It’s not uncommon to hear couples say, “I love my partner, but if he would just do___, we would be better off”, or “I love her, but if she would only do ____, I would be happy in this relationship.”
These are very real desires: “If only my partner would do [something], then we would have a perfect relationship.”
Well, maybe not perfect. But people who are asking for their partners to change really believe the changes they wish for would fix the problems in the relationship. It’s a pattern some couples exist in. Unfortunately, that position keeps the couple stagnant, each waiting for the other person to make the changes.
It would be great if our partners would change in just the ways we would like them to. It would be fantastic if counseling could get someone to just realize how their difficult behavior is ruining the relationship. It would be terrific if they would then comply and make the necessary changes, so that everyone could go back to the business of living and being happy. End of story.
As a couples counselor, I have yet to see this actually occur. It’s not that partners don’t ask for changes, it’s just very unlikely that only one person admits to being responsible for the problems in the relationship. In difficult relationships, when one person is disturbed by the other, it’s usually because both are doing something to bother each other. Both people contribute to the problems, and it takes both people becoming aware of their part in order to solve their difficulties.
By the time couples enter counseling, though, they are often exhausted, misunderstood, and hungry for nurturing and attention. When two people in a relationship are both looking to feel better, they expect their mate to do what is necessary for that to happen. It’s natural to assume that your partner will be there for you and give you what you need.
The problem is that in most cases, people are not sure what they need, but they are sure of what they are getting—and what they are getting is something they don’t like. At this point, both people feel disappointed that their partner is not giving them what they need. This pattern must be broken in order to be able to figure out what each person is looking for. This way, both people can feel better in the relationship.
Arguments often mask the hidden needs each person carries. One person may want to feel valued by their partner. The other may want to feel important to their partner. When both people are fighting to get what they need, without knowing what they need, they often come to the conclusion that their partner just doesn’t “get” them. When people feel misunderstood, they also feel alone in the relationship. When you feel with your own thoughts, you might even conclude that your partner doesn’t care about you. This can lead to more isolation and real sadness for both of you.
Pain and hurt feelings are relationship signals that people are not getting their needs met. Yelling, arguing, blaming, criticizing, disconnecting, stonewalling, and staying silent are the behaviors people use to get what they need. But no one likes to respond to people who use these behaviors on us. We can’t respond because we usually feel judged, belittled, and attacked.
Often couples in difficult relationships may find themselves engaging in the preceding behaviors. They might even think that’s just the way it is and they have to live with it. Each partner may secretly—or not-so-secretly—feel like the other person is doing terrible things to them. The funny thing is, both people probably want the same things: to feel better, peaceful, loved, appreciated, and happy.
If you feel locked in a relationship and think your partner should be doing something different, why not consider looking at yourself? You are most likely a well-intentioned person who wants to live in a good relationship with your partner. Start with acknowledging your part. You may be surprised how far this might take you, maybe even to that sacred place you have been longing for: a common ground.
© Copyright 2011 by Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT, therapist in Long Beach, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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