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May 15, 2000 e-mail e-mail to a friend in need

Don't Go Changin'

The French are amazing, and I'm not just saying that because I'm going to Paris in a week and a half. Well, I am just saying that I'm going to Paris in a week and a half. But anyway, as Steve Martin once pointed out, the French have got "a different word for everything!" ("'Hat' is ' chapeau!'") And excellent expressions. Like "Vive la France!" "Nutela!" and -- more to today's point -- "Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." -- "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Why, this petit gem even has its own application in le monde of relationships, to wit: "The more you try to change someone, the less they are inclined to budge." (I've said this IMPORTANT BREAKUP GIRL MAXIM for years: You can't make anyone do anything.)

That's why it turns out that many marriage experts (like, the good ones), have trashed the so-five-minutes*-ago precepts of what's called "Behavioral Marital Therapy" ("Okay, I'll take out the trash once a week if you promise to work on that mousetrap.") It did work, but sometimes, and temporarily. As the late** Neil Jacobson observed: "We finally realized that the very pressure to change acts as a formidable barrier to that change. In the face of perceived coercion, most people throw up their defenses and withdraw."

So, since no one was bugging them, I guess, the experts changed their tune. Gradually, they're starting to focus on "Integrative Couples Therapy" -- which might as well be French, so let's try more common parlance: Acceptance Therapy. "If [partners] can quit viewing one another's behavior as evil and begin to see it as inevitable and natural, then the same problems can continue to occur, but without such an emotional sting," says Andrew Christensen. "To love and marry someone, you must accept the essence of the other person. You can push for change at the periphery, but not at the core."

The key is to try to place what's bugging you in a larger context. This, ideally, is how conflict morphs into compassion -- which itself is WD-40 for a relationship's grittier hinges. Christensen and Jacobsen cite the example of the wife who got furious that her husband "forgot" to tell her he was going hiking. Turned out he wasn't being an inconsiderate clod; he was (clumsily) trying to avoid the argument he knew he'd get. But once these two threw it into reverse and backed, mud flying, out of "You never...!" and "Why can't you...?" they realized that they had to tinker with a different part of the foundation: the one where her sensitivity and his avoidance were making things crumble. The point: either decide it's -- really – no big, or dig. Not for blame, just for human fumbling. Figure it out. (Just talk like human grownups; don't worry about "I" statements, which more often than not devolve into "I feel...really silly.")

And guess what: When you quit trying to change them, they actually sort of do! Ooh la la!

Now, of course not every peeve will pass the <gritted teeth> "isn'titcutewhens/hedoesthatannoyingthing" test. Tips on how to noodge when you must:

  • Send e-mail. Nicely. Avoids escalation, yelling. (No caps.)
  • Make specific requests (within reason). DON'T: "You never show me you care." DO: "Ya know, it would totally make my tummy go bloop bloop if you'd call me just to let me know you got there okay." (Also DON'T: "Please caress my left cheek at regular intervals. Here, I've set this stopwatch. Go.")
  • Get the skinny. Ask -- uh, not sarcastically -- why whatever it is (say, car inspection) hasn't gotten done. You might be crock-potting about something with a completely reasonable explanation ("Oh, I didn't want to make you mad by telling you it was stolen.")

All of this emphatically does not mean that BG has changed her position on dealbreakers. Or that, God forbid, abusive behavior should be grinned-and-borne. If, on a bad day, you're struggling to find "the wisdom to know the difference," just ask BG to echo back the wild call of your gut. I may take off for a long weekend ici et la, but you can always count on me. That'll never change.

More stuff:

> How accepting are you? Take Christensen's survey here.
> How acceptable are you? Um, totally?!

* ~ $100

** deceased. Not "stubbornly/chronically."



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