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Russell Collins: Can One Partner Fix a Broken Relationship?

People take on the challenge all the time, but should you is the better question

Sally had a deep desire for a loving and emotionally intimate connection with her husband. Paul, a high school teacher and baseball coach, was introverted and retiring, but in the early years of their marriage, he was able to meet Sally’s need for affection and love.

Around their 20th anniversary, with all the kids in high school or college, Sally noticed their conversations were more often about disagreements or conflicts between them than connecting with each other in some positive way.

Over the next few years, Sally tried various strategies to bring intimacy back into their relationship. She read the self-help books, scheduled regular date nights, bought expensive lingerie and even took Paul on a “romantic package” Caribbean cruise. At year 23, she asked Paul to accompany her to couple therapy. “In order to save the marriage,” was the way she described this to me. Paul respectfully declined.

Can You Fix a Relationship Problem By Yourself?

I’ve watched a lot of people try to do this. Most of them fail, but once in awhile you see someone who has just the right balance of intention and patience to reverse the direction of an unhappy relationship from a downward spiral of conflict or emptiness toward something positive for both partners.

Please note that this is a different question than should you fix this relationship. Sally was clear that she wanted to make the relationship work, but her friends were telling her it wasn’t in the cards. Was she being foolish to think she could make the relationship work on her own? Should she give up now instead of investing years chasing an illusion? It’s a real question with real implications for a lot of people.

Everybody Knows You Can’t Change Your Partner

Starting in the late 1960s, when social scientists began looking at couples and families through the lens of system theory, a whole body of research has been accumulating about what brings about change in human behavior. One of the more consistent observations has been that efforts to bring about change most often just produce resistance. So behavioral scientists have gotten pretty sophisticated about motivating people without pressure.

Successful change strategies for people stuck in patterns almost always include some features of these five methods: awareness, acceptance, intention or commitment to change, the skillful use of social support, and transformation, or the active invention of a positive future.

Awareness, Acceptance and Transformation

It would take a book to describe all the great ideas people have had about producing behavior change, so I’m not going to attempt anything close. But let me at least mention three methods that I see people use successfully in getting their relationships to grow without the conscious participation of their partner. Remember that the intuitive methods — applying pressure on your partner through nagging, complaining, criticizing or withdrawing — almost always makes things worse. Cultivating subtle shifts in your own inner habits, on the other hand, can produce dramatic change in a relatively short period of time.

Awareness. When two people interact, something happens between them at the neurological level. This shows up in brain scans as a subtle “resonance” between parts of your brain and my brain. Since there is no physical wiring connecting our brains, it’s likely that the connection is made through often unnoticeable cues contained in how we look at each other (e.g. pupil dilation that communicates warmth and affection), micro-expressions of the face, vocal intonations and cadences below the threshold of awareness, even the smells of hormonal excretions on the skin. The point is that we are signaling each other all the time as we interact, and those signals are registering as synchronized changes in our brains and bodies. Most of us never notice this happening.

Being aware of these changes is a discipline that requires some practice, but even a beginner’s attempt at consciously noting how your feelings ebb and swirl inside you will produce important insights — and important changes — in what’s happening between you and your partner. Some of the best writing and thinking about this kind of awareness is contained in Daniel Siegel’s books, most recently, Mindsight.

Acceptance. This is the tough one. How do you accept the very things in your partner that you want so much to change. “He just doesn’t see or understand that there is a problem. And he’s not going to go to counseling or spend a lot of effort on a problem he doesn’t think exists.” This was the first bitter pill Sally brought to me in therapy, and it was perfect test of her capacity for acceptance. Fortunately, she got it immediately. Her efforts to get him into counseling had created huge new problems between them. “I don’t need fixing,” was Paul’s defense against her criticisms. The more she pushed, the more he resisted, as they both got angrier, more frustrated and more distant from each other.

What is it exactly that I have to accept? The big answer is “everything,” by which I mean the whole relationship, moment to moment, exactly as it is. More pragmatically, here’s a short list.

» 1) Accept that your partner is doing the best she can to stay connected to you while staying emotionally safe. This doesn’t mean she isn’t blaming you, hurting you, withdrawing, criticizing or abandoning you, or making the relationship painful for you in a million other ways. It just means she wants to stay connected, and she doesn’t have good tools. It may require a radical adjustment in your thinking to perceive your partner this way. But I never said it was easy.

» 2) Accept that you are the way you are. You are not perfect. You react in ways you regret sometimes. You get mad or hurt when you shouldn’t; you attack or withdraw, criticize or stonewall or defend. Be patient and compassionate with yourself. You are doing the best that you can.

» 3) Accept that change will be slow. Patterns of behavior and interaction are deeply ingrained, usually from childhood. Paradoxically, acceptance speeds change. Impatience does the opposite. Acceptance is the great Judo trick of couple healing. After years of pushing for change in the relationship, it is common for couples doing acceptance work to see transformative movement early in their process. “What just happened?” they ask. This can even be disorienting, and couples sometimes scurry back toward familiar patterns of unhappy relating, where they feel more comfortable. When it happens to couples in my practice, I encourage them to accept this, too.

There are many books about acceptance in relationship, but I am particularly fond of Byron Katie’s Loving What Is. If you can tolerate Katie’s new-age style, there are some wonderful pearls of wisdom in this book.

Transformation. I’m using this term explicitly to mean the alchemy that can occur when you let go of your efforts to bend existing reality into something slightly better, and replace them with an effortless envisioning of something new. We’ve all had experiences of this in some domain of life, like setting out on a new career, or moving to a new town where we reinvent ourselves. This is harder to do when the new possibilities you seek are with an all-too-familiar partner.

Author and therapist Susan Johnson encourages couples to make up their “Future Love Story” of hopes and dreams for the relationship. The power of this kind of envisioning, however, can be just as great when only one partner holds the image consistently in mind.

“It’s a matter of intentionally letting go of your focus, of your sharp focus, and of letting yourself see with your imagination,” is how author Nathan Schwartz-Salant says it. Schwartz-Salant’s book The Mystery of Human Relationship: Alchemy and the Transformation of Self is probably too mysterious and just too dense for the casual reader, but if you are in for a ride on the wilder side, I recommend it. Johnson’s book Hold Me Tight would be a better book for more practical applications.

I’m not claiming that fixing your relationship by yourself will be easy. Built into the proposition is the assumption that your partner isn’t interested or possibly capable of collaborating with you, which can make it a steeper climb. But, to answer Sally’s question, yes. With equal parts intention and patience, people do it all the time.

— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.

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