Sustaining positive relationship change and growth

Change is the one thing you can count on in relationships. The relationship changes as external circumstances change and as the needs, desires, growth and experience of the partner’s shift. At the same time, resistance to change is normal and should come as no surprise, even when a proposed change clearly makes sense.

We resist change because we are afraid of what we do not know. When you find yourself resisting a change that you suspect makes sense, tell yourself, “I’m afraid, but I’ll try it anyway.”

The only way to find out if things can be different is to try changing them. You can always go back to the old way if the new way doesn’t work out.

Lasting change requires four steps:

        1. Knowing what you’d like to change;
        2. Changing it;
        3. Sustaining the change; and
        4. Sustaining it under stress.

Then you have it!

Your partner is more likely to respond to a request for a change if you express it as a request for a positive change in behavior instead of as criticism. For example, “I wish you would give me a compliment every day,” instead of “You never appreciate me,” or “Could we take turns choosing the restaurant?” instead of “We always eat where you want to eat.’ Learn to teach your partner what you need. Add regularly to the list of caring behaviors you would like from your partner, and pay attention to your partner’s list. Developing the ability to confide and work through issues is the only way to overcome the destructive habit of distancing and holding grudges.

We are far less open to change when our self-esteem is low, whether from inner or outer assaults. Therefore, it makes sense to request changes in behavior when your partner’s self-esteem is high — when she or he is feeling valued, appreciated, respected, competent and loved. In deciding how and when to make such requests, become aware of timing of your partner’s feelings of worth and consider how your request will affect him or her.

People don’t change from one behavior to another because the first behavior is wrong.  If they did, we would all find it easier to stop smoking, drinking, overeating, overspending, procrastinating, and so on. We can accept changes (whether suggested by our partners or not) only when our own experiences, needs and cycles of growth and maturity make us ready for them. That process may be enhanced or speeded up by a good relationship or a perceptive and caring partner, but it cannot be fabricated out of whole cloth. At some level we, too, must desire the change — must realize the price we may be paying for not changing.

Both parties must participate if the relationship is to change — one partner initiating the change, and the other accepting it. You are more likely to cause a shift in your partner’s behavior if you first assume responsibility for changing your own. Changes imposed from the outside, or coerced, are unlikely to be accepted or to last. Nobody wins if one partner feels she or he’s lost. Eventually the loser will distance or want to get even. Either you both win or you both lose, in the sense that the relationship wins or loses.  Avoid allowing yourself to enter into or become stuck in any of the following positions:  Persecutor — Rescuer — Victim.

A Rescuer does something for someone that is not requested, or that the person could do for him/herself, or that the recipient comes to resent having done for them.  A Victim often becomes a Persecutor after being victimized too many times.

Consider the constriction and deficits of each of these positions.  They do not contribute to a loving peer relationship.  When you find yourself in any of these positions, use the concepts and skills you have been learning to extricate yourself.

Assume the best, not the worst. Both of you have a positive interest in changing and improving the relationship. Don’t act as if the minute you relax your guard your partner will go back to his or her old ways. Take responsibility for your own attitudes, behavior and commitment. Assume that your partner will do the same. Focus your attention on where you are now, not on your regrets from the past. Think of positive current goals, rather than continuing to brood about old grievances.

If you want to change a complex system, plan to take a series of small steps. To change the basic nature of your relationship from one of distance to one of closeness, begin with small caring gestures, the daily sharing of confidences, regular bonding, and the commitment to confide your feelings–and encourage the same in your partner. Do the things you can do to improve it, such as remembering birthdays, not giving unwanted advice, and honoring your partner’s requests. Do it for yourself, for the pleasure a mutually fulfilling relationship will bring you.

Expect a pattern of two steps forward and one step back. Temporary regression is a normal part of growth, especially during times of stress, so don’t feel defeated by it. After an accumulation of learnings, you may regress for a while to the level you were comfortable with before — and then go forward again until the new behavior feels comfortable. While one of you is practicing the new way, the other may drop back to the old way but will usually catch up again and, if the new way is maintained, will often improve on it.

Regression sometimes stems from the fact that a part of us wants to test the changes we’re making, to see if they can be counted on, as if to say, “I want to see if we are really going to keep this up.” If you have gotten to a point that feels wonderful, a regression may feel devastating, but if you step back and look at things objectively, you will probably see that things haven’t dropped back to where they were when you began. With each successive regression, the recovery time is shorter, and you will be dealing with each other on a different level. You will know you have overcome the old patterns when you can sustain the new behavior under stress.

  • Change is the one thing you can count on in a relationship.
  • Resistance to change is normal and should come as no surprise. We resist because we are afraid of what we do not know.
  • Your partner is more likely to respond to a request for change if you express it is a request for a positive change in behavior instead of as a criticism.
  • We are far less open to change when our self-esteem is low.
  • We don’t change from one behavior to another because the first behavior is wrong, but when our experience makes us ready to change.
  • Both partners must participate if a relationship is to change. Avoid positions of victim, persecutor or rescuer.
  • Assume the best, not the worst. Take responsibility for your own attitudes, behavior and commitment.
  • To change a complex system (like an intimate relationship) plan a series of small steps.
  • Expect a pattern of two steps forward, one step back.
  • You will know when you have overcome the old patterns when you can sustain the new behavior under stress.
  • Make time for each other.
  • Practice what you have learned.

Make Time for Each Other

You have some new ideas in your head, but the old ideas are still there. And the only way that’s going to change, the only way the relationship is going to become what you want it to be is to practice what you’ve just learned.

We give priority to everything else in our lives: we schedule it, program it, and get it done. Yet our attitude about our relationship is often, when we have time, we’ll get to it. We tend to put work and other duties ahead of everything else, including pleasure. But we can be so inundated with our sense of responsibility and obligation that we don’t take time to smell the roses.

In courtship, we take time. When we date, we carve that time out of our life. When we marry, we take time for the kids, the house, and any work we bring home. We take each other for granted. Because we have each other, we assume that somehow our relationship will get the time and attention it needs. But often we don’t get to it, and in time the relationship suffers.

So TAKE TIME!  Bonding can’t happen without time. If the only time it happens is in the middle of the night when you are asleep, when do you confide? Bonding isn’t just physical closeness; its also trusting each other with information, puzzles, problems, joys, hopes, and feelings — including upsetting feelings. It can’t happen without time.

Put pleasure at the top of your list: invest in it the way you would in a savings account: if you don’t take it off the top, it may not happen. Go out. Go to dinner, go to a movie, park the car and talk, take mini-vacations with each other. Get away from work, the kids, chores, the phone, all the intrusions that keep you from being with each other, in touch with what’s going on within yourselves and with each other. Go to bed and give each other a massage. There are so many ways you can give and receive pleasure from each other — physically, emotionally, psychologically, intellectually. But without the time it can’t happen.

Skills for creating lasting love are like a box of carpenter’s tools that comes with no instructions about what to build. You can fashion whatever you want with these tools, but if you don’t use them, you’ll forget how. It takes practice to learn to use the tools with ease. It takes at least forty times of doing something in a different way to change an old habit. So start practicing. It’s never easy to reverse a lifetime pattern. It may take a while. But it’s worth it.

~ Lori Heyman Gordon

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