Real change or “pretend” change?
In the previous post I introduced you to Matt and Cindy, an actual couple that was grappling with maintaining hope in building relationship trust even as they worked to resolve the negative realities of the past. Their so-called marriage dance had turned to something awkward and disconnected with plenty of stepping on toes.
When we left Matt and Cindy, Cindy was expressing doubt that Matt’s new-found attention to her and the relationship would last. Matt felt frustrated that Cindy could not see what he felt was “real” change from him.
He responded to Cindy, “But it’s different this time. I know things I didn’t know before. I see more clearly how close we are to losing our marriage and family. I will never go back to how I was!” And as he says it, Matt believes it. And indeed, it might well be true this time. But as Matt was talking Cindy was probably envisioning something like this cartoon of a man saying to his wife, “Look, I can’t promise to change but I can promise I’ll pretend to change.” Most of us can probably relate to one or both sides of this cartoon.
The fact is, Cindy had some work to do in encouraging Matt and his changes, and in making her own changes to contribute to the success of the relationship, but she was correct in her observation. How was she supposed to trust Matt when promises had been made and broken before? How could she overcome her doubt and past disappointment to trust again? There is always risk in trusting another person but sometimes it is difficult to even want to take that leap again.
Matt and Cindy came to understand an important concept during the Retreat and in the following months as we continued working with them in our AfterCare program. They realized that while there can be a wonderful sense of hope and mutual support as a couple seeks a better relationship, ultimately for trust and true safety to grow, Matt and Cindy would need to experience long term changes that would be manifested through measurable Results in their marriage.
Rebuilding trust calls for effort from both partners
While it is appropriate for us to expect to see results before offering our full trust to another, in personal relationships both parties must contribute to the process. In the case of Matt and Cindy, even though Matt had made positive changes (yet to be determined if temporary or permanent), Cindy was standing back, skeptical of Matt’s commitment and having little faith that he would stay true to his promises. Like it or not, this negative energy led Matt to wonder for a while, “Then why should I bother? You have me tucked into my little pigeon hole and you are never going to see me differently.” Sound familiar?
You might be surprised to discover how often you inadvertently invite the very behavior from your partner that you so want them to change.
Do you hear the Thoughts, Behaviors, and Feelings cycle we mentioned in previous posts going on with both Cindy and Matt? As Cindy thought her skeptical thoughts, she would quickly get pulled into feedback and behaviors guaranteed to undermine hers and Matt’s efforts, and she would unconsciously invite the old negative behavior from Matt. If Matt lost himself in self-pity or righteous indignation he would lose his momentum and enthusiasm for positive change, leading to Cindy’s self-fulfilling prophecy, “I knew you couldn’t do it.”
There is a crucial principle that can help us bridge the gap from doubt and fear to inviting growth and trust. To build an atmosphere within which trust can grow, we must move to something beyond teeth gritting tolerance, hurt feelings, and hopeless waiting, such as Cindy and Matt were experiencing.
We must find Acceptance for one-another
We all recognize that everyone needs tolerance in a marriage. But tolerance is meant to be something transitional, not permanent. Tolerance helps us to take the time we need to seek to understand another person and their behavior, and to find solutions to issues and challenges that arise.
But the key transition that tolerance helps us make is to acceptance of other people. If we remain in only tolerance, it will eventually harden into resentment. So while we do not excuse or accept negative behavior from another person, we always strive to see them as people of value, deserving of our respect and consideration. Without acceptance in a relationship the parties will fall into varying levels of defensiveness and aggressiveness, or just checking out, leading to a breakdown of connection and trust.
Just as a couple on the dance floor is taking risks in potential stumbles and losing the rhythm, the risk of giving in a relationship without the certainty of receiving back is real. But if you have ever felt the pure joy of giving your all on the dance floor, even with some awkward steps along the way, you have one tiny glimpse of the surpassing joy that comes from connecting with another person, even if imperfectly, in the amazing dance of marriage.