“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
This is one of the refrains we can get caught in as couples. ‘If he would only be more empathetic and listen more, then I could feel more loved and want to be more intimate.’ ‘If only she would stop demanding stuff of me, appreciate me more, then I could be more empathetic, I would do anything for her if she just seemed happier with me.’
Each partner’s position re-enforces the other’s protest and the whole thing ends up snowballing to where we can be in lock-down mode, not really understanding how we got there in the first place. The reason is that it all happens so fast - the cascading and largely automatic hurts (hurt because I don’t feel understood or empathized with - does he even love me?), that go to anger or distance and withdrawal (hurt because she doesn’t appreciate me, I try my best but she just can’t see it).
While it’s true that things would be way more simple if other people were easier to deal with and more insightful or even could read our minds just sometimes. This isn’t the reality and probably for good reason - we are being challenged in our lives, and it’s not meant to be easy! And it certainly is true (especially in the Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy world), that both partners are contributing to a dynamic that is called a cycle, that happens to take over all reason and feeds off of each partner’s heightened reaction to the other partner’s reactivity. Hurt builds below the surface (as described earlier) and each partner unwittingly re-enforces the other’s worst fears.
How to change yourself when you’re in the middle of that kind of a pickle? It’s hard hard work and you deserve a special award if you are doing it because most of us are wired to first blame the other. Why? Because it saves us from our own vulnerable, scary, deep, hidden feelings. It allows us to keep inside of our shells, in attack / defend mode, behind the medieval wall of fear with our spear ready to shove through the peep hole. So ‘changing’ yourself is not writing down a list of problems or issues or failings that you have and then bashing yourself over the head with it. It’s taking the feeling bull by the horns - the scary one - yes, going deep into those feelings that you are maybe barricading yourself from - there might be feelings of shame, fear you are not loved, fears that you are inadequate and will be abandoned. Those are the really deep ones, and therefore the scary, hard ones to feel.
In a way it sounds simple - if we could communicate from that vulnerable place with our partner then they would hear us and be much better able to provide what we are asking from them. Part of us may be afraid they will back away in horror from our raw feelings. Part of us may not be aware of these deeper feelings brewing beneath the surface in ourselves. The revealing of yourself is the real courageous act, the real way to ‘change’ yourself, the real way to reach your partner’s heart, not his or her defenses.
Katharina Sandizell, LMFT