Can people really change? I'm a therapist so I have to say yes, don't I? What kind of therapist doesn't believe in change? He'd have to be some kind of fraud, wouldn't he? What is it that therapists sell if not change?
I'll tell you what it is. It's growth.
Growth is a kind of change but it's change along a path. We might say we change when we move a little farther along the path of our own growth. But we haven't changed our basic self, only grown a little more mature.
Someone who knew us way back when might find us still the same, but a little different, too. Maybe we add something or subtract something from our repertoire. But we remain, in most qualitative respects, basically the same. We just get older and hopefully wiser, right?
But isn't that change? If we grow wiser can we say we're still the same? If we learn to keep our mouth shut sometimes, when our old habit was to just spew, is that change? If we learn to speak more often at the right time, for example to hold up our end of an intimate relationship, isn't that change? Well, maybe it's growth, after all. We're just adding a new layer to our unfinished project. Relationships usually require that. That's one reason they're difficult.
Changing ourselves or growing isn't easy. Old habits, no matter how out-dated or un-useful, are hard to break. But with a realistic approach, a sincere desire and a persistent application of effort, changes can be made. Growth is, after all, a natural thing. The pay-off can be huge in proportion to the effort expended. Even a small change can produce significant and lasting improvement.
Here's how to accomplish this ambitious task:
You have to want it.
Whether you admit it or not, your old behavior has served a purpose. If you really want to change, you have to find a replacement behavior and a new reward. You will have to forgo the old reward.
For example, suppose you have been making jokes at your wife's expense. She hates it and her outrage and hurt (hey, it was only a joke) have finally convinced you it's not worth it. But look at what you were getting from it. You made people laugh. You appeared witty and intelligent. You showed everyone you weren't whipped, demonstrating your basic superiority, as well as your forbearance, for putting up with her ridiculous tendencies. That's a lot of reward to lose. Is the prospect of a happier, more loving wife worth all that?
The change agreement should be bilateral. A relationship in which one pleases the other without reciprocal effort can quickly become skewed, that is one-sided, unequal, with one partner playing parent to the other's child. This diminishes both intimacy and satisfaction.
Women usually have their desired changes for their spouse on the tip of their tongues.
Men, more schooled in obliviousness, sometimes have to look a little deeper for what they'd like to modify about her. Go ahead and look. Then assert it. But be realistic and, of course, kind. And recognize that one good change deserves another. A request for change should be parallel, a trade-off, or else hidden resentments may subvert the best intentions.
Goals should be clearly defined and expressed as measurable behaviors, not attitudes or feelings. This is an important, often overlooked requirement.
Allow time and space for the changes to be implemented. There will be
relapses and moments of weakness. Any reminders should be gentle and brief. People may get casual and/or sloppy, but once they have expressed their intention to change, the responsibility for doing so is on them and the partner should not get "parental" about supervising it.
Keep a journal of your progress. This is a good way to keep your attention on the matter at hand and accelerate your rate of change. Don't monitor your partner, though. Monitor yourself.
Plan a formal review session where you both sit down and go over your progress in the matter. In this session, critique yourself, not your partner. And be honest. If you've failed to progress, being honest about it may gain you a chance to try again.
Regardless of your partner's success at changing, change your own behavior. Your partner does not cause your behavior. Recognizing this and acknowledging your freedom to act autonomously is the most important aspect of permanent change.
That last point is a crucial one. Even though we are responsible for our own behavior, we don't act in a vacuum. We may be invited, even conscripted, into playing a role in our partner's emotional drama. This is where your determination to change will be sorely tested. Failing to exhibit your habitual rejoinder to your partner's cue will bring instant change, demonstrating your autonomy while indicating to both of you that change is possible.
Finally, I want to acknowledge my debt to family therapist Gus Napier for these ideas on changing in couple relationships.
They may be common sense, but common sense isn't always very common.
Hugh R. Leavell has been a marriage and family therapist in Palm Beach County for 18 years. He offers free seminars on couples communication and conflict management. The next one will be Jan. 6 at 4 p.m. in Palm Beach Gardens. Call him at (561) 471-0067 or visit his Web site www.oneminutetherapist.com.