“Your life does not get better by chance; it gets better by change.” (Jim Rohn)
One foundation in our field of mental health is to not “stay the course.” The founder of Emotionally Focused Therapy, Dr. Sue Johnson explains it this way: clients come into our offices with one story and we help them leave with a different story. In my own private practice, I do not begin the first session by asking how things are going. Rather, I ask the couple what brought them to couple’s therapy, and I ask each spouse to tell me the top two areas in their marriage in which they want to see change.
Few people would want to pay a therapist for ninety minutes of dialogue, with everything remaining the same when they are finished. One approach that I use frequently is to tell couples that what they have just described and demonstrated is “more of the same” and it is clearly NOT working in their marriage.The premise that I want them to act on is, do something different. Just think of the saying that has been around quite a while: If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you always got. Let’s delve into change a little more, keeping in mind what Rabbi Yisroel Salanter posited, “It is easier to learn all 2,711 pages of the Babylonian Talmud than to change one character trait.”
Psychologist Dr. John Gottman reminds us that in the early stage of a relationship we get to know each other by asking a lot of open-ended questions i.e., for what in your life do you feel most grateful? A closed-ended question such as, how was work today is easy to respond to with a one word answer. But, we need more than one word answers to have a good conversation. Gottman contends that as relationships grow, many of us make the mistake of no longer asking questions. Gottman believes this is a problem because we are always changing. According to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, human beings are constant works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished. Gilbert adds that the person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting, and as temporary as all the people you have ever been. The one constant in our lives is change.
Here is an example of how I focus on change in therapy sessions. Two-thirds of the divorces in the U. S. are filed by the wife. Women are the caretakers of relationships. When it comes to emotions, feelings and thinking, these tend to be a woman’s domain. Men are action oriented. Often men don’t want to talk about issues; they want to know what they have to do to get the marriage back on track, now. When the husband, in one of the first few sessions, says, I will do whatever it takes to get our marriage back on track, I write his words down verbatim.
Often, communication is one of the top priorities that the wife brings up early on. My observation is usually that they are both decent communicators. But when she describes their communication difficulties, she stresses her husband’s use of mocking, sarcasm and loud, condescending speech. That becomes one of the bulls eyes which I target for change. During the first few weeks of our sessions, I make it clear to the husband that these extremely harmful forms of communication must change. Gottman’s research indicates that the most harmful behavior in marriage is contempt. Contempt is when a spouse puts him or herself on a higher level than their spouse. It is devastating to feel talked down to and belittled. Sarcasm and mocking are examples of contempt. If I see that the spouse who displays contemptuous behavior is making no improvements after the first few sessions, I confront him or her and remind them of their quote when we began sessions. I am firm, direct, and remind them: you said you would do anything in your power to save this marriage. Therefore, I’m asking for noticeable and tangible change in your behavior in the way you communicate with your spouse. And I stress that this change must take effect immediately.
Leopards and Their Spots
Like a leopard cannot change his spots, it would seem that people cannot change all that much. Actually, people are able to change, but they cannot change well-established behaviors at the snap of a finger. Dr. Linda Sapadin, blogging on Psych-Central, provides a good description on how people change. It is a process that begins with being aware. If you are used to blaming everybody else for your problems, then you are not aware. How are you ever going to change anything if you don’t own up to how your thinking and behavior helped create the predicament that you are in? Sapadin asserts that what is vital is a no-nonsense commitment to change and she adds that casual commitment will not do. She provides a terrific description of a no-nonsense commitment: In your quiet moment of truth, when you are alone and not under pressure by anything or anyone, your “executive” self in harmony with your “emotional” self, make a solemn pledge to change. No more excuses. No more self-sabotage. You are committed to the goal.
Sapadin concludes that if you think about change as an opportunity to grow, rather than as an unwanted burden, amazing things can happen. Change that moves in a positive direction will not only expand your confidence, it can enrich your relationships, enhance your career, and empower your well-being.
We recently read the Torah portion of Vayeira, which describes the destruction of the city of Sedom. The angel told Lot to run for his life and not look behind him. Rabbi Shmuel Weinberg of Slonim (the Divrei Shmuel) explains that these words teach us a fundamental concept in serving God. A person should always look ahead. Do not look back and focus on errors of the past, because that will draw you into despair. Be committed to the goal of change and forward progress.
From the Micro to the Macro
Research conducted by OnePoll lists the top things that we Americans hope to see change in our lifetime. Americans would like to have access to: affordable health care, quality education, public transportation and 100% renewable energy. Americans would like to the see the end to: criminals re-offending, firearm-related deaths, government corruption, homelessness, poverty, unemployment, police corruption, suicides and single-use plastics.
In addition, I hope that you will also find this useful:
Dr. Carol Morgan, a communications professor and relationship coach, describes ten things to accept and ten things to change for a better life:
1. Accept the choices you’ve made, change your next ones.
2. Accept those who hurt you, change those with whom you are surrounded.
3. Accept your body, change your health.
4. Accept your imperfections, change your idea of beauty.
5. Accept your family, change your friends.
6. Accept your losses, change your earnings.
7. Accept your situation, change your outlook.
8. Accept your fate, change your journey.
9. Accept where you are now, change where you’ll go.
10. Accept the things you can’t change, change what you can’t accept.
Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New Jersey and New York since 1980 with an 80% success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He serves as an Adjunct Professor for the Touro College Graduate School of Social Work. He coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, is a Certified Discernment Counselor, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, “Creating Your Perfect Family Size” (Wiley). His essays have been featured in AISH.com, The Jerusalem Post, and the Central NJ Home News Tribune. All counseling sessions use Zoom. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. [email protected]