With the divorce rate as high as it is today, I often wonder what is happening to couples. I am especially intrigued by the divorcing couples that have been married for 15 plus years. They’ve been together so long, some since they were sweethearts in high school. What changed?
I am reading a great book by Harriet Lerner that is helping me understand the mystery of relationships. One of the reasons relationships end up in divorce is because one partner in the relationship changed. Even if one partner changes for the better, it can be met with great resistance from the other. This can play out in families as well. According to Bowen Family Systems Theory, in all families there is a powerful opposition to one member defining a more independent self. Here are some of the reactions toward the changing individual:
- “You are wrong,” and they go on to list their reasons to support this.
- “Change back and we’ll accept you again.”
- “If you don’t change back, these are the consequences,” which are then listed.
In couples and in families, the person changing will likely see some counter-moves. They may catch some verbal backlash and be accused of being disloyal, selfish, and having little disregard for others. Their partners and families may threaten to terminate the relationship with them. These are some pretty devastating consequences for a person who is simply trying to better themselves.
If you are the one who his changing, consider this – “Counter-moves are the other person’s unconscious attempt to restore a relationship to its prior balance or equilibrium, when anxiety about separateness and change gets too high. ” (Lerner, p.35) In other words, people are not making counter-move to be controlling or chauvinistic. Whether they have those qualities are not is sort of beside the point. counter-move are an expression of anxiety , as well as of closeness and attachment.
If you are the one changing – it is really important to keep clear about your own position. It is not your job to try to prevent the counter-move or tell that person they should not be reacting that way. Let it be. Focus on their feeling behind their behavior. It’s how they feel and you can’t argue with that.
More often than not, depending on how one proceeds with their changes, it can really enhance and strengthen their relationship rather than threaten it. There is no way to predict whether or not you’ll be met with a counter-move, but when you are, now you will understand what is going on and that the person is likely afraid of change and mostly afraid of losing their relationship with you. Communicate what the changes will mean for both of you and offer assurances when you can.
Don’t be afraid to change, just be ready for the counter-move and handle it with grace.
If you’re interested in more about Harriet Lerner’s perspective, Her book – The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships has been really eye-opening.