An Approach to Addressing Relationship Problems
The Blame Game
When a relationship goes wrong, we usually blame the other person and identify the cause of the problem as some aspect of their personality – “John isn’t a listener, he just pushes me away”; “Susie is such a disobedient child. I have to shout at her all the time” (all names and circumstances in these case examples have been changed to ensure anonymity).
John felt under pressure from Jane because she always wanted to talk about her difficulties at work. His attempt to get some respite seemed to Jane like she was being pushed away.
When twelve year of Susie was asked how she knew when to obey her mother, she said that it was when her mother started to shout.
The Beginning of Wisdom
These examples suggest that the ’causes’ of relational problems may be due to something other than individual ‘personality traits’. When people blame the other person, they are usually failing to see that it’s the habits and roles that both of them have developed that contribute to their troubled relationship.
To recognise that when a relationship begins to go wrong, all parties are likely to be caught up in an unhelpful relationship pattern, is the “beginning of wisdom” in attempting to solve relationship problems.
Simply blaming the other party is not helpful unless self-righteousness and martyrdom are your goals. Also, there is the disadvantage that blaming someone else puts the solution out of one’s own control – all one can do is to wait around until the other person changes!
This is not to deny that people in relationships often show morally wrong or irresponsible behaviours. But, if our aim is to solve the relationship problem, it’s generally more useful to think about how to change the patterns of interaction between people rather than how to change the people.
Of course there are situations where the behaviour of one of the parties in a relationship is so outrageous or dangerous that wellbeing of the other is severely compromised – for example in child abuse or domestic violence situations. Then, the first priority of any intervention is to ‘name’ what’s going on and to ensure the safely of the victim.
Steps on the Road to Change
If a person wants a relationship to change, they can change it. The key is in recognising the pattern into which they and their child, spouse, boss or friend are locked.
Sometimes, it seems as if the harder we try, the worse the problem becomes. When a problem arises, one of the parties tries to fix it. If it works, life goes on OK. But if it doesn’t work, the reasoning goes that we need to try harder, rather than doing something different. If my spouse seems to be uninterested in talking, then I make even greater efforts to engage her, which pushes her even further away.
To avoid these unhelpful patterns, it’s useful to:
- Set goals for the relationship. This helps people to become envisioned and puts them in a better position to identify what they need to do differently to achieve the goals. In goal setting, people describe what they want to accomplish rather than what their child, spouse or whoever is doing wrong.
For example, rather than thinking, “I want John to stop pushing me away”, in her
counselling session Jane set herself a different goal: “I want John to talk to me about
Keep in mind, too, that the nature of relationships is such that a small change in one
aspect can lead to much bigger changes in others. It’s not necessary to change
everything that is “wrong” in order to achieve big improvements.
- Identify the patterns that work. No matter how severe or long-standing the problem, there are always problem-free times in any relationship – when a couple who “don’t communicate”, for example, do communicate.
These “exceptions” provide the clues to solving problems. By examining what’s different between problem and problem-free times we can learn what to do more of to make more time problem-free. Jane, for example, was able to recall that there were occasions in the past when John did ask her about her day. She also remembered what she was doing differently during those times – she showed some interest in John’s day, and that this resulted in conversations about both of their days. Also, these times usually occurred during dinner.
Jane decided to try something different the following week. Rather than get John
to talk about things right after they got back home, she waited until they were having
dinner, and then asked him how his day had gone.
At first, John seemed taken aback that Jane asked him how his day had gone, but he
soon got into the swing of the conversation. Then he asked Jane how her day had
been! It didn’t take many days for John to ask Jane about her day before she asked
- Interrupting destructive Patterns. Sometimes rather than focus on exceptions, it’s necessary to stop old destructive patterns.
Basically, the way to do this is to change anything in the pattern. When either person in a relationship does something different, it interrupts the normal sequence and prevents the cycle being completed.
One way of deciding what to change is to ask the following four questions:
- What have I been doing to make things better? Try something else;
- Where do most of the problems occur? Try a different location;
- When do most of the problems occur? Try a different time, or figure something different about timings;
- Who is likely to handle certain issues? Vary who handles the problem, avoid the need for joint decision making by delegating, or try the even/odd day approach. Person A is in charge of decisions on even days and person B on odd days.
Keeping Change Going
When people see improvements in their relationships, it’s vital to keep changes going and not to lapse back into old destructive patterns. The key is to ask, “What needs to happen to keep these changes going?” Also, people need to look ahead and ask themselves, “Is there anything that might occur in the coming weeks that would present a challenge to me/us doing what’s necessary to keep the changes going? How will we handle such a situation?” And finally, “If we noticed that we were ‘backsliding’ (i.e. reverting to old unproductive ways) what will we do to reverse it?”
What if it isn’t working?
It’s important to notice if attempts to improve a relationship aren’t working, so that people can either do something different or decide that they have tried hard enough.
If no progress has been made after trying various techniques, then questions need to be asked:
- Has a particular approach been given enough time? Every situation is different, but usually two or three weeks of a particular action are necessary for change to show itself.
- Is there another approach that can be tried?
- Have the parties talked it through with a friend or appropriate professional?
- Should they seek professional help from a relational counsellor?
Inaction isn’t the only thing that can prevent desired changes in relationships. Lack of forgiveness comes a close second.
Too many people go through the motions of putting relationships back on a sounder footing when, in reality, they bear grudges for past injustices that prevent them moving forward. At swift we have developed ways of helping forgiveness to emerge for couples where this is an important constraining factor in achieving desired changes.