Monday, February 11, 2013

Breaking Free of Disruptive Patterns: Dancing to a Different Tune

High school senior Rachel had fancied Tim, the boy of her dreams and captain of the running team, for months before he finally asked her out. That serendipitous first date led to many more and it wasn’t long before they were officially an item. The first weeks were a blur; they delighted in discovering each other and spent hardly any time apart but about six months into the relationship, something changed. Tim missed his friends, and he started spending more and more time on weekends playing football or training for triathlons with them. Rachel would call and ask him to come over but he would say he had already made plans. The situation was particularly frustrating for Rachel, since she was training for an important track meet at the time and Tim’s expertise at running would have enabled her to make great progress. They had the same fight many times: Rachel would demand more of Tim and he would grow more distant, finding excuses to spend more time with his friends. He assured her that he loved her and she didn’t doubt about his faithfulness or commitment to her, but how could she break out of the never-ending cycle she found herself in lately?

You Can Stop the Music
Books giving advice on relationships abound at every bookshop but if you have to select just one that will enable you to understand how important it is to break free of destructive patterns, a highly recommendable read is The Dance of Anger by New York Times best-selling author and psychotherapist, Dr. Harriet Lerner. The book sheds light on the “circular dances” that define our relationships with our partners, friends and members of the family.
To summarize, Dr. Lerner states that every person has their own favored way of dealing with a difficult situation: some distance themselves from the cause of anxiety, others engage in blame, still others seek greater closeness with their loved ones. Some become Mr. or Ms. Fix-It, growing ultra-responsible and putting out all the fires, while others begin to under-function, growing more absent-minded and irresponsible. Still others create triangles which cause tension between friends or family members. The more tense the situation, the more likely it is that we will employ the techniques our family patterns have taught us. Says Dr. Lerner in another of her best-selling books, Dance with Intimacy: “The more intensely we do our thing, the more intensely the other person in the relationship does theirs. And the more we get focused on the other person’s behavior rather than our own, the more stuck we become.”
In the example above, Rachel’s tactic when problems arose was to demand more of her partner; Tim’s was to seek distance; the more she pushed, the more he felt like running; it was an endless dance that left both frustrated and made both forget about the many things they loved about each other. If you are in a similar rut with your boyfriend and you feel the relationship is growing too tense to be considered healthy, break the pattern. Engage in a new exchange, one that allows you to “stay emotionally connected to that other party who thinks, feels and believes differently, without needing to change, convince or fix” him.
To turn to our example once again, Rachel might decide that her own relationship with her friends needs work; she might realize that in her fervor for her new relationship, she has been neglecting people who matter a great deal to her. Says Dr. Lerner: “When we are too focused on what someone else is ‘doing wrong’, chances are we are ignoring our own important issues that need to be addressed.” Rachel may have been over-reactive to how Tim was conducting his friendships because she wasn’t paying due attention to her own.

The Countermove
Breaking a deeply rooted pattern is always difficult and it will always encounter resistance; people grow accustomed to the same dynamic and fear change, even when it leads to a positive outcome in the long run. For instance, in the case of Rachel and Tim, if she decided to spend more of her free time going out with friends, he could employ an interesting ‘countermove’ to keep the old pattern of their relationship in place; he could question her need for independence, and perhaps even grow clingy himself. Rachel and Tim could fall back into a ‘second honeymoon’ period where they only spent time with each other… before Tim began seeking out his friends again. Breaking established patterns takes honesty and courage, but it also takes patience; occasionally slipping back into old routines does not constitute failure.

The Keys to a Healthy Relationship
In the United States, the divorce rate flutters at between 40 and 50 per cent, with an even worse prognosis for second marriages. Dr. Lerner says, “When people divorce, they blame themselves or their spouse, but if any other institution had a 50 per cent failure rate, we would have to look at the problems in the roles and rules of the institutions themselves. The broader culture does not really support families and there are problematic gender roles (man the breadwinner, woman the primary nurturing figure). These statistics are highly relevant even to young people in high school and college, since we often meet our future spouses when we are still students. From the time we first embark on relationships that may or may not last a lifetime, we can make use of Dr. Lerner’s valuable list of qualities which are normally present in healthy and fulfilling relationships. She cites the following key elements:
  • A good sense of humor
  • The ability to apologize when appropriate and be genuinely accountable for one’s immature or unkind behavior
  • The ability to focus on the self and ask, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ rather than focus on what the other person is doing or not doing for you
  • The ability to respect differences while maintaining a defined ‘bottom line’ regarding what is not acceptable in a relationship
  • Respect for the other person
  • Being committed to solving any problems with our partner rather than seeking intimacy from third parties
  • The ability to honor promises (for instance, honoring a promise to do more housework or to call your partner/spouse when you get home from an out-of-town race, no matter how late it is)
  • The ability to really listen to your partner/spouse with an open heart and to express your own thoughts about important matters
  • The ability to be influenced by your partner/spouse’s pain and to make the necessary changes if the request to make them is fair
  • To warm your partner/spouse’s heart and make them feel chosen, valued and respected. Couples are usually good at this in the beginning stages of a relationship but with time, they neglect its importance
To this we would add four of developmental psychologist, Erik Erickson’s ‘Signs of a Healthy Relationship’:
  • Power is distributed equally and conflict handled transparently through negotiation, without force or threat
  • There is deep democracy in the relationship
  • Each can fully express strong emotions and their deepest fears without abuse or causing harm
  • There is forgiveness and redemption
When to Let Go
When you love someone, it is normal to pull out all the stops to make your relationship work but if your partner or spouse has betrayed or hurt you beyond healthy limits, or you have made every effort possible to process a difficult situation and you’re getting nowhere, letting the person go and moving on might be the best course to take. As Dr. Lerner says, “You’ve got to learn to leave the table when love’s no longer being served.”

Written and submitted by: Evelyn MacInnes

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