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Is your partner your rival or your friend? The question might well never have occurred to you, but you’ve probably already worked it out, or started to. It’s usually better to be friends than rivals – there’s a whole lot more fun to be had with a friend than with an enemy. Maybe you’ve suddenly realised, right at this very moment, why life seems so fraught sometimes and are wondering what to do about it. Well, the bad news is, you can’t just make the decision to change it and then get on with it.
That doesn’t mean that change isn’t possible. Far from it. But before you can even think about that there’s a need to get to grips with how it turned out that way in the first place. Whether you recognise it or not, you actually chose the relationship that would be like that. It might not have been at the beginning, but you’ve certainly engineered it to function as it does, even if at this moment you’re tempted to yell at the screen that this is total nonsense. Even more interesting is that your partner must have wanted the same thing, because such situations really are a joint effort. If they’re not, one party walks…
It’s an oddity that you might love this person fiercely, and they you, and yet the simplest thing can so easily turn into a spat. Or even a full-blooded war. This all arises out of the simple circumstance that relationships are probably the most complicated thing we ever have to deal with in life and the only training we get is from those who are least well-equipped to teach us. That’s our parents, of course, who were taught by their parents, who were taught by… well, you get the idea. The fact they didn’t intentionally set out to teach us anything specifically is neither here nor there, because they showed us to how be with a partner and ‘show not tell’ is the most powerful teaching method. Of course, the lessons get adjusted and modified with each generation and pick up a few misinterpretations along the way, so by the time they get to you they’re a whole mishmash of odd and sometimes ridiculous stuff that seems absolutely normal because there’s no reason to question it.
As daft as some of that might sound, it’s all about survival. From the moment we’re born, our brain is intent on that very thing and as far as it’s concerned, if our elders are behaving in a certain way, it must be right because they have clearly survived – so we’d better do the same. This is all buried away in the subconscious of course, and so we do it without realising it. The toothpaste tube must be squeezed from the bottom (or perhaps the middle) because that’s the way it is. It’s part of survival. You have to throw away that tiny bit of milk at the bottom of the bottle. You just do. It’s important to disagree vigorously with your partner when they are adamant about something. It just is.
Blame the ancestors
We’ve inherited this habit from our ancient ancestors of not trusting anything different from that which we already know. For them, anything unknown was a risk. Do something differently from the way your tribe has always done it and goodness knows what might happen. You might discover too late that bears are not there to be made friends with. Change is risk laden. Spending your life with another person from a different tribe instead of on your own or with those who’ve kept you safe is a risk. So, we’d better get as close a match as we can to what we’re used to, because that’s what’s kept us safe so far. If our tribe is confrontational, then that’s the way things have to be. It just is, whether you like it or not. So if you get into a relationship that is not confrontational, there’s clearly something deeply suspicious about that and the other party must be hiding something. Or up to something. Better escape and find somebody else to have a good honest fight with.
All this is absolutely fine if both you and your partner are at ease with the idea that having a battle means nothing more than that your relationship is ‘normal’. Maybe you even enjoy it. But when that’s not the case, there’s no law that says you must stay with somebody whatever they do; there’s no rule that says you mustn’t change or try to rescue a relationship that doesn’t really work as you would like but which hasn’t yet failed. Of course, the longer it’s been like that, the harder it is to change it, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
The most important thing
Although it might be irritating, the most important thing to be aware of is that you can only change yourself, not your partner. It’s no good getting in a faff about how that’s not fair – it’s just the way it is. A chat with your partner to get them onside is essential but there’s a bit of self-recognition needed first. Think about what starts the argument from your side of things; is it because you want to be right, or because you don’t want them to be right? Is because you want to be in control, or because you don’t want them to be in control? Do you need to show you’re superior or stop them from thinking they are superior? You don’t have to actually do anything with that recognition other than understand:
- How you feel and react, not the way they are, is what sustains the argument. It takes two and if you change, they probably will.
- You didn’t decide to be like that. It’s what you learnt about surviving when you were very young, so let yourself off the hook. You can learn a new way of being.
- You chose your partner, and they chose you – so that makes you equals.
- Between you, you can choose a way of being that is what you both want instead of what you both got.
- There’s no guarantee it’ll work because your partner might not do their bit, but if you don’t give it a try, you’ll never know.
It’s important to choose the right moment to have that all-important chat with your partner and the best moment is right at the beginning of the next argument – talking about it first almost never works. It’s much easier to imprint the subconscious with what you want by making that change when the relevant genuine emotion is present. Know in advance you’re going to do it and it’ll be all the easier; all you have to do is grab the moment immediately after your usual combative response and say something like: ‘Oh, hark at me, here I go again. Look, I’d like to be able to talk about stuff instead of fighting about it. And I’m going to do my very best to think instead of going straight into battle mode. Does that seem like a plan?’
Of course, there’s no way of predicting how your partner might react. They might be all for it, but then again, they might be piggish and say something like ‘Well, it’s about time!’ with an air of triumph. Or maybe sarcastic: ‘Oh, yes, I can really see that happening!’ Stick calmly but firmly to what you want and don’t rise to the bait… because that’s all it is. A test. If you pass it and they don’t, at least you know exactly where you stand and if it then seems like it’s time to call it a day, it probably is.
But that’s a whole other story.
Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).