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Can Your Relationship Improve?


kamurj

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Excerpted from
Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy
By Aaron T. Beck

"My partner is crazy." Pejorative thoughts such as "My spouse is impossible" or "My spouse is sick" may reflect your perception more than an objective appraisal. While it is true that when people are anguished or enraged they sometimes seem irrational, this does not mean that they are "crazy." Any irrationality that you see may be the outgrowth of their distress, a sign of the disturbance. The spouse who rants and raves during a domestic argument usually can be completely rational with other people. Thus, the best approach is to ignore the irrationality-at least initially-and focus on what you can do to reduce the disturbance: concentrate on the cause, not the effect. Changing the causes can, in turn, move your spouse to become more rational.

Another fact to keep in mind is that your vision of what seems to be your spouse's obnoxious ways may be greatly magnified or distorted, as described in Chapter 8. What an impartial observer might label simply as odd or excessive may appear to you as grotesque or bizarre.

"My partner is impossible." Your belief that your partner is impossible may simply reflect the struggle that is going on between you. When people are locked in combat, when neither will give an inch, they each seem impossible to the other. But when you resolve the impasse, you are likely to find your partner far more flexible and reasonable.

Of course, I have seen some husbands and wives whose internal conflicts or personalities are such that they are difficult to live with. Such people often benefit from psychotherapy. However, the judgment as to whether your partner is such a person should be made by a professional-not by you.

In any event, making an effort to change the marriage will establish whether your perception that your partner cannot change is correct.

What Should Be Changed?

Once you decide to try to change, you might wonder what should be changed first: thinking patterns or behavior? When I see a couple in therapy, I concentrate on their behavior first. It is much easier to change concrete actions, or to introduce new ones, than it is to change patterns of thinking. And when actions change, there is frequently an immediate reward, such as a spouse's appreciation for his or her partner's ability to do something pleasing or to stop something that is upsetting.

The rewards may be slower in coming when you start to work on your thinking patterns. You may, for instance, feel less angry or sad and be less likely to retaliate, but you don't feel as much in control of the relationship as when your partner acknowledges a positive act on your part with a smile or a kiss. In the long run, however, reducing your own degree of upset lowers the temperature of your spouse's outbursts, and he or she will be more likely to respond in a friendly, sympathetic way when you are upset.

Another pertinent question arises: is it more important to enhance the positives or to eliminate the negatives? Although negative actions in a marriage are usually less frequent than positive ones, they have a far greater effect on the level of happiness. Sometimes it seems that one negative act (a scolding, for example) can outweigh a dozen friendly or kind actions.

It would seem, then, that eliminating the negative should take precedence over emphasizing the positive. In actual practice, however, if you begin by focusing on your spouse's abrasive habits, you .may seem to be blaming or criticizing, thus making things worse. At the onset, it is best to work on making things more positive. Later, when you are both working as a team, you can deal with what you would like to see changed.

Creating Problems Instead of Solving Them

  • "He's a louse."
  • "She's a nag."
  • "He never does anything to help me."
  • "She's always on my back about something."

One obstacle to change in a marriage occurs when the problems are not defined as problems but rather as broad characterizations or caricatures of the spouse. Problems in the relationship are seen as the fault of the spouse. If you see your mate as the problem, you may conclude that there is nothing you can do. To make things worse, you may magnify the problem so much and make it seem so impossible that it appears futile even to attempt a solution.

In the complaints previously listed ("He's a louse," "She's a nag"), it seems the partner is already framed in a negative way. While the initial difficulty might have been that the spouse was inattentive or withdrawn or complained a great deal, these negative aspects are blown out of proportion so much that-if true-they would be insoluble. The fact is that these alleged traits of the spouse result from the interplay between husband and wife. Say your spouse behaves in a particularly bothersome manner. You then react in a way that annoys your spouse, who promptly reacts to you in a negative way. Thus, the problem resides not in either spouse but in the relationship itself.

In distressed marriages, a major hindrance to change is the partners' inclination to attribute all unpleasantness to each other's negative personality traits (for example, selfishness, arrogance, and cruelty) and to discredit each other's positive actions.

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