Is Your Relationship Evolving or Devolving?
When you change your responses to your partner, your partner changes.
Posted June 2, 2019
Viv, a composite client, has been married for 25 years. For the past 10 years, she and her husband Alan have experienced intense conflict and emotional turbulence. Neither partner, however, has been willing to leave the marriage, and there are increasing signs that the relationship may indeed find its way back to goodness and peace.
And yet, despite glimmers of hope and movement in the direction of happiness, Alan continues to repeat certain comments to Viv. Specifically, “This marriage is a failure,” “I’ve totally failed at marriage,” or “I haven’t even been able to succeed at anything, including marriage.”
When Alan first started uttering these statements, Viv’s reaction was to become defensive and angry. She felt hurt and back-handedly insulted; his words felt like aggressions against her and the marriage. Her reaction would then be to defend the marriage or blame her husband for destroying it and them. Alan would then react and accuse Viv of being the one who was impossible to have a relationship with. One hundred percent of the time, when Viv engaged with defensiveness and aggression, the interaction went south and created more pain and disconnection within the couple.
After years spent defending herself and the marriage, blaming Alan for ruining things, and trying unsuccessfully to get him to see the marriage in a different way, Viv adopted a new strategy. She began pretending as if she didn’t notice her husband’s comments; she behaved as if he hadn’t said it, hadn’t hurt her. It was an attempt to stave off her shame at being wounded and show him (falsely) that his efforts to cause her harm were useless. Unfortunately, this strategy didn’t work either, because, underneath the nonchalance, she felt enraged and deeply hurt. Pretending in this way made her feel like she was tucking away and even betraying her true self, and this caused deep resentment and confusion in Viv.
Most recently, Viv’s and my work together has been focused on letting go of (or loosening) the controller in her—the part of her that feels it has to change or manage her husband's behavior. When Viv is able to allow her husband to be the way he is, to let go of the idea that it’s her responsibility or duty to change him, she feels liberated and, unexpectedly, not resentful. She’s realized that there are a lot of things about her husband’s behavior that she doesn’t like, and that’s OK. When she’s not failing at getting him to be the way she wants him to be, and he’s not failing her by not being how she wants him to be, she can actually relax. She can hear his comments and not have to do anything with or about them. Viv has been learning to watch what happens when she lets everything be just exactly as it is, which may be the most important lesson we ever learn. The wise spiritual teacher, Adyashanti, calls this the practice of true meditation, a form of meditation that can happen everywhere not just on the cushion.
When Viv lets go of the controller and allows her husband to be as he is and also her experience of him to be how it is, she feels more separate from him, but also more aware of who he and she actually are, and paradoxically more in relationship with him, rather than the idea of the man she wants him to be. This doesn’t mean that she stops telling him when he says things that hurt her, but she no longer sees him as a piece of clay she has to mold. Alan transformed from being an object in her psyche, one that possessed the potential to make her happy, and became a separate human being with pleasing and not-pleasing parts.
There was a surrender that occurred within Viv; her 25-year effort to make Alan different (so that she could be happy) had given up. As a result, she was left with reality. Reality had always been there, but she had been in a battle with it, rejecting it and living in a state of chronic dissatisfaction and frustration.
The process of letting go is vastly liberating, but it also includes grief. When we surrender the controller, we surrender the hope that we will get to have the partner we wish we could have, that we will get to have the happiness we imagined our partner could bring us. We may discover a totally different kind of happiness, but our idea of how it was going to happen and who our partner was going to become must die.
When we stop betting our happiness on our partner changing, we discover a different kind of partnership, a bond without shackles, a union that’s both separate and together. When we step out of the role of manager, we start to see who our partner actually is rather than who they’re not, and hopefully, we can do all this with a bit of compassion.
This process, while painful in many ways, is a spiritual evolution. It involves shedding a central part of ourselves, a primary component and motivation in how we relate. Our relationship, with a loosened controller, is fundamentally different; our purpose is no longer fixing the project that is our partner. Without a controller, it’s a relationship without the hope of having exactly what we want, but with a new and undiscovered hope of meeting what we actually have, who our partner is, and who we are in this relationship as it is.
In letting go of the controller, we give ourselves the freedom to focus on our own behavior, our own happiness. We have permission to not have to be in charge of everyone else’s behavior. The more we practice this, the more we get the hang of letting others be who they are and moving on. In so doing, we also give ourselves the possibility of loving our partner now, not if and when we turn them into who we want them to be.
And remarkably, when we change our responses to our partner’s behavior, our partner’s behavior also changes. It has to, as we’re feeding it different food. One thing’s for sure: If we keep doing what we’ve always done, we’ll keep getting what we’ve always gotten. When we change, the people around us change, either through their own behavior or simply through how we see them.
Most recently, yet another shift has occurred; Viv has found a new clarity, a new wisdom that’s not about Alan or the marriage. Viv has discovered an authentic desire to move away from negativity and what hurts and move towards love and kindness, towards friends and family who have a positive experience of their relationship with her—who do not view their relationship with her as a failure. This desire in Viv stems from self-love, from letting things be as they are, and it allows her to disengage from her husband’s comments, to leave them alone in the interest of her own well-being. While she still finds Alan’s words hurtful in these situations, Viv has developed wisdom that, in the moment, tells her to let go and act in service of her greater happiness. Or, as the wonderful Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron puts it, to not bite the hook that’s dangling. When not responding is not just another response tactic, but rather a true act of self-love, we’ve discovered a most powerful tool.
Evolution and happiness in our self and our relationship is not about figuring out how to better control our partner, learning to not care, or swallowing behavior that’s hurtful. It is, however, about learning to allow everything to be as it is, letting go of control and responsibility for our partner’s behavior, and practicing self-love. Ultimately, it’s about learning to take what we want and leave the rest behind, moving away from what hurts and moving towards kindness.
A caveat: In the case of abuse of any kind, emotional or physical, we do not allow anything to be as it is. When abuse is present, we remove ourselves from the situation. When abuse is happening, we do not surrender control or wait for our partner’s behavior to change, we take ourselves out of harm's way. This article is not applicable in cases of abuse.