I recently read an article entitled: “What does it mean to hold space for someone else” by Heather Plett.

I believe this is the key to good, open, honest communication. It’s an important article to read. You can read the article here: http://upliftconnect.com/hold-space/

So what does it mean to hold space for someone else?
“It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgment and control”

It sounds glorious, but the reality is this is very hard to do in our most important and closest relationships. Why? What gets in the way of this perfectly harmonious union? Well believe it or not, what you need to achieve the above, love, is also the very thing that stands in the way of accomplishing it.

We become confused about what love actually is and what loving another human being looks like. Love can look like care but care can also look like control. Love can look like guiding, but guiding can be judgment. Love can look like concern, but concern can also look like criticism. Love can look like inseparable romance, but inseparable romance can be dependence. We are under the illusion that we are in a loving relationship, but are we in the best most sustainable one?

Love is an emotion and no emotion stands alone. It is paired with anger, sadness, happiness and underlying it all, fear. On a very basic level, it’s fear for our survival. If the one we love does not fit what or who we think they should be, we will feel abandoned and alone, left to fend for ourselves and our offspring. Love becomes a need. And any time we need something from someone else there is the risk of disappointment. Why? Because love/need becomes focus on the other person, and this is the single most detrimental dynamic for ourselves and the relationship. You find yourself saying: “If they would just, then I could.” You have just hit a brick wall, a dead end in the maze of life. So let’s review: love + need=fear. Fear+relationship=focus on other. Focus on other=loss of self and the sum of it all is anxiety and discontent in the relationship. Isn’t it kind of crazy that our partner can become the one that can best trigger our fight or flight response? It’s a different kind of heart pounding then the one we started off with when the relationship was new.

In order to hold space for someone, you need to learn to love the person in a different way. Turn love/need into just love (the love probably very similar to when you just met the person) But how? Here are 3 suggestions. Please note before you read these that the theme of these suggestions is shifting focus from them to you; a key handed to you to love in a different way.

We must love and trust ourselves. I hate to sound cliché but it is absolutely true. It is trust that we can survive happily and courageously on our own if we need too. If abandoned in the forest our ability to make solid decisions in the moment, tap in to our resources, and find inner and outer strength would come through and allow us to survive. Once we trust that we can survive and are not dependent on someone else, we can look at our significant other as a partner, two people walking side by side. Two separate brains are better than one. Two merged brains (loss of self) bounce off each other, and like a wall of mirrors, disorientation ensues. So, loving in a different way means knowing that we want to be with this person not that we need to be with this person. Suggestions: Do something that requires you to feel alone and vulnerable. Take a trip alone, think of ways in which you would normally be dependent on your partner and do them yourself. Use the grill, cook a meal, pay the bills, recognize ways in which you have become dependent and work on changing that. Prove to yourself you are capable. A good question might be, “In what way am I focused on my partner rather than what I am responsible for?”

Recognize and respect your separateness. You are two different people in the world perceiving everything you come across in a different way from each other. This is a very simple concept that most people do not understand at all. While our current president may be high on the continuum of narcissism, we are all somewhere on the scale and we believe the only way in which to see the world is the way we see it. But understand that everyone is feeling the same way. The clashing of perceptions and the desire to have them be the same causes tension, and our main mission becomes getting the other person to see it like we do. This will never happen. This creates a huge wedge of sensitivity that causes fights and/or silent treatments and the partner whom we are supposed to love becomes scary and unapproachable. Loving in a different way means truly understanding that you and your partner will never share the exact same view of the world and the way things should be done. Loving in a different way means understanding that each of you brings a unique perspective and understanding to the relationship that must be honored, not judged. If one of you loves the beach and the other loves the mountains this is ok! You can still be good together if you respect the others interests.  Suggestions: Be truly interested in learning to understand the way your partner sees the world. Ask questions, be open to what you hear, don’t judge it or try to change it. Just listen. Experiment. Take one issue in front of you and explain what you would do, or how you see it. See how similar or dissimilar they might be.

