It’s my first couple session with Robert and Tom. Robert glares at me angrily and I watch Tom who fixes a fearful gaze on Robert. Tom is not breathing and the tension is tangible.
Robert wants Tom to change and after years of trying – the last four of their eighteen years together to be precise – he has failed. Angry and resentful, Robert drags his reluctant partner to therapy and looks to me – the ‘relationship expert’ – to change his partner. Pressure!
Tom remains the same practical, dependable, emotionally-closed guy he has always been; the Tom that has made Robert feel safe and secure for so many years. Now Robert wants something new – more equality, a say over their shared finances, to be heard and included in decision-making. Robert would also like support to get a job, so he can be more independent. Most of all he wants Tom to be more emotionally available and present.
Tom and Robert’s situation is not uncommon. Overtime we change, and our relationship needs to develop accordingly. The desire for change can be triggered by a specific event e.g. children leaving the home or, as in Robert’s case, the death of his mother for whom he cared for years.
Often the partner wanting change feels overwhelmed and confused so they project on to their partner and demand they change instead! This in turn can overwhelm and bewilder the partner. Tom scratches his head: “We’ve been fine for years, I don’t understand what’s wrong and why he is so angry. He’s always known I don’t do emotions.” Robert looks at Tom in despair.
A partner can of course leave the relationship and find a new person who might better fit this life stage, but often this is not the case. The more common choice is to try and transform their partner. It is a choice that leads nowhere except destination frustration and resentment in my experience.
Partners seldom change at the same time. Our partner’s need for change can be scary for us. We may fear they will leave us, or we won’t be able to meet their new demands. As a result, we can become defensive or try pull our partner back to a more familiar dynamic. Fearful of Robert’s demands, Tom does the opposite of what his partner wants and retreats. This makes Robert even more angry… and so the cycle continues.
Robert has a hard lesson to learn: you can’t really change your partner. However, this doesn’t mean a partner won’t attempt change. In fact, by focusing on yourself and engaging in some difficult developmental stretching yourself, you have a better chance of getting what you want from your partner. Some therapists call this a process of differentiation, a necessary part of any relationship if it is to survive. This shift of focus is hard for clients like Robert to accept, especially when they have spent so long fixating on their partner. To focus on oneself as the key to their partner changing seems absurd.
When you do your own hard self-development work in the relationship, your partner, like a meerkat stands up and watches, transfixed. Curious, they seem more willing to meet you in your change and experiment with change themselves.
What is this work that Robert has to do? He needs to stop looking to Tom and instead hold a mirror to himself. Robert needs to take responsibility, go deep and challenge himself with difficult questions:
Why did he collude in a dynamic for so long that ultimately made him resentful? Tom is Tom, what if he doesn’t change? Can Robert leave him and what would it be like to be single after so long? Can he find a way of coming to terms with the status quo and get his needs met from elsewhere through new friendships, interests or a career? Moreover, is Robert able to self-sooth and manage his anger, potentially allowing Tom to also engage more instead of retreating? Robert needs to acknowledge that his desire for change has forced Tom to engage in growth. This is challenging for Tom as he was happy with the status quo. Will Robert be able to appreciate Tom’s efforts despite the anger he has been sitting with for years?
Of course, Tom has work to do too if he wants to save this relationship. With Robert wanting change, Tom is forced into his own developmental stretching. He needs to experiment with doing things differently – letting go of control, challenging his conflict-avoidance, improving his listening skills and getting in touch with and sharing his emotional world, to self-soothe and remain present.
Be careful what you ask for Robert. You might say you want more emotional intimacy from Tom, but when he has shown this in the past (Tom isn’t the emotional iceberg he’s made out to be) you felt uncomfortable and resisted. Robert came from a cold, unemotional family and was rejected for being gay. He may like the idea of a more loving, emotionally available partner but past lacks make the reality uncomfortable. More Robert work! Oh the twists, turns and complexity of couples therapy… and we haven’t even talked about sex yet. Maybe that’s for another blog. These rich issues can be explored in couple therapy and boy, is this WORK.
Couple work is self-work. It is work to understand and manage the change that is a necessary and inevitable part of a relationship. We need to support our partner’s development, not be threatened by it. We need to recognise how it requires our own growth work too.
I don’t know what the future holds for Robert and Tom, but perhaps supporting each other through this challenging process of their individual change is perhaps the expression of true love.
Please note Tom and Robert are a fictitious couple, although the themes in their story come from my work with many couples over the years.
Reflective Group Leader and faculty member LDPRT