Getting stuck is all too common for many couples. We want things to move forward smoothly and consistently. The truth is, having problems isn’t the problem. Getting stuck and not being able to solve problems--that’s the problem.
If you’ve ever played a musical instrument you know the experience of practicing a piece, making a mistake, stopping and starting over again only to make the same mistake again. The spot where things go bad can acquire an energy that’s difficult to overcome. Each time you approach that spot there’s a tendency to anticipate a mistake and therefore an increased likelihood that the mistake will actually occur. Because relationships operate in patterns or cycles, couples experience this phenomenon often. The persistence of the “stuckness” can be incredibly frustrating.
Here are a few tips for what to do when you’re feeling that familiar and frustrating stuck spot in your relationship.
TAKE A "REVOLUTIONARY PAUSE"
The revolutionary pause is more than just stepping back and counting to ten. It’s all about what you do when you’ve stepped back. It isn’t a passive waiting. It’s very active. Taking a revolutionary pause means giving yourself an opportunity to take in the big picture of what is happening. Feeling stuck inspires a natural inclination to focus intently on the specific circumstances of your stuckness. In that moment it can be very helpful to locate yourself in the larger pattern of your relationship. Once you’ve located yourself in the pattern, you can more easily say, “Oh, this is just a particular spot in our relationship. It isn’t the whole of the relationship. By noticing that it’s only a spot, you give yourself a chance to gain a different, more productive, perspective.
SHAKE IT OFF
Much of how we are in relationships is physical. Most of us are inclined to forget that. We tend to think thoughts are the primary source of information. Actually, our bodies inform us all the time. Tension, for example, clearly shows up in the body. And, getting stuck usually brings on tension. If you’ve ever watched a nature program where the cheetah is chasing the gazelle you will know that on those occasions when the gazelle escapes the cheetah, the gazelle does an interesting thing. As soon as she knows she’s safe, she does a massive body shrug. She literally shakes off the trauma that her body is holding.
So, the next time you find yourself in a standoff with your partner, consider taking a moment to retreat to a private space and shake it off. From head to toe, move your body as if you were shrugging off something unwanted.
Problems are not solved by repeatedly applying a familiar “solution.” The hallmark of a good scientist/researcher/inventor is curiosity. When we allow stuckness to take hold, it typically has a paralyzing effect. Introducing curiosity can loosen things up remarkably. Ask yourself things like, “What am I really trying to accomplish?” Or, “I wonder what I’m doing that makes my partner so defensive.” Or, “Who does my partner remind me of when we get to this stuck place?”
Questioning yourself in an open and curious way can lead to a different stance that can, in turn, lead to a different outcome.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE CHOREOGRAPHY
People aren’t just stuck emotionally or intellectually. They are also stuck in space and time. Instead of standing your ground, walking away, or closing in for the “kill,” consider moving toward your partner with openness and acceptance. Sometimes the notion of taking a “time out” and leaving the scene becomes just another predictable feature in the pattern of stuckness. So, think about not leaving. Instead take on an open posture. Make eye contact in a softer way. Pay attention to how facial expression might be contributing to the impasse you’re experiencing.
DEVELOP A BETTER RELATIONSHIP WITH YOUR EMOTIONS
In any interaction, you have two relationships occurring simultaneously. There’s the relationship you have with the person opposite you and the relationship you have with your own emotions. If your relationship with your emotions is a bad one, in all likelihood it will negatively affect your relationship with the person opposite you.
When you have a good relationship with your emotions, they are neither in charge nor ignored. Emotions are an alarm system that appropriately warns you that something needs your attention. They are like a smoke alarm. When the alarm sounds it’s important to determine if it’s just the toast that’s burning or if your drapes are on fire. It’s not OK to take the battery out of the alarm any more than it’s OK to call 911 ever time it goes off.
Feeling stuck is most often the result of having a bad relationship with heightened emotions. We wind up calling 911 when, in fact, it’s just a case of burnt toast.
When it comes to getting unstuck, the most important thing to remember is that more of the same is never a good idea. In fact, the definition of being stuck us doing the same thing over and over without experiencing progress.
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"I can't keep doing this."
"I can't continue."
"I can't change him/her."
Hardly a day goes by without hearing one of my clients say they can't keep doing what they are doing. Yet, they continue for weeks, months and sometimes years doing the thing they say they can't do. When I hear someone say they can't continue, my immediate internal response is often, "Well, of course you can continue. You've been doing this for a very long time without much let-up. Why should we think you can't do it now?" I'm inclined to think they aren't taking what they've said seriously.
Conventional wisdom suggests "can't" is a negative, defeating word. We are taught to think in terms of the possible and avoid thinking about the impossible. Most of us grew up with some version of the children's book, "The Little Engine That Could." As a result, there's something woven into our psyche that tells us we can do anything we put our minds to--all we have to do is think positively. Like the little engine that could we join the mantra, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can." The net result is an abiding belief that there really are no limits to what is possible.
It strikes me that, although there may be a way anything is possible, life comes with some indisputable limits. Lately, I've been asking people to listen carefully to what they are saying when they use the word, "can't." I ask them to listen and try taking what they are saying seriously. I suggest this because "can't" has the potential for being a powerful, liberating and even positive word. If I genuinely can't do something there is no longer any struggle. Trying no longer has a point. Things become quite peaceful. "Can't" brings with it the experience of letting go. It closes a door thoroughly and completely. And, by closing that door it offers the opportunity for another door to open--thoroughly and completely. "Can't," if taken seriously, eliminates ambiguity and creates a space for clarity.
Sometimes I think we avoid taking "can't" seriously because we're afraid of the clarity it brings. We don't have the faith necessary to believe the door that will open thoroughly, completely and unambiguously is exactly the one that wants to open.
There's a scene in the classic movie, The African Queen, where Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn have the following exchange.
Charlie Allnut: A man takes a drop too much once in a while, it's only human nature.
Rose Sayer: Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.
The more I work with people the more this perspective seems legitimate. There are many things that call us to act beyond what comes naturally. These things are usually foundational in our lives and even in history. Parenting, marriage, war, genuinely helping our neighbor are a few of the life circumstances that require an ability to, at least occasionally, do things that don't come naturally.
Marriage, or a long-term intimate relationship, frequently calls us to set aside natural inclinations in favor of compassion and patience. It's easy to demand our hurts be validated. It's easy to take the opportunity to subtly exact revenge. It's easy to look outside the marriage for support and solace when needs aren't met within the marriage. It's easy to clam up and protect one's self when, out of hurt and fear, our partner lashes out. These are all "natural" responses to the common disappointments partners experience.
The hard and necessary response is often the "unnatural" response. Receiving a partner's anger with compassion, patience and even open arms is likely what will change the situation dramatically. Alas, most of us aren't grown up enough to set aside our natural response in favor of the better response. But, that's one of the basic functions of marriage--offering an opportunity to grow up.
We've added a little quiz to the website. It's designed to help you identify the strengths and weaknesses of your relationship. It might not tell you anything you don't already know but it will certainly help you label what's going on and, as a result, help you to know where to start making the changes you'd like to make. The quiz can be particularly useful if you and your partner compare your answers. By comparing answers you will quickly see agreement and disagreement on what needs to change.
Click on the button below to begin taking the quiz.
We are Nicolee Hiltz, PhD and Jake Thiessen, PhD, co-founders of Couples at Crossroads. Some of these entries will be written by Nicolee, some by Jake and some by guest authors. We hope you find them interesting and helpful. Please feel free to comment on them.