When we identify something in our relationship that needs to change, it’s easy to say to yourself, “Yes, I will make that change”.  However, if you are like most of us, after the first few days of making the change, you tend to slip back into old patterns.  In fact, our brains are wired to make it likely that we’ll slip back, at least sometimes.

Now, that might sound hopeless, since our brains are wired to make us slip back. However, since our brains also have a huge capacity to be flexible—to learn and unlearn–we have a chance to re-wire ourselves, if we truly commit to that change.

Let’s say your partner tells you about a disappointment, pain, or other trouble in your relationship that makes them sad or angry. And it’s something you are doing or not doing. What could you do next?

Maybe you could decide to be “resigned” to living with the troubles and just keep on doing what you’re doing, while thinking, “That’s just the way I am”.  Of course, we all know that if we keep doing the same things, we are destined to get the same result. Or, maybe because you care about your partner’s feelings and don’t want to be a source of pain to them, you think that you would like to change your behavior.  That step is huge, but it is just part of the solution. Now, you need to get committed to making that change or you won’t be successful.

When any of us want to (or must) change something about ourselves, we go through several stages:

Getting to Commitment: A Three-Step Process

Pre-contemplation. In this stage, we begin to think about a problem that we have identified or that has been identified for us.

Contemplation. Here, we weigh the benefits and costs of the change to ourselves, our spouse and to our relationship.  If we decide “it’s worth it” to us, then we move to the next stage.

Commitment. If you think you can do what it takes, you also have to decide if you want to do it, and if so, how will I make this change.

In relationships, it may be difficult to be patient as we make our way through this process, one step at a time. However, as we have all experienced, learning new behaviors takes time, effort and involves many missteps.  (If you doubt this, think about learning to ski, swim, ride a bike, stop swearing, etc.).  We can be very committed and still need to take time to learn the skill or behavior.

Real-life example of this process in action:

Amy’s husband Joel told her that he needs more physical affection from her. As Joel saw Amy being physically affectionate with their children and with the dog, he didn’t feel like he was a priority for Amy and thought she wasn’t in love with him anymore. This made him very distressed.

Pre-Contemplation: As Amy thought about this feedback she realized that Joel was right about the lack of touching.  He was definitely not correct in thinking she didn’t love him. She did love him very much.

Contemplation:  Physical affection was not present in the family that Amy grew up in.  She thought it would be awkward to reach out to Joel. She worried that she would be embarrassed and maybe not do it well enough.  Because she loved Joel though, she decided that she was going to be more physically affectionate despite her “beginner” status.

Commitment:  Amy wanted Joel to feel loved, so she decided she could do what he asked for. Then she figured out a several-step process that enabled her to overcome her awkwardness and embarrassment and to become more “natural” in her reaching out.  With each step, she figured that she would feel more confident and competent at being affectionate. Amy started with brief hugs and progressed to sitting on the couch with Joel’s feet on her lap, to holding hands while watching movies or TV.

How it turned out: Amy became comfortable with the physical contact and began enjoying it herself.  And Joel felt loved and appreciated that Amy had listened to his request and worked to fulfill it.

Questions to consider:

  • Do you usually reflect on your spouse’s requests/complaints with compassion?
  • How could you improve your relationship by making time for each step?

Would you like to see where your relationship is strong and where it could use some improvement?  I have created the Relationship Review Quiz to do just that!  Here’s the link:

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