How to demand an apology
If you’ve been traveling this road to reconciliation with me, then you’ve come a long way. You started off feeling victimized, but you didn’t stay there. Instead of falling into vindictiveness, you climbed a tough path and saw the view on the other side. You got the big picture and grew able to admit that you played a part. You then developed your own statement of responsibility, made your apologies and are hard at work making amends.
You might be wondering, what about the harm that was done to me? When will my partner take responsibility for what he’s done? Can’t he and I travel this road to reconciliation together?
Ideally, your partner has already taken the hint. She noticed how well you apologized and the positive transformation you have undergone and wants a little of that for herself. You might have inspired her with your example when you couldn’t with your nagging. When you put your defenses down, she put down hers because she could and that’s all she really wanted all along.
Believe me, it usually works out this way. One person starts doing the right thing and the other one follows. One stops blaming the other and the other stops hitting the blame back like an angry and destructive game of ping-pong. It usually works this way, but not always. Sometimes your partner is only too happy to see you accepting blame, so he doesn’t have to.
Modeling a new behavior, as you’ve been doing, is a very effective method of teaching, but sometimes people need a good swift kick in the ass, followed by step-by-step directions. It’s a delicate matter to deliver a good swift kick in the ass without violating the humility and conscientiousness you have developed as a result of traveling this far down the road to reconciliation. Then you may need step-by-step instructions on how to give step-by-step instructions.
There’s a reason I asked you to look at your own guilt before asking for an apology. If you neglect that step, then you are no better than the guy who lets his partner do all the apologizing without admitting any regrets of his own. You’re looking for a free ride. There ain’t no free ride on the road to reconciliation. Everyone has got to pay the fare.
To put it another way, if you want to learn how to assert yourself and effectively deal with the people who misuse you, you can’t do it just by learning how to complain. You have to travel this path and get in touch with your own power. You find your power right there next to your guilt.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about when I say your power is found with your guilt, then you haven’t traveled this long road to reconciliation with me. You just skipped ahead. Admit it. You’re busted.
There’s another reason to examine your guilt before you demand an apology. You learn how to make an effective demand by first making an effective apology. An effective demand for an apology is a mirror of an effective apology.
- In an effective apology you admit the offense you’re guilty of. In an effective demand, you describe the offense you suffered.
- In an effective apology you acknowledge how your offense impacted the other. In an effective demand, you declare how the offense impacted you.
In an effective apology you promise how you will make amends. In an effective demand, you ask for what you want.
- In an effective apology you follow through with making amends and review your progress with your partner at regular, frequent intervals, so that you can make adjustments, as needed. In an effective demand, you remember the promises and review progress at regular, frequent intervals. You give credit due for progress and see failure as a need to make adjustments.
- In an effective apology you work towards change, eventually you change. In an effective demand, you work towards forgiveness. Eventually, you forgive.
If you’ve been traveling this road to reconciliation with me, then you’re ready to seek justice. Let’s look more closely at how.
What do you have to complain about?
Some things are not worth complaining about; but many of the things that are, are never addressed. For every person who carps about every little thing there’s another person who stuffs his indignation. Sometimes it’s the same person who carps and stuffs; complaining about a hundred little things that don’t matter while he’s silent about the things that do.
To help you decide what to complain about, I have a formula. It goes like this:
All the crap – All your crap – Your feelings + (Your values/2 x His promises) = Things to complain about.
All the crap
Let’s say your husband sits in front of the TV, watching sports, drinking beer seven nights out of the week. He’s gained weight in the process and where he once had a svelte, athletic figure, he now has a belly so big you don’t even want to look at it or be seen standing next to it. He yells at the umpires and is crabby when his team loses. He snaps your head off when you walk in front of the set. When the game goes to extra innings, he falls asleep there, sometimes spilling beer in the process. You never do anything together anymore. You can’t even talk about anything with him because all he knows is baseball. You feel lonely even though he’s always around. You would miss sex if you weren’t so disgusted by him. He snores. Then, in the morning, when he wakes up hungover, he’s good for nothing.
All the crap, in this case is: watching baseball too much, yelling and being crabby, snapping at you, being embarrassing, not sleeping with you, snoring when he does sleep with you, spilling beer, being ignorant about everything but baseball, ignoring you, not having sex, being disgusting, getting hung over, and failing to do what he was supposed to do when he was hung over. That’s a lot of crap.
