Anyone who’s done their share of dating has probably been on one side or the other of the It’s not you, it’s me routine. These five common words, which strive for compassion, in reality just leave our exes confused and puzzling over what went wrong. No one buys this explanation. And why should they? After all, most perpetrators of the I.N.Y.I.M. will tell people that their partner was completely to blame just as soon as that partner is out of earshot.
For many years, I have been writing, giving presentations and counseling individuals and couples on intimate relationships and fears of intimacy, explaining how one’s defenses and critical inner voices negatively affect romance. I am always struck by how many people come up to me after my presentations to thank me and tell me that the fears of intimacy and defensive traits I have been outlining perfectly describe their partner. These people are essentially saying, “Yes, I know defenses are hurting my intimate relationship, but it’s not my defenses, it’s theirs.”
In my professional experience, it is all too easy for people to identify issues in their partners and increasingly difficult for them to pinpoint problems in themselves. Relationships are not easy and it is natural to feel worried as the initial sparks taper. As you begin to notice changes in the quality of relating, it is easy to focus the blame on negative traits in the other person. The focus needs to shift away from how to “fix” the other person and towards a broader view of how to repair the relationship. The only way to change another person in relation to you is by changing yourself. You have 100 percent of the power necessary to change your relationship, but you can only do so by taking a closer look at yourself, making your own personal development a priority and taking specific actions to change your part in the relationship dynamics you do not like.
There can be great value, practically and therapeutically, to taking an It’s not you, it’s me approach to your relationship. Rather than using this as an excuse when ending your involvement with someone, why not use it as an exercise to improve your relationship with that person. By following these steps you can develop a deeper relationship with your partner, one where mutual understanding, trust and equality replace cynicism and frustration.
Dynamics and patterns become firmly in place early on in relationships. While some dynamics are clearly more destructive than others, all routine patterns of relating can create unpleasant feelings in couples. By recognizing destructive dynamics that exist between you and your partner, you can change these dynamic by simply not playing the other half, after all, it actually does takes two to tango. For example, the wife and husband whose pattern is acting like the child and parent, can change the dynamic if either one is willing to drop their role and relate as an equal to the other. The wife can not fall apart when the husband sounds parental, and the husband can not reprimand her when she acts helpless. Breaking patterns can be as simple as asking yourself who usually makes the decisions about where to go to dinner or what movie to see, then reversing the roles of active and passive decision maker. Little changes like this can help add feelings of equality to your relationship.
One effective way to start developing your relationship is by setting goals for how you want your relationship to be. People have five-year plans for their careers and their family, but they rarely make plans for their intimate relationships. Ask yourself what you really want out of your relationship and write down your goals. Check to see if your behavior matches the list. It is important to think about the personal changes you would need to make to reach your goals and to begin making those changes immediately.
In the interest of advancing interpersonal relationships, I always suggest that people unilaterally disarm. If countries were to do this, it just might save the world. At the very least, it could save your relationship. Unilaterally disarming requires you to not be reactive and lash out even when you are provoked. This doesn’t mean you will stop having opinions and suddenly agree with everything your partner says, but you will choose to approach problems with a cooler head. If you find yourself getting into a heated disagreement, it helps to think about the bigger picture and say, “I really want to be close to you and that’s more important than having this argument.” If your partner says or does something that hurts your feelings, say how you feel without implying blame. When we blame our partners, as in “When you were insensitive to me, you made me feel bad,” their natural reaction will usually be defensive. However, if you say your feelings without implying blame, you give the other person a chance to feel empathy and to really listen to what you have to say. (On a personal note, my husband is much better at unilateral disarmament than I am and I cannot tell you how effective it is and how much I appreciate him for it.)
The reason we all find relationships so painful and difficult at times is because they are perfect vehicles for living out negative feelings we’ve carried with us since childhood. As much as we may love our partners, we are conditioned to project our negative self-image and unresolved pain onto them. Our defenses, which we developed to deal with childhood pain and trauma, are not just a factor in how our relationships play out, but also influence our choices of whom to be in a relationship with. The fact that we tend to choose partners who are especially good at triggering and recreating our childhood defenses is a sad truth. Because of this, it is very important to be aware of strong emotional reactions that get triggered in our current relationships and trace them back to their source. By identifying the seeds our current feelings sprout from, we are able to demystify the things that trouble us most in our relationships and approach our partners from a rational, adult perspective. For example, a friend of mine would react strongly whenever his girlfriend interrupted him. It was a source of tension between them for years as he felt like she wasn’t really listening to him. Thinking back, he realized that his reaction came from deep feelings of not being listened to as a child (his mother was too focused on herself to pay him proper attention). Realizing this, the dramatic feeling he once felt being interrupted dissipated and he stopped thinking his girlfriend was being disrespectful of him.
Break the Bond
As individuals move deeper into relationships, it is common for them to begin to see their partners as extensions of themselves. They become bound together as a couple and a fantasy bond, an illusion of connection, forms between them. As this happens, the quality of their relating deteriorates. One problem with seeing our partners as extensions of ourselves is that it becomes much easier to (be hypercritical of them in the same way we are hypercritical of ourselves. If they do something that we think is embarrassing, for instance, we feel ashamed. Seeing your partner as a reflection on you not only builds up resentment and pressure, it also kills your ability to see them realistically. Another problem is that in forming bonds we often lose sight of the other person as a separate individual and begin overstepping their boundaries. It is very important to recognize your partner as a separate person with their own thoughts and feelings. By respecting your partner’s sovereignty as someone with their own thoughts and feelings, who is different from you, you can actually strengthen your relationship. By breaking those bonds and approaching our loved ones with fresh eyes and open minds, we get to know them again as their true selves and can create a more meaningful relationship as two caring individuals.
If you think back on all your previous romantic involvements, the common denominator in every single one of them was you. As George Castanza once said in Seinfield when a girlfriend tried to break up with him using the It’s not you, it’s me excuse, “Nobody tells me it’s them not me, if it’s anybody it’s me.” Although, in reality it is never just you or me, we could all take a lesson from George. By taking these steps to develop ourselves, we can change our relationships. With the season of resolutions fast upon us, I can’t think of a more worthy enterprise.
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Read More from Dr. Lisa Firestone on Relationships at PsychAlive.org - Alive to Intimacy