As a marriage and family therapist, the biggest hurdle that I see individuals and couples face in realizing the goals for their relationships is that they keep doing what they have been doing, in spite of having learned a better way. So, as the Nike ad says, “Just do it.” Lasting change is experiential. Knowledge and good intentions are not enough.
If we are to have positive change in our lives and relationships, we need to experience that what we have learned is actually true. You have to experience something different to believe in something different.
As much as I want to emphasize the need for a different experience, I also know how difficult it can be to do things differently. It really helps to start small.
Most couples come in and they tell me they need to work on their communication. Truthfully, they can communicate just fine. They each have the skills, but they are emotionally tied to one another. And when the emotions get stirred, the helpful communication skills they have go out the window. They no longer talk to one another as friends who don’t see eye-to-eye. They become bitter adversaries and it can get ugly.
Couples have a lot of choices for doing things differently when it comes to their disagreements. Before they step foot in the therapy room, they generally have awareness that there are better ways to disagree.
Cognitive knowledge isn’t very useful when emotions take over. Our rational brain goes offline and our body goes into fight or flight.
Just doing it differently becomes really difficult. So how can a couple take a baby step towards a new experience?
- When you learn new information, intentional ask yourself “what is my take-away?” What do I feel is usable for me? Imagine yourself using the new information to have a different interaction.
- Focus on one thing that you really want to differently. Start small by focusing on just one thing that feels doable and like something that would make a difference in your relationship.
- Practice, practice, practice… when things are calm. If you are going to try to break some unhealthy patterns, you’re are going to need access to your rational brain. You are much more likely to have a new positive experience if you try doing things differently when the relationship is in a settled state.
- Give your relationship some grace. If you change, you will create change in your relationship. But change feels different – whether it’s good or bad. So give yourself and your partner some time to adjust.
Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT