Change is probably the most feared word in the English language.
Somewhere deep in our psyche most of us have the concept of safety linked with the concept of keeping things the same.
So, we resist change, we fight change, we hate change, we want change, but we wrestle change, we run from change, all the while we long for change, and yet some days, we are paralyzed by even the mere thought of it.
Let’s face it. We have a love/hate relationship with change. Mostly hate. And yet it is the ONLY thing in life, besides death, we can 100 percent count on happening.
I know you want change in your relationship or you wouldn’t be reading this book. But I also know you have that part of your psyche that screams, “NO!” to change. Because even if the situation is bad that we’re in, it has a certain comfortableness, because it’s predictable and we know what to expect. The unknown is scary. What if it’s worse than what we’ve got?
Change often requires stepping into the unknown, into brand new territory. Risking making a fool out of ourselves. And so, even though our highest truth is that we want things to change — get better — we resist.
One of my friends, 15 years my junior, is a computer whiz. I, on the other hand, am a novice, to put it politely. Every time she wants me to learn a new capability on my computer, I kick and scream. She sends me links, and I yell, “Foul! Just put the information in an e-mail! Don’t make me link anywhere!”
She sends me attachments. “I don’t know how to download attachments! And when I do manage to download them (by simply clicking on the download button, mind you), I don’t know how to locate them!” And, oh my, one time she asked me to put something on a spreadsheet for her! I just dug my heels in and said, “I can’t. I don’t know how to do that and I don’t want to learn.”
She is patient with me; she is kind. She also refers to me as her friend whom she is dragging into the 21st century kicking and screaming the whole way.
That is resistance. Even though I know, theoretically, that my computer can do a gazillion things, some of which will make my life easier, I resist.
First of all, it’s an unknown entity to me which brings up fear. Secondly, I feel stupid not knowing how to work this contraption that lives in my house. I know it’s much smarter than I am, and I feel any new encounter I have with it, it will win. I’ll be in the less than role scrambling, and it will be in the greater than role staring at me smugly. So I figure, why compete with a THING that’s going to win every time anyway? Where’s the fun in that?
My point is, resistance isn’t necessarily rational.
Rationally I know my computer isn’t competing with me. Rationally I know I’m not stupid and I have all kinds of evidence that points to the exact opposite. Yet emotionally, it’s a struggle to keep engaged in the process of growth and change when it comes to my computer. All the more so when it comes to our relationships.
Please note, resistance to change, especially change you want to happen, is an internal process. It is a fight you have with yourself. It is an emotional wrestling match with YOURSELF. In a way, that’s the good news, because you’re in charge of yourself. You can stop the resistance by actively talking through your fears in your head. You don’t need anyone else’s cooperation or permission.
Simply by changing your self-talk you can reduce your resistance.
A good image for this is the mother in us taking care of the child in us. What would you say to a little child who is scared to try something new? “It’s okay. I’m going to help you. You can do it. I’m right here. Go on. Take your time. You’re doing great. That’s it. Good job!”
These are things you have to learn to say to yourself when your resistance to change starts fighting you. Wake up your nurturing, rational self and put her in charge of your self-talk.
Other helpful interventions include:
- You are not going to die.
- Trust the universe (or God).
- You’re feeling scared which is normal for anyone when they try to change.
- Remember your highest truth: you want things to be better and in order for that to happen, you just have to walk through this scary part.
- You can do this.
- Don’t make it bigger than it is.
Erica Jong said, “If you risk nothing you risk even more.” You can take care of yourself. Remember, too, Helen Reddy: “I am woman. I am strong.” You are capable. You are competent.
Also, there might be people who have inspired you whom you can think of, and draw strength and determination from. Or calmness.
For example, in my life when I face my own resistance to a change I’m choosing, a change I want, I think of my mother. My mother left my alcoholic, sociopathic, unfaithful father when I was 3. She left with 2 babies, no money, and no education beyond high school. She was 26. She said to herself over, and over, and over again, “I will not raise my children in this,” as she daily marched one foot in front of the other walking through her fears. So, when I need strength, I think of her. I think, “If she could do THAT and survive, I can do THIS.”
I’m going to outline some common resistances I see, but there are probably as many unique resistances as there are people. You will have to figure out your own games that you play with yourself when you are in resistance.
1. I can do it better
With one couple I met, the wife lamented that her husband did not help enough with the baby. It was their first child and she was overwhelmed with all the feedings, baths, clothes changes, diaper changes, bottle washings, rocking, laundry, etc. She desperately wanted more help from her partner. When I listened to her story, it did seem she was doing way more than her part, and it made sense why she wanted things to change. Furthermore, her husband wholeheartedly agreed that it needed to change and seemed not only willing to help more, but anxious to.
It seems that time after time when the husband provided more help, the wife monitored him and told him he was doing it wrong. In feeding, he wasn’t holding the baby right. In dressing, he was choosing the “wrong” outfit for the weather. In diaper changing, he forgot the baby powder.
Sometimes she’d go so far as to say, “Here, let me do it,” and take the baby away from him!
The consequence? She was getting more and more adept at handling the baby while he was getting more and more insecure about his abilities.
This is resistance.
The wife was actually encouraging the system to develop in exactly the way she was saying didn’t work for her. She didn’t have room for her husband’s learning curve.
If you want change from your husband, you have to have room for his learning curve. Change takes time and practice. Don’t short-circuit the change you long for by expecting it to be instantaneous. Be careful how much you criticize your partner when he’s trying something new.
2. The Cold Shoulder
Depending on your husband’s history, this resistance may or may not be in your relationship. One man I worked with whose mother slipped into depressions when he was a child and then refused to talk to anyone, would do ANYTHING when his wife would “freeze him out.”
