Read an Excerpt
How to Work Alone on a Two-Person Relationship
Whenever I mention one person bringing two people together, skeptics tell me, even with a touch of irritation bordering on anger, "I object to the whole idea of working alone to improve my relationship," giving reasons like these:
1. It won't work in principle. A good relationship requires two willing participants.
2. I've already been working alone for years, and it hasn't worked.
3. My relationship is in awful shape. And my spouse won't cooperate. I'm afraid my marriage isn't worth working on.
4. Working alone isn't fair.
5. What about intimacy and soul connection? Don't both people have to be present and available for that?
6. One more time, the entire burden for change falls on women. This program perpetuates the outdated idea that it is women's job to take care of the relationship.
7. Taking all the responsibility by yourself is codependent, something I'm striving to eliminate altogether in my life.
8. Exactly how do I work alone? I can't even imagine what that would be like. Doesn't my partner have to be involved in some way?
I understand these worries; they are valid concerns. Let me respond.
Working alone won't work in principle! A good relationship requires two willing participants, doesn't it?
This popular belief is understandable, but it is simply not true.
Your spouse's disinclination to "work on the relationship" is not an indication of a special problem and not a handicap of any kind. Working alone will not negatively affect the outcome of your efforts. In fact, as you will see, working alone to improveyour relationship can be both easier and more effective than working together.
Your spouse may have any number of valid reasons for not wanting to "work on the relationship." Often, it is the man who doesn't want to talk or to go to a counselor. What might be his reasons? Maybe he is afraid that your problems will become worse if you start to delve. Maybe he fears that you are more unhappy than you seem, and you really want to leave him. Maybe he is vaguely aware of some painful memories or regrets, and he doesn't want to dredge them up. Maybe he resents the time counseling will take. Maybe he carries around the belief that you don't ask for help unless your marriage is really on the rocks. Maybe he fears that he can't change in the ways you want him to, and he sees no alternatives. Maybe his best friend had a bad experience with a counselor. He may think that the problems are all your fault, but that you will expect him to make all the changes. He probably has no vision of what your relationship could be. Or maybe in his experience, the relationship has no problems. If he does see problems, he probably has absolutely no idea that he is doing anything to contribute to them.
Who knows? Whatever his reason, you must realize, it is a valid reason for him, and the best thing you can do is to respect it.
There are probably many traits you would change about your partner if you could wave a magic wand. Save your wand for something more significant than your spouse's reluctance to go for counseling.
Working on your relationship by yourself does not mean that you have less potential for happiness with your partner than a couple who are working together. A marriage's potential for success might be measured by other factors--like the nature of the problem and the level of commitment present--but whether one or two people are working on change is not one of those factors.
Your motivation is the key to your success. If you want you and your spouse to be closer and experience more pleasure together, no matter what your problems are, you are far more likely to succeed than a couple who go for help together but who are not highly motivated to improve their marriage.
The reason one person acting alone can make a major impact is that a relationship between two people is a single unit with two parts. When one person acts, the other is affected. Your behaviors and attitudes have an impact on your spouse. Right now, you may not be consciously choosing exactly what impact you want to make. If you decide to start improving your relationship, you have to make deliberate choices about the type of impact you want to have.
Using an example, let's look at the difference between working together to solve a problem and working alone.
Like many couples, Mary and John have fallen into a pattern of interacting with each other. Mary reminds John of his household tasks; John expresses anger at being "controlled" by not doing the tasks. It's a perfect plot. She nags; he leaves. Both have been playing their parts for so long that their response has become automatic. Mary is completely unaware that her nagging is actually triggering John's escapes. John is unaware that his escapes are triggering Mary's nagging.
Both Mary and John have a valid point of view. Mary is right that John escapes and doesn't help enough. John is right that Mary tries to control him and won't leave him alone.
Suppose Mary were to decide she wanted the two of them to work on their problem together. First, she'd have to convince John that this was a good idea. John would see this as one more attempt to control him. Now they would have a new topic for their drama! Same script, just a new problem inserted. "Mary keeps trying to get me to go to therapy. I don't think we need it!"
