When someone gathers up the courage to communicate their true needs and desires to their partner in an authentic and vulnerable way, it can be nothing short of heartbreaking and defeating to see that your partner is back into their old ways.
Let’s give an example of fictional couple Pat and Jan to make this more concrete. Pat used effective communication skills (learned with their therapist at Together Couples Counseling) to let Jan know that they really feel loved and respected when Jan takes out the trash. Jan was surprised to learn that about Pat. Jan was receptive to what Pat was saying because it came in the form of a genuine desire, rather than a demand or complaint. Jan agreed that taking out the trash was definitely something that could be done. They both came away from the conversation feeling understood, heard, and connected.
Cut to the next time the trash is full… the scene might be something like this:
- Pat sees the trash is getting full and starts playing the waiting game to see if Jan behaves differently based on their conversation
- Jan doesn’t seem to notice the trash
- The next day the trash is completely full
- That night, Pat can’t take it anymore so Pat irritably opens the lid, pulls out the bag, slams the lid, exasperatedly and bitterly calls out “well I guess I’m the only one who has functioning eyes, nose, arms, and legs around here!” and takes out the trash
- Upon re-entering the home, Jan greets Pat with a sheepish look and a muffled “I was gonna do that…”
- Pat angrily retorts, “we justtalked about this, I’ve told you a million times!”
In order to break this down, I’m going to use an allegory about lobsters I once heard from author and lecturer Dr. Rabbi Abraham Twerski. He explains that a lobster is a very soft mushy creature that exists inside of a hard rigid shell. As the lobster itself grows, it begins to feel uncomfortable and confined inside its now tight fitting shell. So, the lobster finds a safe place, hidden away from danger to discard its old shell and start growing a new one. What we learn from the lobster is that the stimulus for growth is discomfort and if adversity is used properly, it can push us to a place of increased greatness.
So what’s the connection?
When Pat shared the desire for Jan to take the trash out from a place of authenticity and vulnerability, that was Pat being like the lobster. The status quo wasn’t working and Pat had become so uncomfortable with the way things were that they wanted to stretch and grow in a new way. By engaging with Jan, Pat went somewhere safe where the old shell could be shed and the vulnerability of expressing wants exposed.
However, the work doesn’t end there. There’s still the process of growing the new shell. In order to do that, Pat has to expand in the ability to be patient, give the benefit of the doubt, and assume that Jan is genuinely trying to grow. Pat’s job is to work on assuming that Jan is trying to become the kind of partner who is able to accommodate Pat’s request by adjusting behaviors and forming new habits.
The reality is that it is more than likely that in a moment of obliviousness, distraction, or simple forgetfulness your partner will slip into old habits or miss their opportunity to fulfill your request. If you adopt the perspective that you are both working on yourselves and trying to improve, you can see that their error does not have to force you to jump back to your default or act resentfully. To do so creates susceptibility to the spiral of doubts and unhelpful thoughts about your relationship such as, the legitimacy of connective conversations (“well they obviously fooled me, clearly they didn’t actually listen or care), the value of vulnerability (“that’s the last time I try to open up”), and your partner’s capacity for change (“this is such a lost cause”).
In that moment you have a choice. You can try to wedge yourself back into your old shell, or you can choose to practice patience, compassion, trust, and once again approach the situation with effective communication skills (as many times as it takes). By choosing growth, you begin the process of forming a new shell that is truly fitting for your greater self.