Communicate with kindness. One of the main things that interferes with good communication is the inability to tolerate our partners range of emotions. Whether directed at us or not, we don’t want the other person to feel uncomfortable. Yes, because we love and care for him or her, but also because if that person is uncomfortable, we are uncomfortable (there are those merged brains again) , and we humans will do almost anything to avoid discomfort. If you are friends, partners, teammates you will recognize naturally the desire to communicate with kindness, interest and respect. We lose this when we are in a fear based state but once you realize you can trust yourself, that you are a strong individual in the world having and needing life experiences that enrich you and make you healthy and happy, you will want that for your partner too. Suggestions: Tell your partner what you appreciate about them on a daily basis. Take time to be grateful for how they contribute to your life. Thank them. Offer to do something that would be helpful to them. When they are having an emotional response to something, listen to them. Ask questions, do not be threatened or scared by their emotions that belong to them. Just be present with those emotions, and sit with them.

So what is the key to loving in a different way? Focusing on what you can actually control. Yourself.  It is the recognition that fear in a relationship increases the desire to control.  The very effort to try and make our partner in to what we think we need propels them in the opposite direction and creates the very fear we were trying to avoid.  Get in touch with what you fear, recognize your strength as an individual human in the world, and love someone for who they are not who you wish they were.

 

 

 

What if the anger we felt toward another was all just an illusion?  Maybe we are never really mad atimages-3 someone else, but instead, at ourselves for the way we are reacting to them.  It’s a little mind bending when you are looking at a picture and you think you know what you are seeing only to feel your eyes and brain shift to seeing something completely different. I had my own ah-ha moment a few weeks ago when I was super outraged at my 10-year old daughter, who was acting impossible. I yelled and I was so angry I wanted her to suffer under the stare of my evil, I’m totally disappointed-in-you glare. I texted my Mom (who in situations like this always seems to calm me down) and I asked her, “When I was a kid and acting terribly, did you feel like you hated me and that I had ruined your life?” Her response shifted my brain and I saw a completely different picture. She wrote back, “Yes, because I felt so bad about myself and my inability to self regulate.” Boom. I wasn’t mad at my daughter. I was mad at myself for jumping on her mood train and crashing into a wall. I had lost my battle at staying calm and thoughtful and in the moment to fearing for her future, feeling as though I had messed up the past by creating this monster and imagining how amazing my life would be if I had decided never to have kids. It was me, angry at myself for loosing control and feeling crazy. Once I read that and my brain snapped in to a different place, I stopped and hugged her and everything melted away. Roll your eyes all you want at my pollyana-ish experience but I definitely felt less angry at her and more forgiving of myself in that moment.

I’m working with a couple in which the wife was on the verge of leaving her husband.  One foot-out-the-door close.  The dynamic was  common and simple but so complicated all at the same time.  She married someone who had a very clear sense in his mind about right/wrong, good/bad and could be a bully, in her opinion, to have his way.  For years she had given in on things from the minor – what to have for dinner, to the middle – what color to paint the baby room, to the extreme – having sex when she didn’t want to time and time again.  Years of giving in had created a fierce resentment in her that had propelled her anger toward him to catastrophic levels.  She was so tired of feeling disappointed that she no longer felt anything at all.  She could see nothing that attracted her to him.  She couldn’t even be around him.  He was  struggling to breathe, gasping for air, grasping to anything he perceived as hope.  He attempted a complete turn around –  in which being accused of having checked out of being a part of the family and the raising of the kids had now become wanting to do everything and anything to be included.  Their marital dance became a war and they became locked in their view of the situation.  Therapy gave them an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective and redefine what they had come to view as fact.  For her, realizing that her anger at him was in large part due to the disappointment she felt toward herself for years of not defining what was important to her was an ah-ha moment.  This change in perception allowed her to work on what she needed to instead of blaming him or waiting for him to change.  His realization that he had repeated the exact relationship his parents had allowed him to shift his perspective on what he thought was normal.

All of us have a dance in which we participate in all of our relationships.  These two examples show how the dance can quickly become a war when we project our fears, have expectations, blame the other and get locked in our views of what is right or wrong.

Here are some things to think about to keep your dance flowing:

Assume your anger at another is an illusion and a perfect opportunity to assess how you have contributed or are handling the situation.  When we simply focus on the other as causing our pain, fear, or discomfort we are in the victim role.  Victims experience fear which triggers our fight or flight response which makes us release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine into our bloodstream.  When this stress response kicks in, our ability to think clearly and act maturely becomes limited.  Take ownership of your anger and reactivity and don’t be the victim. Once the wife from the example above became less of the victim, she was able to be less angry and more engaged.

