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The Power of the Unpredictable

How one person can initiate change in a troubled relationship.

Saving Relationships

When one partner silently switches the "rules," both partners can benefit. Welcome to the surprising world of systems thinking.

Sharon, 30, and Jeff, 35, have been married for nine years. Since the recent birth of their first child, Sharon has become increasingly aware of Jeff's propensity for giving instructions and pointing out imperfections in her methods of doing things. She knows that he is usually just trying to help.

The first thing Sharon does to address the problem is mention it to Jeff. She explains that when they were first married she needed and appreciated his knowledge and experience but now sometimes feels he is treating her like a child. She asks him to please hold his comments and advice until she asks for them. Jeff agrees to make every effort to treat her like the mature, independent woman she has become.

But before long, Jeff resumes sharing his observations of the way Sharon does things and making suggestions about better ways of doing them. When Sharon points this out to him, he becomes defensive and accuses her of overreacting and not being able to accept constructive criticism.

Sharon continues to make Jeff aware of his now "critical, paternalistic, and sexist nature." She takes every opportunity to point out his need to dominate and keep her in her place. Jeff responds by defensively backing off and withdrawing from conversation in general. When conversation does occur, he seems more apt to criticize Sharon about her "crazy, feminist" ideas as well as her way of doing almost everything. Their latest interactions seem to be best characterized by an unspoken tension.

Sharon decides to try a different approach. She goes on strike, discontinuing to do anything Jeff criticizes. When he comments that the spaghetti sauce needs more garlic, she announces she's no longer cooking. When he criticizes how the grass is cut, she blows up in anger, and both Sharon and he say many things that they later regret. Jeff decides not only to stop commenting and suggesting but to stop talking altogether. Now an unspoken hostility hovers over their relationship.

Sharon and Jeff illustrate three ways in which people get stuck in their relationships and sabotage their own attempts to improve them. First Sharon believes she is trying different strategies to improve her relationship when in reality she is trying only slight variations on a single theme: "I will make my dissatisfaction apparent to him, and he will respond with less criticism." People get stuck by trying the same basic approach over and over, even though it might not be obvious to them that they are doing so.

Further, when her first method makes things worse, she tries more of the same. A well-intentioned attempt to resolve a small difficulty ends up turning it into a serious conflict despite good intentions. Sharon wound up with increased criticism and an overly sensitive, defensive, withdrawn husband.

Third, Sharon recognized the problem but did not succeed in getting Jeff to help solve it. Almost always, one partner notices a joint problem first. That person mentions it to the other and then proceeds to try to solve the problem, while assuming the other person is motivated and cooperative. This can be a faulty assumption even if both people agree on how serious it is or how to solve it.

A widely shared belief is that in order for a relationship to change, both partners have to actively participate in changing it. As family therapists, we disagree. We subscribe to a "systems" approach with couples. In a relationship system, a noticeable change in one person can set in motion a change in the whole system, that is, the couple.

Early in relationships, rules begin to form that grow out of patterns of ways people to relate to each other. Rules can be simple and straightforward—one partner initiates sex, one partner does the dishes; or they can be more subtle—when both partners are angry they don't yell. Sometimes the rules are talked about openly, but typically they are assumed rather than discussed, and those involved may not even be consciously aware of the assumed rules. This non-awareness causes the most difficulty when problems arise.

Rules have their uses; in recurring situations, we don't have to figure out what to do from scratch. But because rules are based on previous experience, they also maintain the status quo. The very qualities that make rules useful day-to-day can render them harmful when a relationship problem needs to be resolved. Rules simplify life by limiting options to an acceptable few. But when we get stuck in solving a problem, we need more options, not fewer. The assumed rules we carry into a situation prevent us from exploring potentially helpful options and limit our flexibility. They discourage change—even helpful, necessary change.

