Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice
Am I with the right partner?
As a couples therapist, I’ve been asked this question a lot. The couples I see are usually frustrated, and often for good reason.
They’ve tried to solve relationship problems by talking, by not talking, by changing their behavior and by not changing it. Nothing, so far, has worked. Who wouldn’t be frustrated…and confused?
It’s no surprise that they start to wonder if maybe the situation is hopeless, if maybe they just don’t have the right partner.
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What they often don’t realize is that to change a relationship both partners have to learn new behaviors and new ways of seeing each other.
Confusion is a natural part of learning.
Mathematics and Relationships
My daughter has been working hard at math this year. She and her friends have come a long way in learning math, and the classes they’re taking now are pretty tough.
Some of the concepts she understands right away. Others, when she first tackles them, seem impossible. She gets frustrated. “This isn’t worth it!” she says.
The funny thing is, most of the time she’s on the right track. But new concepts require new ways of thinking, and she doesn’t have the new neural pathways yet. They take time to build. She’s closer than she thinks to a solution, but for the moment she really is stuck.
That’s okay. Confusion is a natural part of learning.
What it really takes to do something new
What makes it hard for my daughter at those moments is that she loses perspective. She doesn’t remember how far she’s come. She loses track of the things she has learned already, the hundreds of tiny successes upon which she’s building. She loses confidence in the power of her consistency.
It’s not about having the problem work out the first time, or even the twentieth time. It’s about building skill in approaching problems, and noticing the tiny successes that result. Consistent practice leads to mastery.
Change is difficult, it’s true. When you’re doing something difficult, it’s easy to lose perspective. Because of this, many of the people I work with don’t notice the tiny relationship-successes that happen every day.
This makes sense. Our brains are wired to focus on problems, not to bask in the joy of a peaceful moment. It’s what helped us, as a species, survive these two hundreds thousand of years.
But that doesn’t help solve math problems, nor heal relationships. When you focus on problems, it’s easy to lose perspective.
It’s true that relationship problems need to be solved, or at least discussed. You can’t ignore them month after month, year after year. But to address them effectively, most people need new skills…and mastering new skills takes time.
While you’re building those skills, it’s important to notice how far you’ve come, and the hundreds of tiny successes that happen each week.
It’s these small but positive moments that build skills and change relationships. It’s when your partner gives you a hug when she walks in the door, instead of making a phone call. It’s when he gets up early to make the kids breakfast so you can take a relaxed shower. It’s a softer tone of voice, a gentler look, a touch.
When you focus on the successes, the question changes. It becomes something like, “What’s going well, and how can I build on it?”
The power of noticing
Eventually my daughter gets the math, and she’s excited. As she learns to accept the inevitable confusion, and to recognize the small epiphanies that come out of it, the frustration disappears.
We go through a similar process in relationships. Making changes isn’t always smooth, even with goodwill on the part of both partners. There might be false starts, unintended side effects, or forgetful lapses.
It helps to be able to bring attention to change as it’s happening, and notice the tiny successes. One way to notice them is through appreciation.
Appreciation is more than a “thank you.” It’s the art of bringing your attention to what’s going well, what’s changing for the better, or to what you value that’s always been there. It’s a way to notice out loud the things that are getting better. It’s a way to practice making small, positive changes. That provides the momentum for more tiny successes.
The art of appreciation
Appreciation, when it’s heartfelt, has the power to change. Fortunately there is a lot to appreciate, even at the most difficult of times. The focus can be something physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. It can be an event or a quality, and in the past, present, or future.
Below are a few guidelines that will help you use appreciation to build skill and create flow in relationships.
First, be specific. “You’re a great Mom” is vague. “I really like listening to the sound of your voice when you read to Sarah at bedtime; it’s so soothing” is specific and much more satisfying.
Second, focus on the positive. Instead of, “You finally cleaned up the kitchen – it’s about time,” imagine hearing,“Wow, the kitchen is sparkling, I really appreciate that you took the time to clean up.”
Third, build consistency. Make appreciation a daily habit, and see what changes in your relationship (or yourself) as a result.
So are you with the right partner?
“Am I with the right partner” is not always the best way to ask the question. Sometimes it’s more helpful to ask, “Do I feel good about the way I’m approaching our differences? When I’m trying to create change, can I appreciate and build on the many small successes?”
It helps if you can accept confusion and even frustration as a natural part of learning. Success is not always about having things work out the first time, or even the twentieth time. With math and with relationships, mastery takes time.
Sometimes you’re closer than you think to a solution. With consistent practice, you’ll master the skills you need to find it. As you continue to notice and appreciate tiny successes, the relationship will change. Maybe your partner is just the right person to help you bring forth your best self.
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