Be mindful that there are multiple ways to perceive one situation.  Stretch your mind to gain another perspective.  All we really know is the world we live in.  This has been formed by our childhoods and our experiences and by no means is inaccurate.  But as many people as there are in your relationship network there are that many differences in perspective.   A healthy relationship is one where there is genuine interest in understanding the others perspective without judgement.  My daughter reacts visibly to her fears, and when I view her as scared and lost, I am less likely to jump on the crazy train.

Be in the moment as much as possible.  Worrying about what we have messed up in the past and worrying about what might happen in the future skyrocket our anxieties and prevent us from staying calm and thoughtful in the moment.  None of that other stuff exists anymore and we cannot predict the future so why not just deal with what does exist – the moment in front of you. Notice when you are in the past or future, take a deep breath and let it go. You’ll notice a change in how you feel immediately.

Break routine and do something different in your relationship everyday.  This is more of an exercise for the brain.  We all fall into autopilot and this is not good for us or our relationships.  Challenge your brain by increasing your awareness and choosing to react in a different way than you are inclined.  Hugging my daughter when I had been angry at her totally shifted the emotional climate.

Don’t forget that it is always in your power to see a situation differently.  Part of the joy in life is knowing there is always something to work on in you.  So just when you think you are certain you see one thing, look more closely and watch the whole picture change to something spectacular and new.

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I recently had a conversation with a young woman who seemed very concerned that she was one way with her friends and colleagues — light, fun and dynamic and a different way with her husband — withdrawn, cranky, timid and on edge.  Of course her automatic inclination was to blame her husband for this.  She pointed out that he was too critical of her, he was mean at times, she was never good enough or smart enough for him.  In her mind, it was he who made her become timid and distant.

This isn’t the first time I had heard someone describe this phenomena of having two faces.  Most people who describe themselves as having this experience much prefer the person who can relate to friends and colleagues than the repressed old bag they feel they have become with their spouse.  The longer and more intensely one focuses on the other as the cause of their differences in personality,  the more they feel distant and panicked at the thought that they should no longer be together.  I have witnessed people spend years waiting for the other to change so that they can….be happier, be skinnier, be richer, have more fun, be a better parent, a better host and a better friend.  Waiting around for the other to make it possible for you to do and be these things in an endless cycle and energy suck that not only splits two people apart but it splits the individual apart.   I believe that not being a consistent person in relationships actually contributes to one’s overall anxiety and even the physical manifestations of this anxiety.  It’s a lot of stressful work trying to figure out who to be with whom and when to be it. What would it take to merge these two personalities together to create one person?

Being a consistant person in all of your relationships is the responsibility of the individual. Even having an expectation that someone should or could make this easy for you takes energy away from being able to work on it. I’m sure at this point some of you detest me and are going to go google, “5 steps to changing your man (or women) to be who you want.”  You’ll probably find it out there too.  But before you go, at least finish this.

Here are (my own list of)  5 things that I think are key when figuring out how to move toward being a consistent self in all of your important relationships.  By the way, give yourself the deadline of a lifetime to work on this.  Get excited with the idea that you are your own science experiment and a constant source of data for and about yourself.  It can take hours, days, months and years to integrate this data in a meaningful way that translates into behavior.  So, patience please.

1) Know who you are and what’s important to you and act on it 

If being alone, being social, traveling solo, traveling with friends, spending time writing, being alone in a museum, being a nerd and studying something nerdy or whatever it is that is important to you then do it.  Don’t give things up because your spouse doesn’t do it, doesn’t get it, or may not approve.  Most people in long term relationships give their solo missions and interests up and I’m here to tell you, that’s not a good idea. It splits you.  Yes, you’re not a single free floater anymore so schedules do need to be discussed, but there are ways to build it in.  Conversely, give your spouse the space and encouragement to do these things too.

2)  Manage yourself

If we are constantly in reactive mode we are essentially spreading our own anxiety like a flu bug. It’s highly contagious and there’s no preventative shot for this one at CVS.  Rein it in, people, and decide how you want to react in every situation you encounter.  Yes, if your wife or husband is acting bitchy it is understandable that you would snap back because, Dammit! They can’t treat you that way. I’ll have you recall however that simply reacting contributes and prolongs the problem.  What if you took yourself off auto pilot and purposefully and thoughtfully changed the pattern by responding differently.  What if you made a joke and shocked the heck out of her? Loosen up and find the flexibility to react in a way that doesn’t just keep the wheel spinning.  This requires thought and discipline and a lot of deep breathing.

