Are You Afraid to Rock the Boat in Your Relationship
By Susannah Castle, PsyD
Anyone who has ever tried to make a significant change in their behavior knows that such things are much easier said than done. Frequently, partners are ‘on board’ with big lifestyle changes until they realize that the change is going to impact them, as well. Issues related to food and exercise often hit home in some very intimate ways that are difficult to overcome without lots of give and take. For example, assume you decide that you need to go to the gym after work for an hour. That can mean that precious time is consumed by exercise, which in the past was spent with your partner or family, and can set off a domino effect of change in everyone’s schedule. Or assume you decide that you are going to dramatically increase the amount of vegetables in your diet – leaving your vegetable-phobic partner prepping a separate meal, or going out for fast-food.
Given scenarios such as these, it is easy to see why people easily ‘backslide’ away from their lifestyle goals when making such changes seem to require that their loved ones make accommodations for the change that may not necessarily feel comfortable or top their priority list. Our culture sends two contradictory messages: One that we should focus on self-care, but at the same time, the other is we should avoid making others accommodate our needs and goals. This contradiction often leaves people falling back to old patterns of behavior, when it becomes clear that the changes associated with self-care are simply too impactful on a relationship to occur without significant anxiety, confrontation, or feelings of guilt for asking someone else to step up to help change take place.
In situations such as these, it can be helpful to clarify for yourself what your priority is, between getting your objective met or maintaining the relationship status quo, or preserving your self-respect. Depending on how you order those three priorities will help to clarify your values as you proceed with your negotiation with your partner. Obviously, in most cases all three of these are very strong priorities, but it is important to know what is most important in this case. If you determine that you wish to push your agenda, and getting your objective for self-care met is your priority, we suggest the following rubric, which is adapted from the Interpersonal Effectiveness skills published by Marsha Linehan, PhD.
Validate. Express your understanding of what you know is difficult about the change you are wishing to initiate in the relationship.
Describe. Describe the situation as you observe it at the present time, and without judgment.
Express. Express how that situation leaves you feeling.
Assert. State clearly and succinctly the exact change you wish to see occur.
Reinforce. Articulate what your partner will gain by helping you with this change.
Negotiate. An effective strategy for this is to ask your partner how they would solve the problem, given the status of the situation described.
A sample of this might look like the following:
Validate. “I know it is a pain for you to pick up the kids after work so that I can go to the gym”
Describe. “We are both super-busy, and this is the only obvious time that I can get to the gym to work out.”
Express. “I am feeling anxious and overwhelmed that I won’t be able to find time to exercise like I need to.”
Assert. “I’d like to ask you to pick up the kids three evenings per week, so I can go to the gym, even though it is difficult.”
Reinforce. “I really feel like if we can make this change, my mood is going to be so much better, that I can jump in and be more engaged throughout the week, even though I lose some time with you all on those evenings. And, if I can have this time, I think it will make me feel like we are a team working together.”
Negotiate. “If you feel like we can’t make three times per week in the evening work, what would you suggest as an alternative that you see could work such that I could get to the gym regularly?”
Obviously, having the right script to discuss an issue is not the whole solution. But it is a good start of a change toward healthy self-assertion. Pushing for changes in a relationship that can help to accommodate your self-care can be incredibly anxiety-provoking. But in the end, we believe that it will result in increased trust, intimacy, and a feeling of empowerment within the relationship. Rocking the boat is healthy, especially if the boat has been going in a direction that fails to support everyone’s needs aboard.