I’ve been working with a very successful attorney who has been struggling to find a way to stay in his marriage for a couple of years. The heart of the matter is that his wife had a serious health problem, which is now resolved. Through the process of dealing with this health problem she probably became depressed and certainly became very discouraged about her own physical health. The result is she is a very different person now. She does not take care of herself physically, she feels unattractive, and they have had no sex for three years.
He is in his late 30s and it is difficult for him to imagine never having a sexual relationship again. On the other hand , he loves her, and she loves him. Both parties feel a great sense of loyalty towards each other. She has resisted his suggestions to get a psychiatric assessment, but she did go see a counselor for a few sessions. The two of them have been going to couple’s therapy for the last six months, which both mutually agree is not going anywhere either.
Thinking about this dilemma once again reminded me of how context influences our ability to solve problems.
It occurred to me he has never really approached this problem in the way he might tackle a difficult negotiation at work.
Their pattern, as with many other couples, has involved a series of brief attempts to improve things. He would try a little to make things better, get discouraged when her behavior did not change, and stop. Then, she might try a little, quickly get discouraged, and stop. They have never had the ability to make consistent progress.
Thinking about the unusual (for him) feeling of disempowerment that he experiences in trying to resolve this problem in his relationship (he has negotiated successfully in some of the highest stakes, high tension, high visibility lawsuits in the area) got me to thinking a bit outside of the box.
Often in a difficult negotiation it is important to look beyond the immediately obvious possibilities for a solution. (In keeping with the theme of this post – bringing skills from other contexts into relationship problem solving – I often find that the negotiation framework is a helpful one in these kinds of situations).
They identified the relationship problem months ago and went to see a couple’s therapist, but that didn’t worked. Was I missing an out of the box solution I wondered as we talked about where he stood.
Then it occurred to me that the principles embodied in at least three books by the same author about dealing with embattled relationships (New Kids by Friday, New Teens by Friday, and New Husbands by Friday) might be useful.
These books, which if you’re having trouble with your kids, or I guess your husband, I strongly recommend. All have at their core certain principles of how one goes about changing behavior.
First, behavior doesn’t change through a fight, so do not to get into a conflict with your kids or your spouse.
Behavior changes because good behavior gets rewarded (or recognized) and behavior that is not so good results in the loss of a reward (the next request is turned down).
For example, a child misbehaves. The parent doesn’t say anything but leaves the room and leaves the child alone. The lesson here is if you misbehave, your parent goes away for a while. This approach is much more powerful than fighting, arguing, or punishing.
And quite miraculously, and counter-intuitively, you do not have to explain your behavior (“see Jimmy, if you throw your food on the floor Mommy will be upset and will not play with you”).
In fact, not explaining what you are doing is essential.
First, we are much more powerfully influenced by observation of what works rather than by what people tell us to do. In fact, being told to do something may discourage a change.
Second, you don’t want to fight. Fighting is rarely useful in a chronic situation like this one. Fights make both partners feel discouraged, angry, unwilling to compromise or seek creative solutions.
Back to my attorney. He initially rejected my proposal, viewing it as a criticism of his past efforts (I obviously didn’t frame the idea properly). But after a few more weeks of discouragement and seriously considering separation, he decided to give it a try. A week into the experiment he came back very encouraged. He said he was very surprised that he’d actually seen a change for the better.
Unfortunately, the next week he went back to his old pattern of explaining and berating his partner with the predictable worsening of tension and unhappiness.
As with many successful strategies for changing long-standing behavior patterns, the hard part in this approach is maintaining consistency.