3)  Awareness of when you are blaming others

It’s just so boring to blame everyone else for the things going on around you, but it feels so damn good! It is so tempting to blame your husband for your distant and cool behavior.  After all, it is he who seems so grumpy and irritated and when we just ping off his mood we don’t have to think for ourselves.  Blaming others for your own moods and actions keeps you stuck in the endless cycle of misery in the home.  Take accountability and see what happens when you blame yourself for choosing to be shut down and icy.  I actually don’t like the word blame but I’m using it to get you charged up.  If you can plow through others emotions and stay true to who you are and how you are versus getting sucked up into their vortex, you will have graduated from blamer to liver of your life.  Ahhhh, short term pain for long term gain.

4)  Banish the expectations of how others “should be”

A dream is but a dream and its time you wake up.  You have an idea of how your spouse should be and its holding you back and making you resentful.  I promise when you drop the monkey off that is wishing someone was different than they are, you become lighter and less burdened.  When you become lighter and less burdened you enjoy who you are with more.  When you enjoy who you are with more, you are more free to be yourself. When you are more free to be yourself, you are actually more enjoyable to be around.  When you are more enjoyable to be around, you might find miraculously that people are lighter and more fun too.  Yes, it starts with you, and yes, the harder you try and change someone to match who you think you want them to be, the more stuck the relationship will be.  Look at who is right in front of you and respect and appreciate them.

5)  Write, write, write it out

The best way to integrate changes so they stick is to work on it every day.  Not every other day or once a week or in fits and spurts.  Everyday, multiple times a day.  Repetition is the only way to build new neural pathways in the brain which will eventually become your automatic way of living.  Writing down what you are working on,  positive thoughts, the script for how you want a particular interaction to go, your strengths, what you are excited about, what you appreciate about your husband/wife/partner, what you are hopeful about and what you are grateful for is singlehandedly the best way to do this.  I had a client who every morning upon waking immediately began a negative spiral about her life, her husband and her day.  I suggested she get a journal and write down the above and read it and re read it first thing in the morning.  At first it was a stretch and she wasn’t even sure she believed what she wrote but within two weeks she noticed a difference in her outlook on life and her relationship with her husband.  Her experiment was to keep it going for 3 months consistently.  Change is not for the faint at heart.  Be tough and work it.

Move on from blaming others for your lack of being a consistent self and take the reins, the wheel, the handlebars or whatever drives you and steer.

The holidays highlight the way our relationships operate in a way that just any other ordinary day can’t.  The planning, the shopping, the prep, the packing, the travel, and ALLLLL the mish mosh of personalities together in one room could singe any stray hairs off your uncooked turkey.  Speaking of turkeys, (sorry vegetarians, translate to tofu and veggies as needed)  as you’re thinking about what it takes to not burn your turkey, you could simultaneously be thinking about what it takes to not burn your spouse down.  Wait, let me come at that from a more positive angle…as you’re thinking about what it takes to prepare a golden brown and succulent turkey, you can simultaneously be thinking about what it takes to keep your relationship juicy and delicious. Hmmm, that’s better.  Good connotations.

Here are three things that could lead to a turkey disaster:

1)  Not planning ahead or reading a recipe for complete guidance or a little inspiration.  (Try to thaw a 15 lb turkey the morning of. Ugh, panic?)

2)  Incorrect temperature and/or incorrect cooking time.

3)  Neglect (Got to baste that mug…).

Here are three things that could lead to a relationship disaster:

1) Flying by the seat of your pants around the chaos without any intentions or thoughtfulness to your actions.

2)  Getting yourself all hot and bothered because you haven’t worked out or done whatever it is you do to keep yourself calm and cool and/or doing or focusing too much on one thing and not enough on the other.

3)  Totally ignoring your spouse, taking them for granted or just not being thankful for what they do bring to the table.

Gee, look at the similarities.  I think we’re on to something here if you’re interested in killing two birds with one stone.  Keep the analogy in mind through the day.  Whatever you’re doing for or to the turkey, do it with and for the spouse too…(goofiness recognized).

I’ll let you go to butterball.com to get further turkey cooking tips ( a cold water bath defrosts 4lbs per half hour, BTW) but here are some further thoughts on the above list and how to get to that juicy place in your relationship during the busy Thanksgiving day.

