Do We Really Want To Change?

Change means having to hate your symptoms.

Posted Jan 30, 2011

I've been counseling couples for over thirty years and I've come to believe that the main reason why change is so hard is because most people simply don't like it. I know psychological theories abound that contend we want to change, and that we even marry people to help us work through our unresolved problems. Just sayin: There's too much anxiety involved with change—too much uncertainty. A former client told me he decided not to work on his dysfunctional marriage because: "I don't want to trade the Devil I know for the Devil I don't know." I get it. Like Fredo Corleone, "I'm smart Mikey." I even have empathy. I also realize that with change comes loss. Even if a couple is in tremendous pain, in order to alleviate the discomfort, they'll have to suffer at least some loss. I've seen countless men in treatment who are finished with their marriages and yet continue in couple's therapy. Why the charade? I usually get the same answer: "A divorce will cost too much money and the kids will be upset. "Okay," I respond, "then are we supposed to wait around until your children say to you: ‘Gee dad, thanks for getting rid of our mother—we feel terrific?'" How long will this take to happen? Are we to wait for a judge to say: "Listen man, you don't have to pay any alimony or child support—you're free as a bird?" Fat chance! These men, like most of us, want it all, and they'll wait to get it. Dr. Seuss said in his book, Oh, the Places You'll Go! (a great book about facing fears and taking on change) that people will wait...and wait.

We therapists know that most people protect their sick dynamic with ferocity; after all, to live without it may be worse; and how else do they know how to live? When I asked a client how he felt about having a brutally abusive alcoholic father, he answered: "I didn't think it was so bad; I thought all the fathers in the neighborhood were like my dad." Upon my leaving a university setting for private practice my supervisor's parting lesson was to ask me to pick up a heavy chair in his large office and walk around. After a couple minutes he asked me how I felt. I told him it was heavy. He said: "Keep walking." A few minutes later he asked again how I felt carrying the chair. I said: "I'm getting used to it." "Walk some more," he said. A lifetime passed—or it seemed like one—and he finally told me to put the chair down. I did and he then asked: "How do you feel now?" I told him I felt relieved. "Right," he said. "That's the way we are. We can get ourselves into the most horrible situation—and get used to it—only to feel relief when we get out of it—that is, if we ever take the risk to get out." "I got it," I said. "Good," he responded, "Vio Con Dios."

So then, why do people even go to therapy? I've come to believe that most couples come to see me so that I can help figure out a way for them to "stay the same without the pain." I've seen my share of couples stop treatment as soon as they were about to solve some long-suffering problem. I've witnessed numerous people end a relationship with a nice, reasonably sane person only to take off with someone you'd never want to bring home to meet mom. And one of the reasons an affair or even a divorce can be a silly act of desperation is because the joke is often on us! In an unconscious effort to avoid change, we find the same person again.

I know I may sound heartless to a few of you out there, but I see myself as an empathic realist. At a recent lecture I gave, a member of the audience—a therapist—asked me if I get bored or frustrated in therapy. "Neither," I responded. "I have great empathy for my clients because I know first–hand how difficult the change process is." I even warn my clients: "If you want deep change, you'll have to hate your symptoms. You can't be somewhat aggravated, just as you can't say you'll give medical school a try—you're in the business of change or you're not." I played soccer in college, and on my team was a guy we nicknamed The Squid because he was thin and wiry. As I recall, Squid had an interesting habit—born out of anxiety I suspect—of getting lost during play. He never seemed to get into the fray, especially when we needed him. On more than one occasion our superstar captain would yell to him in the middle of the action: "Get in the game Squid." That's what we all have to do to change...get in the game.

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