The strive for perfection
When you first meet someone, it can be easy to see their positive traits. Your new partner can seem so relaxed and up for anything. Or maybe they’re really ambitious and that turns you on. After a few years, however, these same attractive qualities can become really irritating. Your laid back partner might never stand up for you when their mother passive-aggressively insults you across the dinner table. Or your ambitious lover might be so focussed on work, that you end up feeling like you’re way down on their priority list.
It’s typical of most of us to constantly want to improve ourselves. We like to get promoted, we like to have beauty treatments done. We upgrade items in our homes, we work for better cars, and yeah, we want better relationships too. Our striving for growth is healthy; it keeps us moving. But it can also make us a little too skilled at detecting the “errors” in our lives. We look at the imperfection like a stain on a white t-shirt, and we find ourselves obsessively wanting to scrub it out.
The imperfections of love
When we apply this perfectionistic outlook to our relationships, we may find ourselves complaining to our partners about how crap they are for never being around when we need them. We might argue about how they should have stood up to their mother like a grown-up, instead of hiding like a child. We might withdraw and give them silent treatment, in the hope that if they see how much they have hurt us, they might change their behaviour.
The unfortunate thing is that this strategy for reconnection rarely works. It might work occasionally, but it definitely isn’t a long-lasting solution to the problem. A person deeply motivated by a need to succeed isn’t suddenly going to spend less hours at the office because their partner wants more time with them. Just like a person who has difficulty communicating with their mother isn’t suddenly going to know what to say to her…even if we suggest ways for them to do it.
How to create change
Typically, complaining, arguing, nagging, silent treatment and giving the cold shoulder ends up pushing our partners further away from us… which is the opposite of what we want, no? They grow tired of never being able to please us, so they give up and conclude that we’re the problem: We’re just incapable of being satisfied and letting things go.
There’s a beautiful concept we use in Gestalt Psychotherapy called “The Paradoxical Theory of Change”. The idea is that the more we push for something/someone to be different, the more resistance we will meet. People/concepts/emotions/pain… all these things want to survive and to be understood. If we try to smother them, or to force them into another way of being, they will fight back. So, how should we deal with an uncomfortable or imperfect situation? We need to acknowledge it; to see it as it is.
So, what? I’m supposed to shut up and accept it?
How can we apply “The Paradoxical Theory of Change” to our partners when they do something that hurts or bothers us? I’m not saying, don’t talk about it. It is so important that you let your partner know when something bothers you. What I’m suggesting, is that you don’t fight so hard for change to take place.
“You’re never available” is an accusation and one that probably hurts someone who loves you deeply. When we accuse, we place all the blame for an imperfection on our partner and, naturally, this causes them to fight back. Approaching them from a place of acceptance is different. “Your work must mean a lot to you for you to be able to dedicate so much time and energy to it. Where did you learn this work ethic?” Asking a question like this, with curiosity, allows a conversation to arise between the two of you. “Work” could mean more to your partner than what we can see on the surface of their behaviour. Maybe their parents praised them only when they achieved greatly at school. Or maybe they grew up in a home where money was scarce and they promised themselves they would never ever live like that once they were independent. Who knows? The only way to understand is to ask with the intention to learn more about your partner. If you approach this conversation with the intention to change your partner, you probably will not succeed.
Acceptance, curiosity and support creates space
Having the conversation gives your partner the time and space to reflect on their behaviour and emotions, and on the experiences and values that drive them. This reflection creates self-awareness, which wouldn’t be able to arise if your partner was busy thinking of counter-arguments to prove that you are wrong. A person can only choose to change once they understand: what they are doing, how they are doing it, why they are doing it and whether they want to continue in this way. Change is something that comes from the inside and moves outward, and it happens step by step.
If you want your partner to change their behaviour, you can aide in this process of internal re-evaluating. If you try to force the change, their behaviour may adjust temporarily, but it will not last because the change has not come from within. So you need to take on the attitude to have the conversation.
What’s the attitude? How can I help to create space?
The attitude can be summarised simply, “be their friend“. Approach your partner the way you would approach a friend:
- Aim to understand their behaviour, not judge it.
- Assume they are trying their best in a complex world.
- Show them that even though this behaviour upsets you, you are there for them and you see the goodness they bring to your relationship.
When you approach your partner in this way, they can relax and be honest with you because they are not weary of being attacked, judged, blamed or threatened. This safety allows honest communication to take place. Your partner can begin to reflect and will probably be more open to listening to your experience of their behaviour too.
If you and your partner are not used to communicating in this way, it will probably feel a little artificial the first few times you try it. Don’t let the novelty of it put you off. Be patient and keep trying. With practice and persistence, this communication style will become your norm. With honest communication, self-awareness can arise, and genuine change can take place. Step…by…step…
Leave a comment below or send me a message if you have any questions or thoughts on this post. I love to hear from you.