1) Plan ahead/read something inspirational.  Choose one or two things you will be super intentional about.  If you know that you always get irritated at your spouse when he watches football while you bust your ass, choose to react differently.  Either accept with love that that’s what he loves to do and you love him so staring at his butt crack as he grasps his can-o-beer is lovely OR talk to him ahead of time and hand him a list of the things that need to be done and discuss who’s going to do what (You better add the when in there too. Time lines can differ dramatically). Think about previous years.  What are your pitfalls of reactivity? If your wife runs around all stressed and you usually just get mad at her, do something different – joke with her or approach her ahead and ask what you can do to help minimize her stress.  If your husband and your mother get tense with each other and you normally get anxious and try to intervene, decide to let it go and let them hash it out,  breathe…  I will give you a hint about your pitfalls. They stem from having unmet expectations.  He “SHOULD” do this without me asking is a common one.  When you find yourself saying he or she “SHOULD” (insert anything), sound the fire alarms. That turkey’s chard.  Right now, stop reading and choose the two things you will intentionally do differently (this equals golden brown).

Like looking at a recipe for guidance or inspiration, maybe there are a few quotes or things you have read that shock your brain into that “Ah ha” moment. You know what I’m talking about. When what you are reading seems to pertain to you perfectly, something clicks and for a brief period of time everything makes perfect sense.  Here’s one for you: “When we are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself & study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.” Epictetus.  AH HA!!!  Go into your long, busy weekend prepared and inspired instead of overwhelmed and spent.

2) Give, give, give GIVE! That’s what we are supposed to do over ThanksGIVEing however a line can be crossed when the neglect of ourselves back fires into us becoming selfish bi*%^#’s!  Keep a beat on your own temp and when you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed and focused on all the annoying aspects of those around you, take a time out.  Go for a walk or a run, sit down and read, watch something funny, call whomever is synonymous with you and a good mood. You are in control of your own mood.  No one is doing anything to you.  During this busy day, burning yourself out is easily done yet it’s difficult to recover from the ramifications.

Incorrect cooking times in a relationship translates in to focusing on the negative stuff versus focusing on the good stuff.  Make sure you’re cooking up the positive so you’re not desiring to use your spouses limbs as the dried out wish bone.  No good wishes can come true there! Balance, balance, balance. Keep your temperature even and your focus varied.

3)  Neglect.  It’s easy to fly by each other without stopping.  Stop, look at each other and smile.  If you go to bed at night and you or your spouse have a huge chunk of spinach in your teeth, that’s a true indicator that you forgot to look at each other and pay attention.  Sometimes it can be really fun to have a conversation with your guy or gal in front of other people.  You might hear stuff that wouldn’t ordinarily come out.  Hug, appreciate, laugh with, learn from and check each other’s teeth.

I hope you have a great Thanksgiving with perfectly cooked and loved turkeys.

