There’s a distinct set of habits that are shared by almost all people who know how to get their partners to be open-minded and receptive, and thanks to decades of painstaking relationship research, we now know exactly what these habits are. If you want to succeed in love, you simply must have specific interpersonal abilities. If you have them, chances are very good that over the long haul your partner will be responsive to your wants and needs. If you don’t have them, the evidence suggests that your relationship future is likely quite dim. A detailed description of each of these habits can be found in the articles, Habits of People Who Know How to Get Their Partners to Treat Them Well –Parts I & II, and Reacting Effectively When Your Partner Says or Does Something You Don’t Like or Agree With (www.thecouplesclinic.com/resources). In the present article, I summarize five lessons we’ve learned through years of helping people develop the habits through our counseling and educational programs at the Couples Clinic and Research Institute.
1. Some of the most important habits are not “couple” habits, but rather are “individual” habits.
Researchers found that some of the things that are most crucial to relationship success are not accomplished through joint teamwork but rather through individual effort. Not only must you be able to do certain things without the assistance of your partner, some of the most critical habits must be implemented at moments when it seems that your partner is making it most difficult for you to do so. The ability to respond effectively when feeling upset, provoked, annoyed, ignored or mistreated is one of the most important abilities identified by researchers. It is precisely when their partners are acting in ways that seem out-of-line or off-kilter that people who are destined for satisfying relationships distinguish themselves from those who are destined for disappointing relationships. People who are effective at these moments require that they be treated with respect, but they also have ways of making it easy for their partners to do so. They know how to stand up for themselves, but they do it without a lot of fuss. They don’t make a big deal of how awful their partners are for being selfish, inconsiderate or controlling—they just require that their partners give their priorities and opinions equal regard.
2. The ability to react effectively when your partner says or does things that you don’t like or agree with is not optional. It’s a requirement for anyone who hopes to have a partner who is responsive to his or her wants, needs or viewpoints.
When your partner acts in ways that seem selfish, annoying, irresponsible, inattentive, irrational, short-sighted, biased, lazy, inconsiderate, self-absorbed, unrealistic, unfeeling, uncaring, needy, controlling, negative, or over-reactive, you may feel that the solution to the problem lies in your partner’s hands, not yours. You may reason that since your partner is the one who is behaving badly, your partner is the one who must make efforts to change. But study after study suggests that changes are initiated by the skillful reactions of those who are dissatisfied with their partners’ behaviors, not by the partners who do the objectionable things. The way people react when their partners say or do things they find objectionable is a powerful predictor of the rate of future occurrences of their partners’ objectionable behaviors. Some reactions reliably trigger closed-mindedness, inflexibility, defensiveness, and/or dismissiveness; other reactions reliably elicit open-mindedness and flexibility. If you’re serious about wanting your partner to change, you simply cannot overlook the role that your reactions play in the larger pattern that fuels or dampens your partner’s objectionable behaviors.
Many people object in principle to the idea that they should assume responsibility for being thoughtful in their reactions to things that their partners shouldn’t be doing in the first place. If your partner is behaving badly, why should you have to devote time and effort to trying to figure out how to talk to your partner about it? Shouldn’t it be as simple as pointing out your partner’s offensive behavior and telling him/her to stop? Shouldn’t your partner be willing to take responsibility for his/her objectionable actions regardless of how you express your dissatisfaction to him/her?
Two important relationship facts are relevant when considering such questions:
A. Most of us are significantly biased and self-serving in our judgments about what objectionable relationship conduct is. We’re prone to believe our partners are wrong when they really aren’t.
Studies suggest that most people are accurate in their assessment of dysfunctional relationship behavior only up to a point, and then the accuracy of their assessments goes downhill. More precisely, most people are accurate in their assessment of the harmful effects of things such as lying, sexual unfaithfulness, failing to keep agreements, badmouthing or undermining one’s partner, violations of privacy, and making unilateral decisions. But beyond these offenses, assessment of inappropriate conduct becomes increasingly biased and self-serving. Studies indicate that, in general, when people believe that their partners’ conduct is selfish, irrational, irresponsible, inattentive, inconsiderate, short-sighted, lazy, uncaring, or negative, most of the time their partners actually aren’t doing things that are inherently harmful to or unhealthy for relationships. Because our standards or priorities at the moment seem so obvious and logical to us, it’s easy for us to assume that our partners’ actions are out of line if they don’t meet our standards. But studies suggest that most of the time when partners disagree, neither partner’s priorities nor expectations are wrong. For example, a wife accepts an invitation to go out with her friends on Friday night without asking her husband if that would be OK with him. The husband considers this to be really inconsiderate, and feels justified in criticizing her for it. But the fact is, this wife wouldn’t be upset at the husband if he made similar arrangements with his friends without consulting her. In fact, the wife has a whole different ideal for how a relationship should be. n her view, partners should each be free to make other arrangements unless plans between the two of them have been specifically made. She wouldn’t dream of being so selfish as to try to restrict his freedom by asking him to consult her every time he wanted to plan something with his friends. Obviously, he doesn’t see it that way, and he let her have a piece of his mind! Well, if she wasn’t behaving selfishly before he harshly criticized her, now she is! She slams the door in his face. Feeling perfectly entitled to his contempt, the next time he sees her he sneers at her for her childish tantrum. Needless to say, her response to his contempt provokes him to even more scornful expressions.