Beyond Blame: Systems Thinking

Most theories of human behavior are couched in linear cause-effect terms and offer either historical (unhappy childhood) or physical (bad nerves) explanations for behavior. Both the medical and Freudian perspectives on problem behaviors or emotional stress consider only the individual, apart from his or her relationships.

Systems theory is evolving to explain the complexities of relationships and to help resolve the problems and distress inherent in relationships. It offers a refreshing, illness-free lens through which to observe human behavior—the focus of study shifts from what goes on inside a person to what takes place between people.

When two individuals come together in a relationship, something is created that is different from, larger, and more complex than those two individuals apart—a system. The most important feature of such a relationship is communication. Relationships are established, maintained, and changed by communicative interaction among members.

As relationships endure, communication sequences form patterns over time, and it is the patterning over time that is the essence of a couple system. Sometimes the enduring patterns begin to create difficulties for couples, and new patterns are needed. With Jeff and Sharon, the pattern concerning the giving and receiving of advice was at the heart of their relationship problems.

In a system, all elements are mutually dependent. What one person does depends on what the other person does. In the context of a relationship, you are not acting completely of your own free will. You are constantly being influenced by your partner, and vice versa. When Sharon attempted to get less criticism, Jeff responded by criticizing more and pulling away. Each person's actions helped determine what the other did, and each person's actions affected the relationship as a whole.

A marriage, then, is not a static and fixed relationship. No matter how entrenched one's behavior or how strong one's personality, each individual is influenced by the other on an ongoing basis. Once you recognize your partner's dependence upon your pattern of behavior, you can consciously plan and change your own behavior, thereby influencing your partner and the relationship in a constructive manner.

Virtually every couple we see in therapy is interested in what, or who, caused their problems; they look for guilt, blame, or responsibility. But influence among people in relationships is reciprocal and mutually dependent, causality is circular. Choosing the point at which the causal chain begins is pointless and arbitrary.

One implication is that the circle can be broken or interrupted at any point, regardless of how the problem started or how long it has existed. If one person in a couple changes behavior noticeably and consistently, the other person's reactions will change, which will change the first person's reactions. In this way, one person can positively impact a troubled relationship; the partner's cooperation is not required.

Does Sharon have a problem with constructive criticism, or does Jeff have a problem with control and sexism? One partner, either partner, can interrupt the causal circle and move the relationship in another direction.

In much the same way that a stone thrown into a pond affects the surface well beyond the small point at which it enters, a small change in a specific area can lead to a positive ripple effect on the entire relationship. When there are many problems in a relationship, people assume that a major overhaul is required. Many times, however, a small adjustment, strategically employed, is all that is needed.

Communication: The Sound of Silence

Communication theory is crucial in systems thinking. Gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions are important in understanding what someone is saying. Much has been written about body language, addressing what people "say" by their posture. What gets lost is that all behavior is communicative. Even silence conveys some message. There is no such thing as not communicating.

A spouse who routinely comes home late for dinner without calling may be saying, "Your inconvenience is unimportant compared to what happens at work" or "Your feelings are not a priority to me." The spouse who prepares dinner may not comment to the late spouse. Yet the silence may be a worse indictment than a verbal scolding.

Viewing behavior itself as a powerful means of communication significantly increases your options when verbal communication is not working. If, like Sharon, you have tried to fix your relationship problems by talking ad nauseam, then behavioral options may provide a more powerful way.

Communication occurs at different levels, even though most of us focus our attention on only one—the content, or the literal meaning of the words. Most important, but less obvious, is the relationship level. It indicates how the sender of the message is attempting to influence the receiver. It conveys a command or directive concerning the sender's needs and is an implicit attempt to influence the receiver. "My back itches" may mean "Scratch my back." "I had a rough day" may mean "Leave me alone," "I need your support," or "Fix me a drink." Even "I love you" can be an implicit command, depending upon the circumstances. It may mean "Tell me that you love me."

