Most couples come into therapy seeking something they cannot have. Whether they’re struggling with trust or facing challenges in sex; fighting about money, or kids, or the day-to-day nonsense like who left the half-and-half out on the counter; whether they’re reeling from the impact of an affair, or a job loss, or a death in the family, or pushed to the edge because one partner works too much, or spends too much, or drinks too much. Even if they aren’t quite sure what their real problem is, most people believe that the solution lies in someone else’s hands. My job is to help them see that it doesn’t.
Though there may be couples who seek therapy to make “a good thing even better,” I rarely encounter them. Most of the couples I see are in the throes of a crisis, a good number of them quite near the breaking point. All are worn out and discouraged by the ways that they’re stuck and many believe that they may be beyond hope. The couples I see have come in looking for answers, hoping I can tell them exactly what steps to take to get out of their quandary.
“What should I do?” they ask, as if that’s a question that I can easily answer; as if there’s a one-size-fits-all solution that would resolve the unique dilemma that they face with their partner. “What would you do?” some ask, listing complaints about their spouse that range from petty to egregious. Some have asked me point blank: “If you were in my shoes, would you get a divorce?”
In a culture that promises ten simple steps toward everything, it makes sense that so many of us believe that there’s a sure-fire, no sweat way to get around the things about our partner that we, in fact, can’t get around. The things that make our lives difficult. The things we don’t like. A wife who’s irresponsible with agreements or money. A husband who lies, or complains, or refuses to talk. A partner who’s defensive or reactive or who consistently blames.
Stated or not, most couples expect their therapist to accomplish what they have not— which is to turn their partner into someone they find far easier to live with. When my husband and I decided to see a couples therapist, I had high hopes for what would happen once an “expert” put her best effort into changing him!
Unfortunately, people are hoping for something that doesn’t exist— the man that they married, minus his stinginess or grumpiness; the woman they’ve chosen, minus her PMS tantrums or her inclination to spend; their relationship minus the inherent dilemma that will never resolve.
Wish as we might, there’s no way to escape the ways that we are different from our partners. Nor will we convince them to live life as we do. There’s no use trying to cajole or entice them, brainwash or strong-arm them. No amount of pressure will make a dawdler more punctual, or a talker crave solitude. Nothing will turn our paper “piler” into a paper filer or bring our daydreamer solidly down to earth. Nothing will make the person we’ve chosen become a person they’re not.
However, people can and do change the ways they behave. Any of us can address the things we do that predictably generate difficulty in our relationship— if we so choose. A person who overspends can adhere to a budget. A liar can stop lying. Even a rager can do what it takes to get her anxiety under control.
But, on the off chance that she doesn’t… what then?
As for expecting— or insisting— that our partners will change… well, we all know how that goes!
No matter what challenges we face with our partner, our options are these:
If we find our situation intolerable, we can choose to leave.
If, instead, we choose to stay, we have two options, both of which are hard. We can figure out how best to live with the partner we’ve picked, or we can allow our partner (and our situation with them) to drive us nuts.
I recommend the path of not being driven nuts, though I don’t believe for one minute that it’s the easier choice. If we are to not just survive, but to actually thrive in our relationship, we must let go of the fantasy that somehow, someday our relationship will get ‘fixed’; that our partner’s most troublesome behaviors will eventually vanish; that as a couple we’ll have finally worked everything out.
Accepting that some things never change may well be the change we need most.