But let's say John eventually agrees to go to a counselor. The counselor may, quite appropriately, want to know what went on in the families John and Mary grew up in. She would work on getting John and Mary to talk with each other, to hear each other's point of view. Since John and Mary are both invested in being right, and since they have been avoiding understanding each other's point of view for years, learning to listen to each other would take time and would itself present problems and frustrations. Meantime, Mary would still be trying to get John to help around the house, and John would still be escaping.
I don't mean to disparage the counselor's methods. Exploring together and listening to each other are valuable. But deciding to work together and then actually doing the work together more than doubles the size of the task of "fixing" the marriage. Moreover, it depends on the continuing cooperation and progress of both parties, something that may or may not occur.
Now suppose either Mary or John decided to work on the relationship alone. Let's take Mary first. She doesn't have to get John to agree to anything. All she has to do is figure out one simple behavior or attitude that she, by herself, can do differently. For the sake of this example, let's say she decides that for fourteen days, she is going to say nothing to John about his lack of cooperation. She cannot know ahead of time what the result will be; but because she is making a unilateral change in the script, the drama will, by definition, change. John may continue his role as before and continue to avoid his household tasks; or he may appreciate Mary's lack of nagging and respond by working more; or he may become very uncomfortable without her nagging and stay away from home more. Mary may think she knows how he will respond, but she doesn't know until she actually experiments. And when she finds out, she can make some new choices. She will be making changes in their relationship all by herself, quickly and easily, and in a way that increases her own self-esteem, inner strength, and power.
Suppose John were the one to decide to make a change by himself. Since he knows quite clearly what Mary wants, he could try doing it once without being asked. Or, he could announce to Mary that he no longer wants to do that thing and offer to do something else instead. Or he could tell Mary he will take her out to dinner if she will refrain from making requests of him for one full week. Or he could decide to tell Mary every day one thing that he especially loves about her. His choices go on and on. The point is, by acting alone, he will be making a change in their relationship, the impact of which can be far-reaching.
A marriage is like a seesaw. Even when one partner acts alone, it affects the other.
When you make a change in your behavior or your attitude entirely on your own, you can work a miracle in your marriage. Hundreds of marriage partners have already discovered this. Listen to several participants in my groups or interviews:
JANICE: The very idea that I could work alone on my marriage problems made me feel incredibly hopeful because suddenly, I wasn't dependent on anyone else! The changes I made gave me a feeling of power I had never felt before.
ALEX: The change I made was so subtle! I just stopped expecting my wife to "take care of our relationship." It took me a while to realize that that is what I was expecting! But when I was able to let go of it, a barrier was gone, and we became closer than we had been for a long time. Maybe ever.
PEG I was happy with my husband, but I had the feeling for a long time that we could be closer. Of course, I thought he needed to make all the changes. I wanted him to be more romantic, to talk with me more. What I discovered is that it was the way I saw our marriage, the expectations I was superimposing on it, that was really screwing us up. It is still completely amazing to me that by changing the way I was viewing things, I now have everything I want in my marriage. My husband hasn't changed at all, and we are definitely close now. It's like I went searching all over the planet for diamonds, and all the while there was a diamond mine in my own back yard.
GEORGE: I was in despair. I really thought Julia didn't love me anymore, and we were fighting all the time. I tried everything--or so I thought. I now see that all I was doing to win her back just made the problems worse. I was pleading and making myself into her victim. When I saw an altogether different path and began to do the right things, everything changed. I will tell you, no marriage is too far gone to benefit from this system! Julia jokes with me now that I am her hero because I single-handedly saved our marriage.
DIANE: You know how when an airplane makes a tiny adjustment in its course in Los Angeles, it can make the difference in whether it ends up in New York or Miami? Well, that's our marriage. I made a tiny change, and it led to a huge difference. All I did was to stop cleaning up Peter's messes. This led to other changes which led to a revolution in our marriage. If you have an hour, I'll tell you the whole story.
(We will hear Diane and Peter's story later on.) Many marriage partners feel completely stuck and utterly frustrated when they report to me, "My spouse won't go for counseling. My spouse won't work on our problems and work on the relationship." But in fact, having an uncooperative spouse is not the worst of all possible problems. If he or she is a good person with many qualities you like, don't be excessively alarmed about this particular reluctance.