Inside Therapy: When Looking for Solutions Can Ruin a Relationship

Monday, April 30, 2012


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How you can go from diplomacy, to directness, to patience, to urgency... to a break-up.

I was once in a committed relationship in which my partner and I kept falling into the same patterns, over and over. Shocking, I know.

Like lots of couples, we would talk about things we were wanting and needing from one another—but at some point the talks started leading to arguments and the arguments led to fights. Neither one of us was happy, and we couldn’t seem to be there for one another in ways that mattered.

From diplomacy to urgency

But I didn’t want to lose the good things we had, so I found myself doing everything I could think of to try to close the distance between us. When being diplomatic didn’t work, I experimented with being more direct. When being more direct didn’t work, I did my best to be patient. When patience came up snake eyes, I gave urgency a shot. I read self-help books, took relationship seminars, consulted with older couples—but the ship kept going down. And the harder I tried to bail it out, the faster it took on water.

One day, my therapist was sitting there listening to me recount the endless litany of my attempted fixes until—at last—I paused for breath. In the little stretch of quiet, that eternally patient man leaned in, looked at me with tender concern and said, “Arch.” Then, very softly, “Why are you trying so hard?”

My mind went blank. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I think I blinked a few times.

The unthinkable: calming down and doing less

Then, for a moment, I entertained the unthinkable: calming down and doing less. The impact of this outrageous idea—doing less—led quickly to the emergence of two nearly overwhelming feelings. The first was an immense, full-bodied relief. The second was dread. I was convinced that if I relaxed my efforts to save the relationship, it would crumble.

The dread won out. I left my therapist’s office and went back to trying everything I could think of to get things to shift between my girlfriend and me.

We called it quits a few months later.

My conviction—that if I stopped trying to save the relationship, it would collapse—may have been right. It may have been wrong. Either way, it was a conviction that remained untested, unexamined, unverified, and—most of all—unshakeable. And it’s those unshakeable convictions—the ones we’re most stubbornly attached to—that are most deserving of our skepticism. Why? Because they almost always highlight an area of real rigidity in ourselves: in this case, my unassailable conviction prevented me from even entertaining the idea of stopping. I couldn’t, so I didn’t—and the relationship did.

How chasing a solution becomes the problem

This was in part what my therapist had been trying to help me see: that the one thing I seemed incapable of doing was to cease doing. By trying so hard to get the relationship out of a tough situation, I had set up an even tougher one: an impasse in which I came across as pushy, nagging, insistent, dissatisfied, and generally intolerable. My unceasing attempts to find a solution had become the problem.

After that relationship ended, I began to understand that “not-doing” is also a kind of doing. In fact, it can be a particularly powerful kind of doing. In the years since, I’ve noticed all kinds of occasions when my decision to not pester someone about something I was needing led to the situation resolving itself in ways that felt natural, easy, and unforced. That’s no excuse for being vague about your needs in a relationship; it's often important to make them explicit. But there’s also room for a skilful, discerning kind of restraint—one that doesn’t aim for results, but leads to them anyway.

In fact, authentic not-doing can be so potent a force—and can lead to such graceful and tangible change—that the Chinese have a special term for it: “Wu-wei.” Google that.

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Archie Roberts is a psychotherapist, professor, and writer. He's consulted to organizations around the world and makes his home in Providence.

For more coverage of relationships, don't miss Archie Roberts on GoLocalTV, fresh every day at 4pm and on demand 24/7, here.


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