Have you ever wondered what you can do differently in order to make a failing relationship work? Do you feel like you’ve tried everything, but nothing seems to help? You’re not alone. I would venture to say almost every household has at least one relationship that seems to have struggles, no matter what those in it try to do.
I write this as I prepare to fly to Utah to work in the desert with at risk youth. As part of my preparation I read Leadership and Self Deception, as well as The Anatomy Of Peace, both written by the Arbinger Institute. In it, the books describe why actions alone don’t change anything, unless you change your “way of being”. I’ll go on to explain this in further detail in a moment, but first think about one relationship, whether it’s at home, at work, at school or other that causes you sorrow.
Have you tried to reason with the other, compromise, ignore, even say I’m sorry and has any of that worked? Chances are it hasn’t because you haven’t changed your way of being in relation to the other.
I think about my kids as an example.
Prior to 2007 I was a stay at home mom of four beautiful children. I had a great relationship with each of them and I would dare to say we were inseparable. During the year of 2007 I went through a divorce and almost like a light switch was alienated from my kids. During the process I did everything I can to fight for them, win their love again and reason with their father and my kids. None of it worked.
Looking back I realized I did what everyone does in an attempt to “fix” something they perceive as broken, as wrong. They forget one very important element; the other.
There are many ways alienation happens. The act itself is abusive and wrong. Stopping it and turning it around on the other hand cannot be achieved by behavior alone.
The tool my ex used to alienate my kids from me was religion. As I fought for my kids to stay with me I did everything I could to convince them the way of life they were beginning to choose was wrong. I tried to show them examples. I even tried to do whatever they wanted and accept them. All that did was draw them further away from me, until they wanted nothing to do with me.
I realized later a key factor that drew me further away from my kids was my own discomfort with their way of life. I began to view them differently and made them “wrong”, even when I accepted them outwardly.
It was not until I truly saw my kids as who they were, as people and fully began to listen to them that I was able to begin healing our relationship. My kids and I still don’t live together, but when we do see each other it’s a loving experience. I’ve learned to let go of how things “have to be” and allowed the way things are currently. It’s not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I do know that every exchange I have with them is done through a sense of learning about them, rather than trying to fix them.
When I tried to “save” them and keep them living with me I viewed my kids as being unreasonable, being coerced into a life they didn’t want. Whether all that is true didn’t help.
Many times people do things that are wrong, such as my ex who essentially took the kids from me, but trying to fix the situation, whether it would be through fighting with the courts, crying to my kids about the “truth” of their father or even ignoring and trying to accept the situation won’t keep it from happening or getting worse.
My example is an extreme example but think about it. Do you know anyone who likes to get criticized? What about the time you apologized to stop an argument but didn’t mean it? Did it work? Probably not and in many cases most likely escalated the situation.
Here’s the “secret” to changing this cycle.
Very simply put, the key is to understand you are part of the problem. You are the one that needs to change first. We are so busy trying to change others, blaming them for all the problems and we wonder why nothing changes. Even if we take partial responsibility many times we still wait for the other to change. As long as we do that nothing will change. We need to stop waiting for the other and look at ourselves. Arbinger refers to this as being in the “box”. As long as we are in our box we don’t see the other completely and we won’t be open to changing ourselves and therefore our relationship. If we leave the box that’s when the magic happens.
The next thing we need to do is look at the other as a person. Many times all we care about is our agenda. For example all I wanted was my kids to like me and stay with me as before. I forgot to look at them and see who they were completely. As long as we try to fix someone we don’t see them as a person, but rather as an object or something inferior to ourselves. The very act of criticism means you don’t see the other. Contrary to popular belief there’s no such thing as constructive criticism. As I said before no one responds well to any form of criticism. No one wants to feel that they’re broken and, when you share anything the other person should do to “fix” the problem you are basically telling them they are broken and you don’t see them as a whole person.
Listen to them. I mean really listen to them completely. Try to understand not just what they are saying, but what they are feeling. Feel it with them and don’t correct them. Stephen Covey in the 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People shares this as one of the most powerful habits to change any relationship. We don’t listen. We correct. We bring our own two sense in. We share our side. But we don’t listen. Most relationship issues are as a result of not being heard.
I’ll never forget what my oldest daughter Dalia told me, during that fateful year of the divorce, after I pleaded with her to reconsider her extreme religious way of life. She said,
“Ima, you never listen to me.”
It still brings chills to my body. I always thought of myself as a good listener and I think I was. But the closer a relationship means to you. The more important it is, the more we fight to protect it and many times not in a constructive way. And so I did, without realizing I was just pulling her further away from me.
This is not to say when someone does something wrong or illegal there shouldn’t be consequences. Of course there should be, but if you apply consequence, while seeing the other as a real person, with complete love and no anger than change will happen automatically. Think of it this way. Have you ever been punished by 2 people; one you would’ve done anything for and the other you couldn’t wait to pay him back? Which person’s punishment worked? Probably the person who you admired.
An example of this was when I was in 6th grade my principle came into my class with a very stern look on his face. That particular year we had a lot of bullying and after many attempts to stop the bullying nothing worked. He came in and in a low subdued town told us we all had Sunday school indefinitely. The look of disappoint was written all over his face. We all idolized him. We loved him and every admonishment her gave us had so much love written all over it, we didn’t take it as “we are bad”. We took it as, “I can’t disappoint this man again”. When he walked out we all looked at eachother and began to hug one another. The bullying stopped almost immediately.
In contrast we had a teacher, named Mrs. McDonald who spent almost the whole class telling us how we were the worst class she ever had. All this did was provoke us in finding new ways to torture her. It got so out of hand that one day I found myself standing on my chair and began a chorus of, “Old McDonald had a farm”. The whole class chimed in. She ran out horrified.
There’s a big difference in criticism, punishment and creating lasting change. It’s all on how you view the other that will make the change you seek.
In conclusion every relationship gives us an opportunity to leave our “box”, our justifying, critical way of being with others. If you find yourself feeling frustrated, angry and critical of any person in your life there’s a chance you feel that way often and about many other people. You now have a chance to leave your box and begin to change your way of being and find happiness withing yourself and all those around you.