Influence is unavoidable in communication; it is inherent in how we interact. Just as one cannot not communicate, one cannot not influence when communicating. Implicit directives also define the nature of the relationship. The statement, "The garbage can is overflowing," not only conveys the obvious, but may also contain the implicit directive, "Take the garbage out." The statement defines the relationship as one in which the sender has the right to comment on the state of garbage and expect the receiver to follow the (implicit) directive.

Implicit commands are largely automatic and occur outside of awareness. As a result, we often address the most important parts of our lives, our relationships, in an extremely haphazard fashion. By becoming aware of the implicit influence in communication we can deliberately use it in improving relationships.

When we think about communication, we usually think of a speaker actively conveying a message and a listener passively receiving it. This, however, is a very inaccurate perception. Listening is an active process. We have to make sense of the speaker's words; we compare their ideas to beliefs and attitudes we hold and to perceptions about the speakers we've already formed. We consider gestures, tone of voice, and facial expressions, and the circumstances. In addition, our needs influence what we hear.

The conclusion is inescapable—the listener helps create meaning. Much of this process tends to be automatic and outside awareness. We're seldom aware of how our beliefs and attitudes affect how we hear, or the ways we interpret nonverbal communication, much less how our own needs affect our perceptions. By paying attention to these factors, however, we can make them conscious, then control them.

The upshot is, we can choose how to interpret a given communication. Words or behaviors that have hurt us before no longer have to have this power. Further, we can choose to interpret a message differently from the way the sender intended. Just because people intend to hurt or manipulate us doesn't mean we have to cooperate by giving their messages the meanings they want us to get.

Often, the listener's understanding of a message is already different from the sender's. If a woman believes her husband is stressed out and needs time away, she might suggest he go away for a week. If he interprets this as "She's trying to get rid of me," the whole point of her message is twisted, and caring is perceived as rejection. This may be the most common problem seen in couples: The message sent is not the message received. Finding ways to understand and express your partner's view of a situation can reduce defensiveness and change old, conflictual patterns in a relationship.

Guidelines for Change

The ideas that one person can produce meaningful change in a relationship, and that a small change can and will lead to a ripple of other changes, are not part of conventional wisdom. Nor are the implications that change can occur quickly and that it can happen without the knowledge or cooperation of one member of the couple. But strategies developed from systems concepts do work, even when both partners aren't equally motivated to change. Here, then, are some very practical guidelines for creating change in a troubled relationship where the partners are stuck at an impasse:

  • Create confusion. Change the rules by which you've been playing. Be unpredictable. That encourages your partner to find new ways to react.
  • Do not be completely honest and open at all times. If your partner tends to manipulate or use power plays, openness just tips your hand and makes you more vulnerable.
  • "Give up" power, or "lose" by telling your partner that you agree that he or she is "right," but continue to do whatever you think is best. Allow yourself to give up power verbally, to gain control behaviorally.
  • Recognize that words and behaviors are not consistent. People often say one thing but do another. Believe what your partner does, not what he or she says.
  • Do things that are truly different, not just variations on a theme. Allow yourself to change 180 degrees in how you approach a problem. That alteration can loosen things up and produce real change in your partner's response.
  • Stay off the defensive. If you spend all your time justifying what you are doing, you become reactive and lose track of what you are trying to accomplish. Most people are too busy trying to defend themselves to see other ways of approaching a problem. Relationships are very complex and much creativity is needed.
  • If your partner openly resists change, don't push. Finding a different, less confrontational path the change can be much more effective—and less frustrating.
  • Go with the flow whenever possible and recognize the disadvantages of change. Things are rarely black and white; consider the advantages of maintaining the problem. This form of creative interpretation directly addresses the ambivalence people have about changing their behavior and aligns with that part of the individual that may be reluctant to change. It helps clarify the feared consequences of change in the hope of motivating the person toward action regarding the problem.
  • Start a small, positive ripple of change and let it grow by itself.
  • Look at what is going well, instead of what is going wrong with your relationship. It's much easier to build on what is already there than to tear something down and start all over.

