A number of years ago a woman came into see me because she was incredibly frustrated with her husband. She sat down and began telling me that her husband recently told her she was crazy! She obviously found this very hurtful. I agreed and asked her to provide some context.
She went on to explain that they had been eating dinner at home. When he finished his meal he pushed his plate forward a bit, stood up from his chair and began to leave the table. She quickly told him that he needed to put his plate in the sink and that is when he told her she was crazy.
I asked her if this was an unusual act for him and if he normally put his own plate in the sink. She quickly responded saying “NO! That’s the problem. For twenty years he has been leaving his plate on the table for me to put it away. But on that night I had had enough and told him he needed to do it himself. And that is when he told me I was crazy!”
I looked at her and told her she was crazy!
I’m not usually so blunt, but this was so blatant, and yet she was unable to see what was happening. For 20 years she had been teaching her husband that she would take care of his plate. She may not have liked doing it; she may have thought it unfair, but she was actively maintaining an expectation for 20 years. And then one day she changed the rules and became angry with HIM for not jumping on board when she changed her expectations and his. She never considered the possibility that he may have some surprise, much less aversion to the new rule.
Everybody knows that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is the definition of crazy. But another definition is abruptly changing the rule that you have personally contributed to designing and maintaining. So is expecting everyone else to acquire the same level of motivation and commitment for that change by osmosis.
I am seeing a number of women in particular right now who seem to be struggling with getting their husbands to accept new rules because dynamics have changed for these women. Some have gone back to work, others have started a family. In some cases these women have simply matured in their needs. As they get more pressured for time, or simply grown tired of continuing to do for their husbands what they may have eagerly signed up for in the past, they want their husband to “want to change” in the way their wives want them to change. What many women (and some men as well) fail to consider is that their partner was in part attracted to them because of the very behaviors they now want to abolish. Imagine that you go to a store that gives you free stuff for years. You love the store until one day they say no more free stuff, and let you know that you are greedy because you keep coming in and expecting them to continue the practice. Maybe the store has a very good reason, like it can’t make a profit by giving away free stuff anymore. Regardless of the rationale, you’re likely to feel a bit cheated or at very least surprised by the change in policy. (If you want proof, talk to someone who is this week absorbing the new Starbucks rewards policy!)
At the start of this type of discussion with me, a woman usually wants me to help her figure out how to get her husband to change. It doesn’t take long for me to help her understand that the only one who she is capable of changing is herself.
I’ve made this discussion gender biased for the sake of expedience, but the reality is that the dilemma is gender neutral. We all begin teaching others what our rules for engagement are from our very first meeting. If a pattern is embedded in our relationship that no longer works for us, it is up to us to take responsibility for how it began. Our partners (romantic or otherwise) can always introduce a behavior to us, but we are the ones who give it permission to stay in place by what we do in response to the introduction. When we make room for it to stay, stay it will. And when we are the initiators of a behavior because we want the other person to think about us in a particular way, then we alone are the ones responsible for maintaining that behavior. We are responsible for coming come clean about our motives and make recommendations openly and honestly about having changed our willingness to continue the practice. We also have to be willing to accept the consequences of changing expectations for both us and our partner. If I have always been willing to work overtime off the clock because I wanted my boss to think I’m a great employee and I elect to stop that one day, my boss may change his opinion of me, or even worse. I have to be willing to accept that possibility.
How about taking a look at some of the patterns that, you may be less than thrilled with in your relationships? Can you identify how you either initiated them or made them possible to stick by your behavior?