”
Most will answer, “No.”
I will continue, “So if you cannot change your spouse, what can you do?”
Not all, but many of my clients already know the answer: “Change myself.”
“That’s right!” I smile sympathetically. “But it’s a lot easier said than done. Why? Because of our expectations for our partners to change. When we start to change ourselves for their sake, but we don’t see the changes in them, we start to get bitter and upset. So what else can we do?”
Most do not have an answer at this point, and I help out:
“When couples come in for therapy, I ask them to turn their expectations into invitations. You are no longer expecting him or her to change, you are focused on changing yourself, and you are inviting your partner to change. An invitation has an RSVP on it — the invitee has a right to decline. When someone declines your invitation, you don’t get angry and lash out at them, instead you grieve the loss you feel.”
Sometimes, one member will ask, “so what am I supposed to do if I am doing all the change but he/she is not changing?”
This is when I give them what I feel is the most crucial piece of advice that can seem quite counter-intuitive. It is something that I have discovered through many years of doing relationship therapy. I express it in this way:
“When couples come in and work with me, sometimes, one partner may have changed as much as he or she can, but feels that the other partner is not changing or cannot change. Rather than to remain stuck in their high-conflict pattern, one partner can say to the other:
I have put in all the work possible to change myself. I cannot possibly change any further, or I will lose myself. Since I don’t see you changing enough to make a difference, the last change I need to make is to muster up my courage to ask, ‘how can we part well together?'”
“Parting well together” is an oxymoron. When we part, we move away from, not together. But I coined the phrase in this way to highlight that for a couple to part well, it requires them to coordinate their steps together. Like two dancers ending their dance by moving in opposite directions, the move, although sad, can still be coordinated and beautiful.
Parting well means accepting your partner as he/she is and not holding on to blame. It means leaving the marital relationship to embrace a good co-parenting relationship or even to become friends. Parting well means letting go peacefully on both sides so that life can begin again for each partner in healthier ways.
Starting about 6 years ago, I decided to give this “intro” to all of my couple clients in the very first session. I had seen too many stuck couple cases repeating their patterns for too many sessions, and I felt something had to be done. My intent was to be ethical — if they were not going to put in the effort to change, I did not want them to waste their money. However, to my surprise, when I started to give this intro to all my couples, I discovered something new and hopeful:
Feeling a freedom to part well can provide a shift for couples to take self-ownership for change towards healthier relating, resulting in a greater chance of reconciling their marriage! *
I don’t quite know why this happens, but I conjecture that when couples get to that point where they are absolutely willing to part well together, they have reached a “healthy state of mind” for self and for relationship. “No point staying in a dysfunctional pattern that is harming me and you (and our kids). Let’s be good to each other, agree to move apart amicably, and give each other a chance for a better future.”
At this crucial juncture, some couples rediscover the freedom of their early years of attraction. Back then, they were not tied together in marriage, they had a freedom to choose, and they chose each other. I think that feeling the freedom to stay or go somehow allows couples to shed their expectations that the other partner should make them happy. Then each partner can take responsibility for his or her own well-being independently of the other person.
At this crucial juncture, if they also rediscover that they still want to be together, then they become like TWO strong and independent dancers choosing to choreograph ONE beautiful dance. They begin to work at their relationship, not blaming the other for his/her missteps, but looking hard at changing their own steps to make the dance work for both of them — not because they have to, but because they want to.
I should emphasise that the change is not instantaneous. The reconfiguration of their relationship patterns from dysfunction to health is a process that will require conscious practice. But the great thing is, moving towards a happy marriage–and at the core, a healthy self–becomes possible!
Are you struggling in a long term relationship with on-going negative interactions that just don’t seem to stop? Have the courage to ask yourself, “what am I doing to contribute to the on-going dysfunctions of our dance?” Then ask what you are willing to change. Above all, give yourself the gift of choosing to move towards health, no matter what. And do not be afraid to engage a good relationship professional to help you make that a possibility.
* Note: This does not happen in all cases, although I wish it did!
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