The wife said she wanted her husband to be more present in the relationship and not such a pushover. And I believed her. I believed that was her highest truth and that in the depths of her soul, she really wanted that to happen. The problem? Resistance.
Each time the husband tried even meekly to assert himself, she would “freeze him out.” She would be cordial and polite to him, but offer no warmth, no support, no encouragement. She would say, “Fine,” to his wanting to do something his way and then “punish” him with the cold shoulder for days.
He had learned that the agony of the cold shoulder, being shut out, wasn’t worth ANY self-definition he might risk. Again, the wife was actually encouraging the system to stay exactly the way she did not want it.
3. Never Enough
This resistance means your husband can’t win. You are the bottomless pit that no matter what he does, it isn’t enough. You ask for emotional availability and when he starts to open up, you minimize it. You raise the bar. A common phrase from your lips is, “Yes, but . . .” “Yes, you mowed the lawn, but you didn’t edge. I thought you’d edge.”
One wife I worked with wanted more affection from her husband. She longed for non-sexual hugs, hand-holding, and spontaneous kisses that didn’t necessarily lead to the bedroom. Her complaint was that the only time he touched her was “when he wanted to have sex.”
Her husband was willing to change. Then in comes resistance.
As they were leaving my office, the husband reached over and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek to which she coolly replied, “One little kiss is not going to make up for 10 years of neglect.” You see, he was dead in the water before he even got started swimming. The message was: no matter what you do it won’t be enough. How encouraging is THAT?
Another way to look at this type of resistance is on a number scale. If your goal is #100 behavior from your partner (let’s say, being comfortable being emotionally available to you), and he is only at behavior #10 (scared out of his wits but very committed to trying), this resistance will beat your husband up at every step from 10 to 100 because it’s not 100 behavior. Number 11 isn’t good enough, #12 isn’t, of course #13 isn’t, etc.
The problem is, at some point, your husband will get so discouraged, he’ll quit. And you’ll never get to the #100 behavior that you want. Resistance.
This resistance keeps you from being heard. I, like you probably, have a vivid picture in my head of people fleeing from the collapsed towers of the World Trade Center with a huge ball of smoke and dust and debris in the background rapidly rolling towards them threatening to overtake the very air they had to breathe.
Panic on their faces. Terror. I assure you if any of them had run into their partner standing there saying, “I want you to be more available to me,” the words would not have even computed. Even remotely.
They were, literally, running for their lives. This is emotionally what happens to your partner when you are hurricaning/raging at him. He begins to run for his life, and his listening capacity shuts down. He is in trauma. That is, by hurricaning/raging, you are actually PREVENTING change from happening. This is a very powerful resistance to change.
You must call yourself on it. If you want change to happen — and I believe you do — hurricaning and raging won’t get you there. Yes, your husband needs to hear the message you are sending. It is important and he needs to “get it.” Yet you must take care that you are not preventing that from happening.
I remember one particular “discussion” I was having with my husband years ago where, in a calm voice, I was relentlessly hammering home my point. After ten or fifteen minutes of this I noticed he was staring off into space.
Frustrated, I said, “Do you understand what I’m saying?” to which he replied, “No, I can’t even hear you talking.” My relentlessness had turned off his ability to hear. Resistance.
One resistance to change is making things really “not that bad” that really are that bad. This often happens when one partner has an addiction. I want him to be more emotionally available to me, but I also pretend with him that he is just a social drinker. Or that his going into the office on Sundays makes sense because he is so good at his job that nobody else can do any of his work as well as he can. We ignore the real problem of addiction and instead attack something tangential — which, of course, keeps change from happening.
It’s a way to stay safe and within our comfort zone all the while pretending — to ourselves — we are working on change.
When I was a new therapist one of my first clients was a woman who came to me complaining of her work situation and wanting to change jobs. Then she was distraught over the lack of connection she had with her husband. Could we do couple’s therapy? She also talked of her lack of true friends, her bad relationship with her family of origin, her feelings of isolation, and her poor housekeeping skills.
As I probed deeper, I asked about her drug and alcohol usage. She described herself as a “social drinker,” who, when on the rare occasions she and her husband went out, would only have 1-2 drinks the whole evening. Furthermore, she never did drugs. Never had, never would. That seemed reasonable.
So we started to look at her issues one at a time. Week after week I kept feeling there was no deep level change happening and I wondered why. Then she called my office at midnight one night — drunk. Turns out she was a “social drinker” in public and a “closet drinker” at home. She drank a 12-pack of beer every night!
Her denial system, and my lack of experience, let her “pretend” she was doing therapy and was sincerely working on change. Again, resistance.
In summary, change is so frightening to most of us that we inevitably develop resistances subconsciously.
The only way to battle these, of course, is to bring them to your conscious level.
Become aware of them. Know your games. Look for them.
This article is an excerpt from Patti Henry’s book: The Emotionally Unavailable Man: A Blueprint for Healing and has been published with permission.
About the author
Patti Henry is a psychotherapist who has been in private practice since 1988, working with men and women individually, as well as with couples. She began her career developing women’s programs in psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to empower women. Her focus and research shifted, however, when she noticed how desperately men needed healing as well.
Ms. Henry received her graduate training at the University of Houston where she did her independent study and research on Codependency: Learning to Break the Cycle. She has appeared on the PBS series, Mental Health Matters, as an expert in marital therapy.
She is the author of The Emotionally Unavailable Man: A Blueprint for Healing.
To know more about Patti, visit her website www.patti-henry.com.