Power Disparities in Romantic Relationships

By far, the most common source of problems in a relationship involves the distribution of power. In a good relationship, ideally there is a balance of power. Unfortunately, this ideal is not always realized, and neither party is happy with the unequal power. The powerless, disenfranchised partner feels cheated and resentful, and, whether aware of it or not, usually seeks ways to even the score. The powerful partner gets resentful because he or she has too much responsibility and carries a disproportionate share of the load.

In a relationship with a power disparity, no one wins. Yet the struggle for power underlies virtually every relationship quarrel. There are two common relationship patterns in which power is the key issue.

One involves the dependent partner who needs his partner to do things, but tries to regain the power lost to dependency by criticizing the way those things are done.

In dealing with a dependent partner who is relentlessly critical:

  • Agree in words, but not in action, with criticism.
  • Don't explain or defend yourself.
  • Interpret your partner's critical message to mean you can stop doing whatever was criticized: "You're right, I am a terrible cook. I'll let you eat prepared frozen food more." Your partner will either stop in his tracks or—even better—refute the criticism himself.

The second power problem is the most common problem we see in troubled relationships. It involves one partner having control in multiple areas—money, decision-making, social life, conversation topics—such that the relationship begins to resemble that of a parent and child, with the powerful partner treating the other like a child. Even when the person in the powerful role, such as a parent, can be very kind and nurturing, the powerless partner can easily feel inferior, helpless, trapped as well as resentful. Any attempts to speak out against the arrangement will usually sound like the helpless protestations of a child.

In dealing with a domineering partner who plays a parental role:

  • Do what you want to do—act independently of your partner's expectations. If criticized, agree you were "wrong" or "misguided," but continue to do what you believe is best.
  • Use "constructive payback," in which criticism from your partner is met with your "inadvertent" mistakes and "forgetfulness" (being late, stupid, inefficient) that bother your partner and make your partner's life more difficult. This indirectly expresses your anger and resentment and lets your partner know that he or she can't get away with being abusive.

Communication Problems

Three common communication patterns often make individuals unhappy. The first is lack of communication, in which one partner feels distress concerning the other's unwillingness or inability to talk about things. Unlike most other problems, the roles in this pattern consistently divide along gender lines; most often, the male partner is seen as relatively silent and the female partner distressed about it.

In dealing with an uncommunicative partner:

  • Do something that's a noticeable change from your previous strategies. Become less available for conversation and do not try hard to initiate or maintain discussion. Cut it short when it does start. This not only removes but reverses all pressure on the male partner. And it gives the female partner more control. The entire pattern is changing, and the power shifts.
  • Interpret silence in a positive way: "We are so close we don't always have to be talking." "I feel good when you're quiet because I know that means everything is all right between us." This negates any power your partner may be expressing through silence.
  • Focus less on the relationship and more on satisfying yourself. When you do things for yourself, you need less from others in the way of attention and assurance.

A second common communication problem involves a pattern in which one partner is consistently sad or negative—and verbalizes it—and the other is distressed by the complaints and frustrated in his or her attempts to help. Ordinarily, the complaint has at least some basis in fact—a life circumstance has given the person cause to feet depressed or pessimistic. Unfortunately, most people faced with a chronic complainer become cheerleaders; they assume that encouragement and information of a positive nature will help. But the complainer interprets the cheerleading as lack of understanding. Another losing strategy is ignoring the complaining so that the gates of negativism are never opened. Both strategies wind up intensifying the problem.

In dealing with a chronic complainer:

  • Accept, agree, and encourage the complainer's position.
  • Encourage complaining rather than trying to avoid it.

Honestly express any negative opinions you have on the topic being complained about. (Do not express any positive opinions.) Initiate topics of complaint at every opportunity. This gives the complainer the freedom of choice to discuss other issues and positive feelings.