Glennon Gordon, LICSW

glennontg@me.com

What does it mean to really listen when your spouse or partner is talking?
I will tell you right now the majority of you are doing one or all of the following when you and your spouse are in a discussion that involves anything other than the weather or schedules:
  • Thinking about unrelated topics
  • Judging
  • Coming up with your defensive position
  • Having an inner argument about what to say or not
  • Searching desperately for the best advice to give
  • Selectively listening to hear what you want
  • Thinking about how unbelievably wrong they are
  • Thinking about how you are going to convince them out of it
  • Thinking about how sorry you feel for yourself
  • (Fill in this blank with your own)
I think you might really be amazed at how distracted you are by your own agenda in the conversation. What is this about?
I think our inner baby is coming out. Really, we want things done and thought about our way because our way is the right way. Plus (the inner baby says) we are married and therefore we must think the same and be the same and if you stray from that my world becomes uncertain and scary. Adult arguments are just grown up tantrums.
We become so sensitive to each other that having differences of opinions can be threatening. Therefore when having a discussion, we become desperate to have the person agree with the way we see things and are so distracted by plotting our next move to herd them into our corner we are not even listening.  When both people are doing this simultaneously, the back and forth lobs are faster and more furious than even Serena and Venus could keep up with.
I am inclined to address those that are saying, “That’s not me…I’m never like that.”  Liar!! I would venture to guess that about 90% of people reading this operate under the automatic assumption that everyone sees the world as they see the world and makes sense of it in the way they do.  It takes a pretty evolved human being to understand that our family histories and brains are what drives us to see the world as we do and no two family histories or brains are alike.  Therefore, two people seeing and understanding one issue the exact same way is almost impossible, yet we spend much of our time trying to persuade, convince or coerce those we are having a discussion with to agree with us.  How can we be listening when this is the agenda?  As adults, we need to understand that our perspective is just that. There are infinite possibilities and perspectives…ah inspiring (And scary and overwhelming for the inner baby).
What can we do to be more present in the conversations that we have with our spouse?
1) Increase your awareness of the self chatter that goes on in your head. Review the list above and just notice how often these thoughts pop up while in a conversation. Do it more than once. Do this multiple times and take notes.
2) Set an intention to listen without interrupting and more importantly, to hear what is being spoken. Be genuinely interested in the way your spouse thinks about stuff. You love this person. Isn’t it fascinating to hear how their brain makes sense of their world, what they choose to communicate and how they choose to string the words together to make sentences? So uniquely them. FASCINATING! (That last touch was to emphasize the fake it till you make it mentality…keep working at it).  Sometimes when I torture my clients with mirroring or repeating back what they heard their spouse say, they are forced into the exercise of really listening.  Try this sometime when the cheese ball, psychology 101 mood hits you.  Seriously, it’s a good exercise.
3) Get out of the right versus wrong mentality. Bottom line is that your spouse is not wrong. I don’t even have to know what the content is to tell you point blank, they are not wrong. Nor are you. I go back to the perspective thing. What they are saying makes sense to them given the way they understand the world and their place in it. Really, when you think about it, who are you to feel that you have to, or should change that? I have worked with plenty of people over the years who have successfully “changed” their partner into thinking the way they do and it has always come back to bite them in the ass. All of the sudden, they become responsible for this person in a way they hadn’t had to be before. Talk about scary…Let me be clear that we all influence each other and there is most certainly healthy influence. But to view your spouses point of view as wrong is downright insulting.
4) Know the point of communication. Your job in an argument is not to have a winner or a looser.  It is to see how well you can define yourself and your beliefs clearly to those around you and to negotiate coming to a mutual agreement you can both live with. That may be closer to your thinking on the matter or vise versa but if you go into a discussion with the intent to have the whole thing exactly as you want, you may be in for it.
5) Listen and bite your tongue.  What if you allowed your spouse to have the floor without ANY rebuttal from you?  What if you just listened and at the end said, ” I’ve heard you and I’m going to take a few hours to think about what you have said.”  I guarantee you you will be interrupting a pattern and if your spouse doesn’t drop dead from shock, he or she might return the floor to you (no guarantees and it’s not about that…it just might increase the chance:)  Respect your spouse enough to let them know you have heard them and are interested in their perspective by really thinking about what they are saying.
Off you go baby! Grow up, listen hard, and enjoy each others differences and unique offerings set before you.
Glennon Gordon, LICSW
4545 42nd Street, NW Suite 201
Washington, DC 20016
glennontg@me.com
Available for private consultation

This week I have been working with a lot of couples who are hell bent on attempting to change their spouse by complaining to them over and over and over.  I suppose this isn’t such a far-fetched idea.  If you pound a nail into a piece of hard wood over and over again, eventually it will sink in.

What really happens if we continually give our spouse the smack down in hopes that something will sink in? Lots of things.  But one thing that will NOT happen is the change in the other that you think you need to see to be happier.  Not only will they most likely not change in the direction you think they should go, they won’t even change in the direction they think they should go.  Instead  they freeze, or they rebel or they become passive aggressive, or they become resistant and defensive.  They might even temporarily look the way you want them to look  but it’s only temporary if they are doing it to get you off of their back. Then you have this false hope disappointment thing going on.  They are only reacting to your anxiety.  This is a mess, a real mess I tell you.

Here’s what’s happening.  We all only have so much energy.  If you are spending all of your energy on attempting to change the thinking and ways of another human being, you are wasting precious energy that could be spent on perfecting your own life goals.  And for the spouse that’s “not changing,” instead of spending their precious energy on their own life goals and figuring out what they want to do with their lives they’re busy defending themselves, fighting you, or convincing you why they’re not going to do what you want them to do.  The bottom line is that focusing your energy on what someone else should be doing that they are not doing is a big fat waste of time.

