The Dance of Connection

Rescuing women and men from the quicksand of difficult relationships.

Trying out a "New You"? Prepare for Countermoves!

Before you change, anticipate three countermoves from that other person!

Are you thinking about challenging the old rules and roles of a family relationship or bringing a clear and assertive voice to the table?

If so, prepare to deal with countermoves or “Change back!” reactions from the other person. Dr. Murray Bowen, the originator of Bowen Family Systems Theory, emphasizes the fact that in almost all families there is a powerful opposition to one member defining a more independent self.

The opposition invariably goes in successive steps:

1. “You are wrong,” with volumes of reasons to support this.

2. “Change back and we will accept you again.”

3. “If you don’t change back, these are the consequences,” which are then listed.

What are some common countermoves? We may be accused of coldness, disloyalty, selfishness, or disregard for others. (“How could you upset your mother by saying that to her!”) We may receive verbal or nonverbal threats that the other person will withdraw or terminate the relationship. (“We can’t be close if you feel that way.” “How can we have a relationship if you really mean that?”) Countermoves take any number of forms. For example, a person may get sick and take to bed.

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As I explain in The Dance of Anger, other people do not make countermoves simply because they are dominating or controlling. They may or may not be these things, but that is almost beside the point.

Countermoves are an expression of anxiety, as well as of closeness and attachment. Countermoves are the other person’s unconscious attempt to restore a relationship to its prior balance or equilibrium,when anxiety about separateness and change gets too high

Our job is to keep clear about our own position in the face of a countermove—not to prevent it from happening or to tell the other person that he or she should not be reacting that way.

Most of us want the impossible. We want to control not only our own decisions and choices but also the other person’s reactions to them. We not only want to make a change; we want the other person to like the change that we make.

Relationships don't work that way. The challenge is to make a change and maintain it over time without becoming defensive or attacking, and without retreating to our old ways when the countermoves roll in.

Remember, what is important for your happiness and sense of integrity in the long run is not the reactions get get from others but what you do--and how you define your own self and your personal ground over time.




Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., is best known for her work on marriage and family relationships and the psychology of women. Her book The Dance of Anger has recently been reissued.


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