A third communication problem is an accuser-denyer pattern that frequently evolves when one partner accuses the other of lying. Lying may—or may not—actually be involved.

In dealing with an accuser:

  • Don't explain or defend. This extremely simple solution is effective because the situation doesn't escalate—it's hard to argue with someone who doesn't argue back—and you do not appear guilty by reason of protesting too much. Accusations are often made to get an argument started; if one partner does not go for the bait, the accusation strategy stops working and is eventually dropped.

Go one step further and reflect the insecurity of the accuser. "You're afraid that I'm having an affair." "You're concerned that you're not attractive to me anymore." "You're feeling insecure about my love for you."

Sex and jealousy

Key aspects of couples' sex lives have little to do with what happens in bed. Jealousy and trust issues in a relationship are a prime example. Both involve one partner' suspecting that the other isn't being completely loyal or truthful. And in both, the partner who is the object of the jealous feelings or mistrust cannot remove the problem. Many different real or imagined actions can destroy trust, and jealousy certainly isn't the always the result of a real indiscretion. But sometimes it is.

An affair is a very difficult occurrence for a relationship to survive. It is much like surviving the death of a loved one; the relationship as it was before is forever lost. As in coming to grips with a death, the partner who must accept the "loss" needs to grieve, experience, and express the entire range of emotions associated with the affair.

Unfortunately, the partner who had the affair rarely facilitates this grieving process. Rather he or she tries to handle the situation with minimization, avoidance, and indignation, believing that the subject will die if ignored. "It was only sex, not love." "It's over, let's get on with our lives." "It meant nothing to me."

This strategy usually backfires because the other partner, already feeling hurt and angry at the betrayal, now feels dismissed and misunderstood—and brings up the affair even more. Already feeling defensive through guilt, the partner who had the affair gets more defensive ("How long do I have to go on like this?") The mistaken belief that the issue of the affair should be resolved quickly allows this partner to feel wronged, leading greater distance between partners.

In dealing with a jealous partner:

  • Encourage the partner who feels betrayed to express jealous feelings, and listen nondefensively. This allows the affair to be treated as significant; the betrayed partner has no need to emphasize how important and painful an issue it is. And by encouraging discussion of the affair, the agenda of the person who feels betrayed is given priority. This restores some of the lost power and control without necessitating a prolonged power struggle.
  • Initiate at every opportunity discussion of actions or situation that provoke jealousy.
  • Keep an exceptionally detailed diary of all your daily activities and recite it at length to your partner every day—in a matter-of-fact fashion. This breaks the questioning-defensiveness cycle. The information overload makes it less likely that accusations of giving partial or incomplete data will be made.

Of all the issues that are related to what happens in the bedroom, sexual frequency is the one about which we hear the most complaints. Usually, one partner decides that there is a problem—usually the partner who wants more sex. He or she begins by stating the problem and directly requesting more frequent sex. The verbal response from the partner is usually encouraging ("Okay, let's try to get together more often"), but the behavior frequently remains the same. At this point, the partner who feels deprived pulls out all the stops—adult movies, sexy clothing, candlelight dinners. The partner being pursued feels pressured and backs away further. The pursuer feels unloved and rejected, and may accuse his or her partner of being involved with someone else.

In dealing with a sexually disinterested partner:

  • Remove all pressure to have sex, but increase nonsexual affection.
  • Increase the time spent together in mutually enjoyable, nonsexual activities. This helps put sex back in a healthy perspective by focusing on the enjoyable parts of a relationship.
  • Become less available for sex, rather than always being ready and eager. This reduces perceived pressure and frees your partner to accept the role of pursuer.

Adapted from Overcoming Relationship Impasses by Barry L. Duncan, Psy.D., and Joseph W. Rock Psy.D. Copyright (C) 1991 by Plenum Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Insight Books, a division of Plenum Press.