4 questions to get you started
You know the feeling. You have a relationship you care about but something is not working. You feel increasingly helpless, hurt, guilty, anxious, or annoyed (maybe downright angry). It is clear to you “This has GOT to change!”
At some point you reason “if I can just make a good enough case for it of course he/she will change.” And so begins the reliance on words and arguments to stimulate in your spouse, family member or friend the same urgent need for change that you feel. What a relief when that works. What an escalation of frustration when it doesn’t work. Where do you go from there? How can you be an agent of change when words alone won’t do it? It starts with asking yourself the right questions and here they are:
1. What’s the problem?
A very clearly discerned and defined statement of the problem serves several important functions:
· It forces you to look more closely at the issues;
· focus in on the specific behaviors; and
· prioritize what is most damaging to the relationship.
For example, “he’s a louse” is a criticism but doesn’t define the problem. “It’s all his fault,” places blame but does nothing to create a solution. Here are some examples of well defined statements of a problem:
Drinks too much;
Withholds intimacy and love;
Spends too much time at work;
Is into pornography;
“Goes off” on me when I ask for help;
Doesn’t listen to me; or
Makes decisions for us without consulting me.
My teenager or adult child:
Is hooked on internet games;
Is using drugs;
Nags me for money;
Isn’t moving on with his/her life; or
Doesn’t help take care of Mom and Dad; or
Is always asking for financial support.
Is indirect about her anger; or
Tells my secrets to her husband.
There may be more than one issue. Identify each one that is significant and about which you are determined to make progress. Prioritize, then ask yourself:
2. Who owns the problem?
Most often when change is needed but not forthcoming, it’s because the wrong person is holding the problem: a husband who has been unemployed for years may not feel the full weight of the problem because his wife has taken on the responsibility by working overtime and covering all of his expenses; an adult child doesn’t move out because life in the family home is better than any housing situation she can afford; or a spouse withholds love and affection but gets the benefit of being seen as a loving family man with friends.
If you are the one feeling the weight of the problem but don’t have direct control over it’s solution then there has to be a change in ownership. The entirety of next months article will address things you can do to make this shift happen. But for now, it’s a powerful step just to make an honest assessment of who is most impacted by the problem behaviors. Next, consider:
3. Is it because he/she “can’t” or “won’t” make needed changes?
There is a big difference between “can’t” and “won’t” so take some time to look into this. A “can’t” stems from a lack of some kind of ability, resource, or support that if provided would actually make a difference. Hence, an alcohol addicted spouse may need a treatment program; an agitated or volatile husband may need antidepressants or an anger management class; a “lost” adult child may need career counseling; a family member who has become immobilized by fear may need therapy to be able to emotionally confront the problem; or a partner with a health issue needs support and medical attention.
However, a “won’t” is an altogether different matter! An attitude of entitlement, a lack of capacity to feel empathy, and/or an overall self-centeredness are personality characteristics that are much more ingrained, and most likely, life-long. You are probably dealing with a “won’t” when no manner of problem solving has an effect. Not all is lost, but a “won’t” is very difficult to change. It will take a firmly carried out commitment to keep the problem where it belongs (on the shoulders of the one responsible) with the hope that over time their discomfort with the problem will outweigh their character-based refusal to change. Now ask yourself:
4. What am I willing to accept?
Each of us is responsible for seeing the person of concern for who they are, not who we want them to be. Husbands, partners, spouses, and children are not home improvement projects. Acceptance is an act of love and a necessity in relationships and comes from having reasonable expectations.
Problems stemming from unrealistic expectations aren’t going to be shifted without creating worse problems: the husband who becomes deflated because he can never live up to his wife’s expectations; the adult child who lives with fear of losing parental support by becoming a musician instead of a lawyer; or the aging spouse who reluctantly has plastic surgery in order to be wanted.
When you don’t have the power to make the change you most want, change how you feel about it. See exactly what and how you are not accepting what is actually true in the other person. Acceptance may not take away the pain of disappointment but having a problem you can’t change but are reacting to is the essence of suffering. Pain is bad enough, you don’t need to suffer as well.
These 4 questions establish the groundwork for making your plan of action regarding change. Watch for next months article to learn more about shifting ownership of a problem so that “something’s gonna change.”