I Tried It; It Doesn't Work
I TRIED IT; IT DOESN’T WORK
Change is challenging. A struggling relationship doesn’t magically become wonderful from a few simple adjustments. Permanent changes to deeply ingrained patterns takes time, effort and plenty of patience. Because of the work required and the lack of immediate feedback, it is important to have strong external evidence that the changes we intend to make are effective; otherwise, we may be wasting precious resources. Change always is accompanied by momentary slips. Old habits die hard; But over time new patterns become the new normal. The slips decrease and deeper intimacy is obtained.
Change is painful. New territory is laced with uncertainties. Newness naturally demands greater attention. Our minds constantly monitor expressions and responses to confirm the effective use of mental resources. The constant mindfulness is draining. We want immediate results to justify the increased effort. Are things changing? When attempts of a new behavior aren’t immediately rewarded, we are discouraged. Struggling with implementing change is not a sign of weakness; it is normal. Trajectories always require more energy to change than maintain.
When a relationship doesn’t feel good, our emotions signal a need for change. If past relationship interactions triggered anger, sadness, or loneliness for an extended time, we will continue to experience those emotions during the process of change. Engrained emotional reactions don’t simply disappear because we are implementing new patterns of interaction. New behaviors take time to create the grooves for the emotional wheels to follow.
The dream of a rich rewarding relationship absent of any discomforting emotions is so far removed from reality that any real relationship will be disappointing. We grasp to a new behaviors hoping they will magically transform a partner. Only if there was such a simple solution; wouldn’t that be wonderful? We seem to have the unrealistic belief that “If we make a change, our partner will immediately respond in a positive way.” These unrealistic beliefs contribute to relationship problems. When the efforts of change don’t immediately create change in a partner and the relationship, discouragement replaces excitement and motivation fades; old habits return. Efforts to be more empathetic, understanding and compassionate can’t be motivated by the selfish desire to change a partner or force intimacy. If the confirmation for the effectiveness of our efforts is measured by increased control over a partner, then longstanding successful relationship techniques of empathy, understanding, and compassion will fail to meet the test.
When we seek unrealistic results from proven techniques, we often dismiss the techniques with a quick, “I tied it but she still does what she wants.” We must remind ourselves: a healthy relationship isn’t created by new subtle attempts to manipulate and control. A healthy relationship requires courageously creating trust through honesty to ourselves and our partners. This requires vulnerability. Trust implies that some of our security is dependent upon a partner who we don’t control. Our security than must be partially placed in trust in our ability to survive outside the relationship if our partner is not willing to engage in healthy intimacy. Until we are willing to trust a partner while balancing that trust with firm boundaries, we will struggle.
Manipulation and control doesn’t work. We can’t force a relationship to provide security that we don’t possess internally. Hidden emotions continue to communicate even when we attempt to conceal them through new patterns. Anger, sadness, fear and disappointment still simmer underneath. Feelings need to be honestly communicated instead of buried under a thin layer of denial. Engaging in techniques of healthy communication is helpful when they are motivated by underlying compassion, respect and understanding. The goal should be to create intimacy and not to force a partner into changing. When a technique fails because of hidden motivations, we are tempted to return to the past patterns more overtly attempted to control a partner.
I often wonder how many truly understand what it means to be compassionate and kind. Compassion does not preclude us from being angry, sad, disappointed, or even jealous. We can be compassionate and kind while still expressing feelings. Compassion is not trembling with anger and hurt while blurting out, “it is okay.” Whether you verbalized your anger or not, the emotion communicates disapproval. In most cases, the silent anger creates more insecurity than simply expressing why you are angry.
When we commit to change, we embrace proven habits that invite more harmony. Instead of engaging in a power struggle, we open up to deeper understanding of a partner’s pasts, hurts, and emotional triggers. In pursuit of these changes, we find success doesn’t come from hiding emotions but from exploring them alone and together. The understanding helps us see anger, hurt and fear – our own and our partner’s—as a cry for healing rather than a threat to security. Discomforting feelings, rather than being the enemy, are then guides to point to areas that need greater attention and clarity.
It takes time to master skillful and compassionate communications; if it can ever be mastered at all. Relationships that have an established history of name calling, blame, and expressed disappointment will continue to spark emotional reactions when issues are discussed. When discussions in the past have been hurtful, we will respond defensively during future discussions. Because of programmed defensive responses, we need to consciously recognize these responses as emotions stimulated by the past and not necessarily conducive to resolving the current issues. If a couple is entrenched in unconscious power struggles during conversations, then little will be accomplished. One of the partners need to be the first to courageously embrace compassion and honest expression. Change doesn’t simultaneously occur in both partners. This is not simple. The change will result in vulnerability to our partner’s defensive and angry reactions.
Some relationships have run their course. The habitual negative responses, the embedded labels, and the pattern of hurt are too strong to overcome. Even when this is the case, it does not give us the right to be unkind. We can use the remainder of the time in the painful relationship to work on personal relationship skills. If our partner uses our openness and vulnerability to their advantage, we set boundaries. If boundaries are consistently ignored than it is clear the relationship will not improve. It takes two to establish intimacy but only one to destroy it.
Through all our relationships, whether they are healthy or not, our emotions are magnified. In a relationship, we can become familiar with personal feelings, triggers, and tender spots. This personal knowledge will be the foundation for future intimacy.