And so the story goes. It began with the husband’s perception that his wife was being inconsiderate. If he had been able to avoid judging her and instead approach her in an attempt to work out an understanding that took both of their points of view into account, she may have been willing to try to work out a more mutually satisfying plan. Relationship researchers tell us that this sort of situation is like most situations in which partners become upset with each other, in that there isn’t anything inherently harmful to relationships about either partner’s expectations. There are happily coupled partners who always check with each other before making plans with others, and there are happily coupled partners who never check with each other. Either set of expectations can work just fine. People who know how to elicit responsiveness in their partners are thoughtful about their reactions, rather than just blindly “going with” knee-jerk instincts that tell them that their partners’ priorities or actions are wrong.
So let’s go back to the original question. “Why do you need to focus on your reactions if your partner is the one whose conduct or priorities are wrong?” One answer is, unless you’re different than most people, most of the times when you get upset with your partner, his/her conduct or priorities probably aren’t wrong—they’re just at cross purposes with your priorities or expectations. Concluding that your partner’s wrong when s/he’s not is a mistake that you do not want to make, at least not if you take the landmark studies on relationships seriously. The mistaken attribution of blame is no small matter when it comes to how relationships fare over time. A steady habit of believing your partner is wrong when he or she isn’t can destroy a relationship. People who are skillful in relationships think twice before assigning blame. They understand that they have a right to ask their partners for changes even if their partners’ current viewpoints or actions aren’t wrong. In fact, the partners of skillful people tend to be more responsive to requests precisely because they don’t feel accused or criticized.
Avoiding blame isn’t the only thing that skillful people do in relationships. When their partners aren’t responsive to their needs, they also have powerful ways of standing up for themselves. However, the avoidance of blame serves as a foundation for the effectiveness of other skills they use.
Of course, it’s important to recognize that while most of the time when partners get upset at each other neither partner’s viewpoints nor priorities are wrong, sometimes people have attitudes or do things that are truly harmful to or unhealthy for relationships. People are sometimes closed-minded, inflexible, overly-critical, defensive and/or dismissive. People sometimes lie to their partners, they are sexually unfaithful, they fail to keep agreements, they badmouth or undermine their partners, they violate their partners’ privacy, or they make unilateral decisions in spite of the protests of their partners. These things are wrong by almost any standard. Why should you be thoughtful about your reactions if your partner is undeniably wrong?
B. Your partner’s objectionable conduct likely arises at least partly in reaction to your unhealthy relationship habits, just as your unhealthy relationship habits likely arise at least partly in reaction to your partner’s objectionable conduct.
Studies suggest that partners engage in dysfunctional or unhealthy relationship conduct at similar rates, but most people don’t realize it. This is probably because the average person has limited knowledge of the full range of behaviors that are unhealthy for relationships. When asked about the behaviors that are unhealthy for relationships, most people identify things such as lying, sexual unfaithfulness, failing to keep agreements, badmouthing or undermining one’s partner, violations of privacy, and making unilateral decisions. For these obvious unhealthy behaviors, transgression rates between partners are often uneven, with one partner engaging at a higher rate of offensive conduct than the other. However, relationship researchers have identified another group of unhealthy relationship behaviors that are subtle and often overlooked, but just as damaging to relationships if they occur regularly. We’ve already discussed one such unhealthy relationship behavior—believing that your partner’s viewpoint or conduct is wrong when it’s really not. Researchers have located eleven other subtle and often overlooked unhealthy relationship behaviors that are clearly predictive of poor relationship outcomes. Partners usually commit these subtle, higher-frequency, unhealthy relationship behaviors at similar rates.
The subtle offenses tend to be mutually reinforcing. If you’re like most people, you will tend to react to your partner’s unhealthy relationship behavior with unhealthy relationship behavior of your own, which will provoke more unhealthy behavior from your partner, and so on. Your unhealthy reactions to your partner’s unhealthy behavior may not seem to you to be unhealthy—at least not when compared to your partner’s. This is because you probably don’t engage in the same type of unhealthy relationship conduct that your partner does. There are several different types of subtle unhealthy relationship behaviors. Some of them are most often seen in people who tend to be the first to express dissatisfaction with or disapproval of their partners’ viewpoints or actions, while other types of unhealthy relationship behaviors are more often seen in people whose partners are usually the first to express dissatisfaction or disapproval. Each of these types are detailed in the article “Reacting Effectively When Your Partner Says or Does Something You Don’t Like or Agree With”. Here, I simply want to draw attention to the fact that if you respond to your partner’s unhealthy or offensive behavior with unhealthy or offensive behavior of your own, and your partner responds to your unhealthy or offensive behavior in an unhealthy or offensive way, the two of you will be caught in a vicious cycle with no exit. Vicious cycles such as this usually serve as the base relationship condition from which partners then go on to commit more obvious relationship offenses such as lying, cheating or becoming verbally or physically aggressive. Researchers tell us that the only way out of the vicious cycle of damaging interaction is for at least one partner to unilaterally break the cycle by developing the ability to respond effectively when his or her partner’s viewpoint or behavior seems wrong. ndeed, researchers found that the ability to respond effectively when dissatisfied with or disapproving of one’s partner’s conduct is consistently predictive of lower future rates of partner offensive conduct.
Look at next month for Part II of “The Prerequisite Habits – Lessons Learned”
© Copyright 2011 by Brent Atkinson, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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