This is a tough situation.  What if you have begged your spouse to get a new job so he can be around more often on the weekends because your losing it?  Or what if you have begged your spouse to help you around the house more because you’re feeling overwhelmed and they just haven’t? What about if you have begged your spouse to actually finish a project versus starting it and then abandoning it with shrapnel left all around?  What if it feels like you are at your breaking point and if this thing doesn’t change YOU will be miserable?  What are you supposed to do?

It might feel hopeless and overwhelming but what I can say is whatever you have been currently doing, stop.  Just stop.  Let’s start there.  Stop waiting for the other person to change so that you can be happier because it’s more than likely doing the opposite. Your expectations that aren’t being met are making you more miserable.  Understanding some fundamentals about relationships and how they work is important and might lead to some resolution of the above questions.

So, take a deep breath and understand that all relationships can be challenging and that just because you want to kill your spouse right now does not mean you need to be calling lawyers.  You are in it for the long haul and relationships are really just a series of ups and downs that need to be managed until the kids go away (hopefully) to college.  After they leave, the turbulence decreases.  Unless of course you have been ignoring each other for the past 18 years in which case those quiet skies become deafening loud.

The other thing I believe is important to understand is that the dependence we have toward each other goes beyond just needing the other to bring home the other half of the mortgage money or to take care of the kids while the other works.  Without realizing it, we have become increasingly sensitive to what the other is doing or not doing, saying or not saying, that we begin to make decisions based on this information instead of the information that is within us (our own thinking and perceptions). When this sensitivity goes both ways, as it does in all relationships, this is called reciprocity.  He does one thing, she reacts.  Then he reacts to her reaction.  Well, then of course she has to react to his reaction which he can’t not react to.  What’s lost here? The entire original topic of discussion!  The issue has become the relationship and then the original issue never gets resolved.  How is this dependence? We get to the point where we can’t even think for ourselves anymore, we are only thinking in reaction to the other person. We are dependent on what they are thinking in order to form our own thoughts.  Yikes, lost self. Put out an APB.   Become an expert in how this reciprocity works in your relationship.  In what ways are you simply reacting to what your partner is doing or not doing?  If the original issue is that the house is a mess, the result shouldn’t be relationship murder.  Find the original issue and trace it back.  You’ll see.

Let’s say the problem has been clearly defined.  The house is a mess.  Notice how the reaction to the issue is quite different for both of you.  For some a messy house creates a visceral reaction which quite literally makes the skin crawl.  For the other, it might seemingly cause no reaction (although not caring about a messy environment can also be a sign that one is shutting down and distancing). So, there’s the difference in the thinking.  Believe me, this difference was there when you got married. Here is where change comes in.  If these two people weren’t married, it wouldn’t matter that there was a difference.  He could keep living like a frat boy and start cool projects that don’t get finished, and she could continue keeping herself busy and calm by cleaning all the time.  But you’re married, so you have to change…a little.

Heres how change has worked in my house on this issue.  My husband is cleaner than I am.  I can admit that.  Now before you get all jealous and think I’m lucky, let me tell you it’s not all sunshine and rainbows living with someone who needs tidiness.  For a long time, he begged me to be cleaner.  I couldn’t hear him because I was busy being defensive and irritated at his desire to have me be any different than my wonderful self already was. Plus, he was the crazy dude who needed everything clean, not me.  When, and ONLY WHEN, I realized that my disorganization was not serving me as an individual well AND it was causing problems in my relationship did I find the impetus for change.  But here’s the thing.  Change isn’t easy.  It’s not natural for me to do or clean things as soon as I notice them.  If I don’t feel like doing it, I won’t naturally do it.   I had to retrain my brain to become a more organized individual.  (I can hear my husband saying, “You did?” YES, I did.)  I had to come to understand that the thought, “I’ll do it later,” really meant,  “That’s not something I feel like dealing with now or probably for a long time, if ever.”  I have made it my own personal rule that I am not allowed to say, “I’ll do it later.”   Some people might be able to put things off and then actually do them later.  Not me.  Instead the task gets pushed deeper and deeper below the present until it’s lost and seemingly doesn’t exist anymore until it pops up and surprises me and I become a scurrying madwoman.    It’s just how my brain works.  You have to retrain your brain to lose weight, or to exercise more, or to become more motivated, or to stay calmer as a parent, or to be more patient with your mother, or to finish projects when you are used to doing them only half way, or to overcome the impulse to buy everything,  or…you name it.  You must retrain your brain to change.

