I recently wrote an article about a client who enjoys her marriage and who also struggles with her partner’s angry outbursts. The article garnered some criticism.
To recap: After many years of explaining to her partner how and why his anger (and denial of that anger) was hurtful and not okay, his behavior continued, barely impacted by her rigorous and persistent efforts to change it. My client, as I reported, eventually lost the willingness and interest to keep trying to change her partner. At the same time, she realized that her partner’s behavior was not in her control to change.
It was at this point that my client decided to turn her attention away from her partner and toward herself, to get curious about her own response, her own relationship with her husband’s bad behavior. Since changing her partner was clearly not possible and she still wanted to stay married, she began investigating her own narrative, the story she was telling herself about his behavior, and what kind of partner she “should” have, how she “should” be treated, and what her relationship “should” include.
I received a strong response to this article. A number of people were angered by it and believed that my client’s choice to shift her attention away from her husband and his problematic behavior and toward herself and her own process was to demonize herself, make herself to blame. And furthermore, that I was encouraging her to accept what she positively “should not” accept, to find fault in herself. But in fact, it was nothing of the sort.
Turning her attention to her own process was not about trying to figure out how and where she was to blame, nor about denying or condoning her husband’s behavior. Rather, it was about finding a way to free herself from the anger, helplessness, and frustration that her current reaction to her husband’s anger was triggering in her.
What she wanted was to hand her husband’s bad behavior back to her husband, to not have to carry it around as her problem, and to not have to wait for it to change until she could be okay. In short, she wanted to be in charge of her own well-being.
It’s abjectly false and dangerous, in fact, to suggest that focusing our attention on our own response to difficulty, prioritizing self-awareness above fixing anyone else, is negative or self-defeating in any way. For my client, the decision to stop trying to change a behavior she couldn’t change felt immediately empowering and liberating, as if she were taking the reins back in her life. With the shift in focus, she was no longer waiting for her husband to change so that she could be happy. With a better understanding of her own narratives, her husband’s outbursts could be just that: her husband’s outbursts, his problem that he would or wouldn’t address in his own time.
But most importantly, his outbursts could be not about or against her, not something she had to be in charge of correcting. Turning the lens on her own response, and doing what she needed to do to maintain her own peace, was about taking care of herself in the reality she was in, as opposed to fighting with reality and continuing to demand that it be different. One thing we know for sure, when we fight with reality, reality wins, every time.
We hold firmly entrenched beliefs and internal narratives on the topic of relationship. They range from the micro to the macro, the subtle to the obvious. The most troublesome “should” of all, however, may be this idea that we “should” be able to change our partner, fix what we don’t like. And consequently, we can’t be happy or content until we do.
To stay in a relationship with a partner we can’t change, to accept what we don’t like, is seen as a surrender to failure, giving up on our partner and to some degree, ourselves. When we stop trying to change the parts of our partner we don’t like, we are judged (and judge ourselves) as weak, dysfunctional, and lacking self-respect.
The idea of focusing on ourselves when the problem is our partners sends us into the fiercest of “should” minefields. We get tangled up in the narrative that we “should not” have to live with this problem, “should not” let the problem continue (as if we have a choice), “should not” have to change who we are to accommodate our partner’s problem, “should not” let our partner get away with the bad behavior, and countless other “shoulds.”
But these “shoulds,” while sensible and maybe even true in some perfect universe, do nothing to change the problem, the partner, or the relationship. And most importantly, they don’t bring us peace. These “shoulds” keep us fighting with reality, convinced of our rightness but suffering nonetheless. But worst of all, they keep our well-being hitched to someone else’s capacity or willingness for change, which is never where we want to be.
Contributing to these “shoulds” is the belief that relationship is either good or bad. If the relationship contains difficulties we can’t fix, then the relationship must be all bad and we “should” leave. If we don’t, we’re agreeing to stay in a bad relationship.
The truth is, we abhor contradiction in this culture; we’re not trained to hold co-existing and contradictory truths. Contradiction, which paradoxically is the essence of a relationship, terrifies us. We can’t wrap up contradictory truths and put them neatly on a shelf. Nor can we categorize a relationship as either bad or good, worth staying in or not.
And yet, every relationship is both bad and good (except perhaps the newest ones). Accepting that good must coexist with bad, and being loving amid the contradiction, is the ground of a healthy relationship. Please note that those bad aspects of a relationship are not abuse. Your partner can have shortcomings that are difficult to bear without them being intentionally hurtful toward you.
A relationship requires an attitude of “and,” not “but.” “But” is an eraser word; it wipes out everything that came before it. Opposing truths can indeed be happy bedfellows.
It’s a healthy drive to want to fix what we don’t like in a relationship, to change what’s not working. And the period of figuring out and fighting with the problem and our partner, in other words, the period of suffering, can go on for a really long time, sometimes the duration of the relationship. For some people, the lucky ones, a moment arrives when we realize that we’ve done everything we know how to do to try to change our partner, and still the problem persists and the partner remains unchanged. We then have the option to take a new tack and examine whether there’s a way to find peace even with the problem. Our partner may keep doing what they’ve always done, but we can do things differently.
At any moment in a relationship, we can choose to get curious about ourselves, our history, our triggers, our stories, and our response to a problem we experience with our partner.
We can unpack our narratives and consider whether there’s anything we can let go of that will ease our suffering and bring us peace.
We do this not to blame or castigate ourselves, but to liberate ourselves from the fight. We do this so as not to be tangled up and victimized by the problem any longer, but to use it as an opportunity for self-awareness and expansion.
The act of turning the lens on ourselves is a victory, a setting ourselves free and handing the problem off to the one whose problem it is.
We unhitch our own well-being from the other person’s wagon.
Once unhitched, we discover that we can live with that same problem, but not experience it as problematic, our problem, or even a problem. This is freedom. This is autonomy.
Nancy Colier is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister, public speaker, workshop leader, and author of “The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World.” For more information, visit NancyColier.com