Become the change you want to see in the world
By Stacy Bremner, MA, RP
Relationship experts such as Pat Love, John Gottman, Harville Hendrix and many others are currently stressing the importance of bringing the positive into your relationship. This may sound simple, but in practice it is not an easy thing to do, because when it comes right down to it, our brains can be very set in their patterns of negativity.
We lean towards negativity to get our needs met because we have been socialized and genetically wired for survival. We have fear from our childhood that our needs will not be met and we may not survive. These feelings of fear and our natural “fight or flight” response comes from the older part of the brain (the brain stem and the limbic system). Positive feelings, and the ability to respond versus react, involve a more evolved part of the brain (the neo-cortex) which requires a completely different set of strategies and practices.
We are using our “old brain” when we cry, demand, shame, blame, criticize, withhold, or ignore, in an effort to be heard, feel loved, see change, etc. However, if we want our partner to change WE have to change too.
We need to become a “lover” and see love as a verb.
John Gottman says, “It’s just a fact that people can change only if they feel they are basically liked and accepted as they are. When people feel criticized, disliked, and unappreciated they are unable to change. Instead they feel under siege and dig in to protect themselves”. That is the material of the power struggle and important information to keep in mind.
That quote really spoke to me when I read it because I had been looking back at my behavior in my marriage for many years after it ended. As I looked I saw more and more ways I had contributed to the relationship downfall. Part of what I realized was how much negativity I had running through my head, especially about my ex-husband. I also realized how easy it was (and still is) for me to fall into blame. It is as if my brain is wired for blaming. At the time I felt I was working on my marriage, and in a way I was…but sadly, progress was limited. Why? Partially because neither one of us felt accepted by the other, so we both dug our heels in. Also, we had not been taught how to bring in the positive. I understand now that there were many missed opportunities to show our appreciation for each other. Additionally, because of my own childhood wounding and triggers I was often unable to receive my husband’s love.
As I continue to work on my growth and awareness, for my own sake and for my current partner’s, I have become very devoted to re-wiring my brain. I continually work to move away from blame and negativity towards ownership and positivity. I highly recommend any effort it takes, as it feels so much better to live this way. When our partner notices our efforts to be more caring and considerate of them, it can motivate them to act in kind. It’s win-win!
Here is a collection of ideas that really work for bringing the positive into your relationship.
- “The Quick Fix” from Pat Love– Think back to the things you did for your partner when you were in your Romance Stage, and do those things. For example, back rubs, love notes, taking time to listen, cooking a favorite meal, picking up the slack when they are tired, holding hands, planning special dates, lighting candles and playing music at dinner or in the bedroom, etc. Think back, be creative and be generous! It feels good.
- Harville Hendrix instructs us to “take a fast from negativity”, where for 3 months, you both agree to refrain from expressing any shame, blame or criticism towards your partner. You may at first feel you have nothing to say to each other and be tempted to give up. Persevere and see what happens. What have you got to lose? Notice how often you have to stop yourself and “bite your tongue”.
- Give each other appreciations often. State several things you appreciate about your partner. For example: “I appreciate your sense of humor. I appreciate how you listen to me without trying to give me advice. I appreciate the way you are affectionate with me throughout the week. I appreciate when you call to let me know you are going to be late.” This is a great practice to do on a regular basis because it helps train the brain to look for the positive versus focusing on the negative, which is often the easier neural pathway. Ask your partner to mirror (repeat) what he/she heard you say, so you know the appreciations were received and understood. Then switch roles, where you can listen and mirror back what you heard. Appreciations feel good. I find it fascinating to discover the things my partner appreciates about me each and every time we share.
- Learn to make and receive repair attempts to end an argument, and restore connection and good feelings. (Repair attempts are discussed in detail in The Seven Principles that Make Marriage Work by John Gottman). Examples of repair attempts include, saying you’re sorry, making a goofy face, offering a cup of tea, or telling your partner they have a good point. Find some that work for you.
