"The most changeable aspects of [a] couple's situation, in our view, are in each partner's actions and interpretations of the other's actions. We call this changing the 'doing' and the 'viewing' of the couple's problem." Patricia O'Hanlon Hudson and William Hudson O'Hanlon, Rewriting Love Stories.
Most people who've been in long-term relationships have settled into at least some patterns that seem frustratingly familiar and frustratingly unchangeable.
Sometimes we're aware of how we reinforce these patterns, and sometimes not. Often, we interpret the intentions behind a partner's actions (or failure to act), characterizing them in general terms ("stingy," "thoughtless," etc.), and otherwise casting blame - unwilling to acknowledge our own faults for fear our words will be used as ammunition.
So, instead of thinking of your primary relationship as a battlefield, think of it as a book you're trying to understand. The Book of Love has four key sections:
Part I: The Love Story. In the beginning, we're all reading a love story. We're enthralled, infatuated, paying attention only to the obvious text, seeing only what we want to see, feeling emotionally and mentally alive. We love this book and recommend it to everyone!
Part II: Identifying the Characters. Gradually, we figure out who's doing what in our story, the roles and expectations, and suppressing ourselves somewhat for fear of upsetting/losing our partner. We begin to wonder if our story is what we thought it was going to be.
Part III: The Plot Thickens. We all long to be truly known and show all of ourselves, warts and all. We begin to read and be read "between the lines." When we don't like the way the story is going, our options are to:
- see everyone but the partner as attractive;
- try to make the partner what s/he "should be" through anger, disapproval, or withdrawal;
- refuse to deal with the difficulties (and later repeat the pattern with someone else);
- see this part of the story as an opportunity to pay conscious attention to our patterns and grow beyond them (see Part IV).
Part IV: The Love Story Re-Written. We can be good editors of our own stories. This happens when we shift attention away from how we and our partner "should" be and toward who each of us really is. Some suggestions from Bill O'Hanlon:
- Acknowledge/validate each person's feelings and point of view. Be specific, give examples, vs. blaming. No need to judge here, just try to understand. Reflect back what you've heard.
- Move the discussion from complaints about the past to what you would like to have happen.
- Use "videotalk" ("Imagine it's the future. When I'm showing love what, exactly, am I doing? What, exactly, am I saying?")
- Agree to what each of you will do that's different, and DO it, with a sense of humor, please.