We now know that the brain is maleable.  You can create new neural pathways.  But it takes three things to create these new neural pathways (or, in other words, change our patterns of behavior).

1) Motivation — A lot of it.  It has to come from an original spot in your being.

2) Increased awareness — This is a daily, hourly, and a by the minute thing.  You need to be more present and connected to your thinking and actions constantly.

3) Repetition — Do the new and desired behavior over and over and over again until it feels more effortless.  The “new” behavior eventually will become second nature.

While this seems like a simple process, let me assure you, this is the major leagues. This is the exact reason why attempting to force someone else to change in a way that will benefit you is absolutely absurd.  Without the above three things at play, patterns of behavior will remain what they are.  Actually, when someone is busy defending themselves or focusing on and being dissapointed in the other, there is no mental space left to change.  None.

You have the absolute right as an individual to say what is important to you and to express how you think and feel about any given situation. But there is a productive way to do it.  Here is an actual example of an exchange between two people who understood the need to both shift their automatic patterns a little to be able to coexist peacefully. (P.S., this did not take place after their first session.)

“It is important to me that my living space stays clean and organized.  When it isn’t, this weird thing happens in me where my brain feels like it’s going to explode and I can’t focus on anything other than the mess I see in front of me.  It makes me unpleasant and I hate feeling like the bitch who is on your back all the time.”

(Meanwhile, observe the reciprocity…the messier your spouse seems, the more you feel you need to clean, the more you clean and act nutty, the less your spouse cleans and the more he avoids you because you’re acting like a nut job.  It is never free from a reciprocal pattern.  You are always contributing to the dynamic.)

“Huh, that’s interesting. (I always, always encourage people to become interested in the differences not critical of them) That doesn’t happen in me.  I usually can’t even see the mess until it’s really obvious and then I do a mad sweep.  What’s challenging for me is that you walk around annoyed and pissy and even if I do clean up it’s never good enough for you. I find myself rolling my eyes or just ignoring you which I know isn’t OK.”

(It is important that each person NOT have the expectation that the other is capable of doing it just like they want it done.  NOT CAPABLE, I tell ya.  The purpose of the above conversation is NOT to have the other person agree with you and do it your way.  It is only to define what you think and your experience in your world.)

“Let’s each pick one thing this week that we will attempt to change. I will work really hard to not act pissy but instead give gentle reminders. (Get out of the thinking process that he SHOULD know how you feel and SHOULD clean up after himself, he’s a damn adult after all! Drop that should. It’s useless.)  I will also keep working on my expectations of how clean the house should be with three kids”.

“When I hear those gentle reminders I will understand that you are feeling uncomfortable and I will do my best to assist.  I will work hard at not just blowing you off when you are angry.”

(You are not allowed, by the way, to say, “I think you should work on this.” (insert loud buzzer sound indicating fail)).

One thing I do want to clarify is that her discomfort does not belong to him, it belongs to her.  His irritation at her pissy attitude belongs to him, not her.  Ultimately they are each responsible for managing their own discomfort.  If they can each assist in this, fine.  But really it’s the individual who must learn to take the deep breaths and control their own anxiety and irritation.

Two people who are willing to look at their own contribution to the reciprocity and make shifts that they each for themselves decide upon and decide is useful and contributes to their overall life goals, who are super motivated to keep on working on being their best selves are A-OK in my book.  It’s hard to get to this though.  Often it’s one person that’s willing and/or able.  That’s O.K.  if one person can work on self,  the whole system will be effected by that change.  Is it really worth divorcing your spouse over the spilled milk he or she didn’t clean up, again?  Or is it better to manage your reaction to the spilled milk, choose not to cry, and focus on what is working? It’s not about anybody but yourself.  You are the only thing in this whole entire world that you have any control over.  Why not invest your energy there?  It’s a high yield investment.

Don’t wait and badger and beg and be miserable because someone else isn’t operating the way you want them to.  That’s so unbecoming and it is not in the recipe for a happy life and marriage.  Be the change you wish to see in the relationship.  You’ll be amazed at what you see.

Glennon Gordon, LICSW

4545 42nd Street NW, Suite 201

Washington, DC 20016

glennontg@me.com

202-966-1145 x 3

Available for private consultation