Why Nothing Ever Changes in Your Relationship (and how to shift things)
“Nothing ever changes. I can’t talk to him anymore!” Does this sound familiar?
My client, Patti, feels the same way. “I can’t be around him anymore. I avoid interacting with him so we don’t have to deal with each other or the problems,” she says, talking about her fifteen-year marriage.
She believes that throughout their marriage, she and her husband keep coming up against the same issues over and over again - and nothing ever changes. Over time, resentment has built up, and she doesn’t know if she has anything left in her to keep the relationship together. She feels disconnected from her husband and is on the verge of leaving.
Why Change is Hard
Our knowledge and beliefs about ourselves and how relationships work have been learned from our parents, caregivers, and social and cultural messages. Without us knowing it, these “realities” are poured like concrete into the molds that support our stories. It can be very difficult to see why we behave/believe certain realities about relationships, but it’s even harder to take that perspective with a partner.
No wonder that marriages, or any intimate relationship, can be challenging to navigate. A healthy relationship requires intimacy and a level of vulnerability and communication that most of us are not familiar with. When “nothing ever changes,” it can feel permanent and absolute; there is no other perspective. Patti has reached this impasse and believes the only way for things to change now is for her to leave.
Though Patti says she needs change in her relationship, her behaviors aren’t creating any positive effects. Rather, they are bringing more of the same negativity to the relationship: disconnection, avoidance, and defensiveness. These are all things that move us away from each other, rather than closer together.
The thought of getting closer may make you twinge. Closer? Patti doesn’t want to move closer. She is hurt, lonely, and can’t imagine moving towards the possibility of feeling more of this. It’s too risky. What if her husband ignores her? Or worse - he could hear her but do nothing in response, leaving her more wounded than before. She would end up in the same place she started, but even more hurt.
You Can’t Go Back to the Past
Couples tell me they want to get back what they once had. Sorry, Marty, it doesn’t work like that - you can’t go back to the past. You can only be here now and work towards a different future. Still, you can use the past to inform the present and create a plan of action for the future. The problems only begin if you get stuck in the rearview mirror.
If your partner is stuck in the past, listen to them. If they keep bringing it up, it likely means that they are not feeling acknowledged. Listen to their feelings, validate them, and show empathy. It is about making the connection (and creating intimacy).
Being vulnerable is hard at first; but without it, there is no intimacy. Take away the intimacy, and you are left with maybe a friendship, your roles as parents, or a joint interest. These things are good to have, but once the romantic love of earlier times wears away, what kind of love has the two of you created? Have you made your marriage a priority and put the same energy into it as you have into your career, children, hobbies, or other interests? I find that this is not often the case. Rather, these things have created distance between them, and the couple was never shown how to implement ways to come back together.
Are You Willing to Change Your Approach?
If the atmosphere of your relationship is not going well, you likely have been looking at your partner in an unhealthy way. You are probably thinking about all the things that frustrate you, that aren’t working, and you are feeling hopeless about how to fix it. You feel like nothing ever changes in your relationship, and you desperately want and need something to give.
Patti is right about her relationship. Nothing will change, at least on his part, unless he wants to change. She can’t make him change, but she can change her part in their dynamic. The bigger question at stake here is whether she wants to change.
Sure, she can leave her husband; that will create a whole lot of change! As her coach, it’s not for me to judge or tell her what the best solution is for her relationship. I do, however, believe it’s my job to help her sort out what she really wants. I do this by asking questions to expand her possibilities.
Are you willing to change your approach to the relationship?
Breaking the Cycle
Patti may not be willing to do something different and be done with her relationship. After all, she believes she has tried - and I believe her! But what about after those attempts? I wonder what she’s done in response to her husband’s actions (or inactions). Does she crumble and go back to her limiting beliefs about her husband and the breakdown of her marriage?
This is the part we often miss when we get swept up in the emotional current in our relationships. We easily get stuck in the old dynamic and patterns and end doing more of the same. In Patti’s case, she retreats back to her thoughts: “Nothing ever changes. I can’t talk to him anymore. I don’t want to deal with the same issues again and again.” And so the cycle continues until they decide to separate or the pattern is broken.
One way to create change in this back-and-forth pattern is by asking questions. The question, “are you willing to change your own approach” can be hard to answer, and more questions may help you see the bigger picture (and more possibility).
Questions to Ask When “Nothing Ever Changes”
When you feel stuck in “more of the same” in your relationship, ask yourself some of the following questions. They will help you see your relationship from a different point of view, and give you tools to work within creating the change you desire.
When I feel hurt, what do I do? What does my partner do next? Then what do I do? Then what happens? Identify the cycle. Without taking responsibility for the whole thing, look for your part. It’s the only part that you have control over! When you shift your engagement, the entire pattern will change. Read Decline the Invitation: How to Step Out of Relationship Conflicts for more ideas.
How can I voice my needs more clearly? Are you being upfront about what you need, or are you being vague, critical, or passive? When you need rest, there is a difference between saying “I am tired and need a break,” and “I need to rest for an hour. Can you please give the kids a bath and get them to bed on your own?” When you want time to connect, saying, “do you want to go for a hike with me?” is less effective than, “I really want to spend time together and would like to go on a hike with you. Would you hike with me this Saturday?”
Do we, or I, need more support or resources? Feeling alone is a yucky feeling and it can be hard to reach out. When you know that you have resources to help, it makes moving through the challenges less overwhelming. Our emotional experience can fold us into ingrained patterns, and you might need another perspective to see things through.
A relationship is a big, living, feeling thing - and to put the onus on the other person to change it takes power away from you. Without pointing fingers, can you change your perspective on your part? Are you willing to change your approach and see what happens? For once you disrupt an ingrained pattern, you set forth on a new path for change.