One of the difficulties in “fixing” relationship problems is that we’re often not aware how much we contribute to those problems. It’s easy to see what our partners are doing but it’s hard to see what we are doing. I can see the look on my husband’s face when I say something “dubious,” but I don’t see my own expression. The things is that most of our reactions and behavior happen automatically, without our conscious thought, consideration or awareness.
That’s why reading books, attending workshops and working with a couples therapist is so beneficial. We begin to notice what we are doing, how we contribute to the status quo. When we see our contribution, we can change what we do and try something different. The relationship will change automatically.
Unfortunately, many people don’t like to read self-help books and even those who do, are not always able to find the time to read the whole book. One of my daughters put it this way: “I’d rather pay a therapist to read the books for me and summarize it for me.”
This is why I decided to write a series of short articles in which I’ll present the best ideas from the books I’ve read. This one is adopted from Terrence Real’s book,” The New Rules of Marriage.” (And by the way, I highly recommend to read the whole book)
We all learn how to be in relationships from observing our family, caregivers or relatives. The fact is, this is all we really know about relationships and it feels perfectly natural to us. We rarely pause to consider that our relationship responses are knee-jerk reactions to outside events. It’s not always a bad thing, especially when those habits are beneficial and protect us. But when bigger problems show up, these strategies are not always conducive to a healthy relationship. By recognizing these automatic reactions in yourself, you might be able to replace them with something more constructive.
The following is the list of what Terrence Real calls “losing relationship strategies.”
One: The need to be right
A lot of couples argue about who is right. However, there is no “objective truth” in a relationship, just opinions, perspectives and interpretations. This picture illustrates it perfectly:
And the question I have is: would you rather be right or happy?
Remember that your being right, doesn’t necessarily make your partner wrong. Insisting that only your way of looking at things is correct turns the two of you into adversaries, “Me against you.” Learn to replace this stance with “You and I against the problem,” or, “My perspective PLUS your perspective.”
Quite a few people try to manipulate, change, fix or control their partners. Even though it might be tempting to try to “shape them up,” controlling another human being almost never works. The majority of adults will fight back against any attempts to change or control them. You are just wasting your energy instead of directing it toward changing or healing yourself. By changing how you react to your partner, or how you behave towards them, you’ll change your relationship with them much more effectively than by trying to change them.
Three: Unbridled Self-Expression
This means you have the “right to express yourself,” and that you’re entitled to say or do just about anything. Some people believe that intimacy means being able to say whatever is on your mind without filtering. (Or vent about whatever makes you upset and angry.) However, this rarely helps people solve problems and usually creates additional problems. When we’re angry, we rarely say anything nice and constructive and quite often say hurtful things that linger in our partner’s mind for a long time. So, it’s a very good practice to think WHY we want to say what we were going to say before saying it. Stop and think about what you’re trying to achieve here. Will what you are about to say help you with that?
I suspect a lot of us humans are guilty of this one. At least, some of the time. I know I am! If you think you never retaliate, maybe you’re not being completely honest with yourself? Retaliation can be as subtle and “almost innocent” as a little snide remark or as damaging as cheating in revenge to your partner’s cheating. Passive-aggressive behavior can be an act of retaliation as well as withholding love and affection. Even though retaliation sometimes feels good for a moment, in the long run nothing good can come out of it. It means that you still treat your partner as an enemy and when you seek war, war is what you get. Even if you feel like a victim and feel justified in seeking revenge, (big or small) it will only perpetuate some form of violence. Think about that next time when you’re tempted to automatically retaliate.
Just like retaliation, withdrawal can be fairly subtle – not talking for a couple of hours after a fight. Or “global,” withdrawing from the relationship. Withdrawal can be a form of punishment or manipulation: “I won’t talk to you until you shape up.” Or, it can be form of self-preservation: “I am totally overwhelmed and can’t take it right now.”
Whatever it is, it’s counterproductive and can trigger all sorts of negative consequences. Research shows that a loss of connection with our loved ones can be felt in the same areas of the brain where we experience physical pain. Think about it: would pain like this help your relationship?
If you need to take a break from a heated argument, or when fight is imminent, use “time-outs” instead of complete withdrawal. Tell your partner that you need to take a break, but will be back when you cool off. This way they won’t feel abandoned.
This is just a short description of Terrence Real’s “five losing strategies” which cause relationship problems. If you want to know more, by all means read his excellent book. But even with this short description you should get an idea what NOT to do. Start noticing when you’re engaged in these destructive reactions and learn to replace them with something more productive.