- Step into consciousness and try stopping an argument mid-stream by giving appreciations to your partner (see #3).
- Take ownership of your part in the conflict and share what you learned about yourself from the argument and what you’d like to do differently next time. For example, “I realized while we were arguing just now, that I can be stubborn and relentless! Next time I would like to take a softer approach and listen to your side more.” These are conscious behaviors that can show your partner you are really there and willing to work on positive change.
- When you are in conflict, decide to be soft or neutral. If you do not argue or defend, your partner will no longer have anything to push against (i.e. fight against). I will never forget when my partner did this for the first time. It was such a different experience for me to not have to defend myself. He just accepted what was happening and for the first time in decades I felt myself soften. Then I was able to experience some personal insights about my part in our conflict.
- Put the effort in to be positive in your own mind. In terms of our relationship satisfaction, Gottman says it takes 5 positive thoughts to counteract the influence of just one negative thought. So notice what your thoughts are doing, stop the negative stream and direct your thought flow back to more positive, comforting thoughts.
- To help each other feel cherished, pay special attention to the beginnings and endings of your time together each day and make a commitment to give your partner what he/she wants. For example when you first wake up, when you leave for work, when you return home and when you say goodnight. Discuss what you would like during those times; a hug and a kiss, a certain greeting, eye contact, etc.
- Think about your partner or someone else you love. Ask yourself what you would like to get more of from that relationship (examples include: respect, friendship, to be listened to, more contact). Commit to giving that to others for 2 months without any expectations from the other person. See how you feel.
- When you feel triggered by what your partner is saying, instead of your usual defensive reaction, contain, breathe, and mirror him/her (repeat what was said), and put your judgement aside. Become curious about his/her experience; ask questions to learn more without arguing against what you hear. Remember…under every frustration is an unmet need…and when we can be curious we can begin to understand what they need. This is great for parents to try with their kids too! Example: They say, “You don’t care about me!” You say, “So you think I don’t care about you. Tell me why you think that.” Listen for any truth in what they are saying and validate that. “Hmmm, it makes sense why you might think that, I did rush you off the phone. I’m sorry.”
- Instead of criticizing, ask for what you want. An example might be saying, “My need for cleanliness (or structure) is not being met. It would mean alot to me if you would put your dirty clothes in the hamper,” versus blurting out, “Why do you have to be such a slob?!”
- Be realistic- Whom did you marry? Some things may never change. For example, we cannot turn a loner into a social butterfly (unless perhaps it’s the romance stage). Grieve what you may never have and move ahead with a positive attitude. Use the things on this list with a sense of generosity and adventure without any particular expectation.
- Work to see situations with a broader perspective. Pat Love and Steven Stosny use the term Binocular Vision to describe seeing your partner’s view as well as your own, and to also see yourself as your partner sees you. Is it possible we really are angry or selfish at times? Is it possible we didn’t give them enough of our time this week? Of course it is! Own that within yourself. It doesn’t mean you are a bad person, it means you are human. Refrain from reacting to anything until you truly know both sides of the picture. So again, be curious!
- When there is an issue that is touchy or you want to be heard and understood, ask to have a dialogue using the Imago Couples Dialogue. (For instructions, read “Getting the Love You Want” or consult with an Imago therapist.)
Believe it or not, my partner and I use all these practices (although not all the time and not perfectly. We are each a work in progress). For example, we give each other appreciations daily, we dialogue when we have a conflict to settle, we try to communicate in kind and clear ways when we have an unmet need. We also work to stay alert for our negative thoughts and storylines so we don’t let them run the show.
Have a look and see what you can begin to practice. Over time, integrate more of them into your life and allow them to become a part of your approach to love. The rewards are many when we change the brain!
With my Love, I accept and enjoy you as you are with no requirement to change;
With my needs, I invite you to stretch to grow and change;
With my demands, I keep you frozen without the freedom to grow or change.
Gary Brainerd 2002