Monday, August 8, 2011

How to Change Your Partner: Accept Them!

We worked with a couple who were fighting about their teenagers. This was a second marriage for both of them, and she had raised her kids in a give-and-take way, listening to their ideas, and developing their sense of self-respect and autonomy. For her second husband, she married a Greek immigrant, very old-world who believed in discipline and authority. Needless to say, he and her two teenage boys didn't get along at all. She had dragged him into mediation, she thought, to get reinforcements to fight with his power-mongering, but we could see right away how scared and baffled he was by the situation. She had been trying to batter down the gates of his fortress for a couple of years, and now their relationship was on the rocks.

After listening to his litany of how bad the boys were (judgment) and a restatement of his firmly held belief that all they needed was a little discipline, I reframed his position this way: "So you grew up with discipline and the requirement that children respect their elders, and that created a safe and stable environment for you as a child."


"And parenting in that same way meets your need for continuity: it worked for your father, and you always expected to be that same kind of father."

"Yes!" he says, and looks at his wife and points to me as if to say, 'See, he understands.'

"And making a decision and sticking to it is important to you. Having your ideas understood and followed would meet your need for respect."

"Yes! But they fight me at every turn!"

"Okay, so bringing your father's style of parenting into this new family meets your needs for continuity, autonomy and respect. How is it doing in terms of your need for cooperation and peace?"

"Terrible. No peace. No cooperation!"

"So if we were to come up with a different strategy which continued to get your needs for respect and autonomy met, and which ALSO met your need for peace and cooperation, would you be willing to consider that?"


"And if in the bargain, it also happened to meet the boys need for respect and autonomy as well, would that be a problem for you?"

"No. No problem. I want the boys to feel good about me and the family and themselves. I just want them to listen."

"So you are not feeling heard? Perhaps we can start there. Let's see if there is a new way you can communicate which will get your need to feel heard met as well."


This actual conversation demonstrates how willing even the most rigidly held strategies surrender when the underlying need is addressed. The wife in this couple was stunned by her husband's willingness to let go of something which seemed unassailable to her. As so often happens in couples, she was assigning blame to the other person, for their reaction to her approach.

As we worked with Petre on his inherited strategies, which were a part of the cultural identity that he loved and valued, we were amazed at how willing he was to notice that what he had assumed to be his culture, was actually a set of strategies. He came to see that those strategies probably didn't work all that well for his father, either, at least not every single one in every single situation. It became possible for him to value his culture, and become flexible about the strategies he employed with his new family to achieve the the same values he loved about his own family.