All your crap
If you’ve been traveling this road to reconciliation with me, you’ve already taken a look at your own part in this problem, so you have no problem with deducting your crap from his. You believed me when I said you have more control over your own actions than you do over the actions of another. You decided that all your complaining just made the problem worse, instead of better; it caused him to withdraw even more from you and watch his sports and drink his beer out of shear spite. You admitted you walked in front of the TV just for spite, too. So, you made amends by stopping the complaining, cooking him healthy food, getting him other things to try drinking, and developed more of an interest than you ever thought you would have in the St Louis Cards. He no longer snaps at you because you no longer passive-aggressively walk in front of the TV. When he yells at umpires and gets crabby, at least you know it’s not about you. As for the loneliness, you took up a hobby, regularly have dinner with friends, and got a second TV so you could watch your own shows in another room. You got a new wardrobe, changed your hair, and started to look not too bad for your age. With all the changes you made, you’re a better person. You like yourself more and you’ve learned that filling yourself with loathing for him doesn’t do you any good. But he’s still sitting there every night, drinking beer, as if nothing had ever changed.
Even though he has done nothing to change, you are not nearly as much a victim as you used to be. You can be happy while he’s miserable. You can be attractive while he’s out of shape. You can have a full, vibrant life while he drinks himself numb, looking at shadows on a screen. But still, some offense remains. What is it? Why does his behavior matter?
You miss him, you’re worried about him, you’re ashamed of him, and you’re disgusted.
If you’ve been traveling this road to reconciliation with me, you’ve learned that no one can make you feel anything. Your feelings are your feelings. You have control over them. Therefore, you can’t complain about how you feel. You have to take your feelings out of the equation, except for one thing.
You’ve also learned that feelings show you your values.
What values are being expressed by your feelings?
You miss him because you value companionship.You’re worried about him because you value health and a long life. You don’t want to lose him. You value freedom, so you don’t want to have to take care of an invalid. You’re ashamed and disgusted because you value certain body shapes over others and certain smells and sounds over others.
Divided by two
If you knew you were marrying someone who does not value companionship, health, a long life, freedom, and certain body shapes, sounds, and smells precisely as much as you do; then you don’t have much to complain about. Here’s the thing, no one will value anything precisely as much as you do. If you take any two people and put them together, one will be more companionable, more healthy, live longer, and like certain aesthetics more than the other. That’s the case for everything. There will also always be one partner who is hornier, cheaper, more permissive, messier, more social, harder working, and religious than the other. If you didn’t know that when you got married, you should have. At any rate, it’s something you will have to get used to.
You will never find anyone who perfectly matches your values. Your values are what make you special. If you ever fill anyone who perfectly matches you, run the other way. First of all, it wouldn’t be true; and, secondly, if it were true, why would you need two of you?
If you’re asking him to be just like you, you’re asking too much; but, if you’re expecting him to be as open minded about your values as you are to his, then you know what marriage is for.
If he promised to go with you to the yarn store, but then changed his mind in favor of watching baseball, then you have something to complain about. If you painstakingly extracted a vow to cut down his drinking, but he seems to have forgotten about it, then that’s a broken promise. If he talks a good game about health and exercise but never takes steps in that direction, then you have a good reason to call him out on his failure.
What you have to complain about
You now know what is reasonable to complain about. Start with all the crap and deduct all your crap. Then write off your feelings, but not the values they indicate. Divide your values by two because partnership is all about compromise, but multiply the sum by any promises he has made. That’s what you have to complain about. Have at it. You’re a in good position to demand an apology because you’ve been fair and have given yourself the same treatment you are giving him.
If he never promised anything and if your crap exceeds his crap and if you’re expecting him to learn from your values more than you learn from his, then maybe you owe him an apology. That would be a heck of a thing for a vibrant, attractive woman to be in debt to a drunken lout who never gets off the couch, but stranger things have happened.
If that’s the case then, for your own sake, make your apology and think about setting both of you free. You, of having to change a man who doesn’t want to change. And him, so he could go on watching his baseball and drinking his beer in peace.
What Kind of Justice Do You Want?
You caught your husband on ashleymadison.com, making arrangements to meet another woman. You’re outraged. You want him to make it right. But, what is right?
There are three ways of looking at justice, otherwise known as what’s right. There’s a fair share, fair play, and just desserts.
A fair share
Distributive justice is about fairness and equality. If you’re concerned with there being a double standard: that he can run around on you, but you can’t run around on him, then you’re concerned with distributive justice. If you don’t think that you’re getting your fair share of attention, or sex, or thoughtful gifts, then distributive justice is your thing. If it bothers you that other women enjoy the company of your husband without having to do his laundry, then there you go, distributive justice. In that case, your primary interest will be in getting what you think you deserve. Making amends for you would consist of making things equitable. Reconciliation is when the books are balanced, the playing field is leveled, and everyone starts at the same place.
The problem with seeking distributive justice is that not everyone puts in the same effort or has the same needs. The shirker gets the same rewards as the hard worker. When everyone gets the same portion at dinner, the teenage boys go hungry and the old women can’t finish their meal.
In your case, if you caught your husband on Ashley Madison, you may not have any desire to be on Ashley Madison. For that matter, you may have lost your interest in him; his attention, his sex, and his gifts. And, as for the laundry, well you’re doing laundry anyway, so a few more things don’t matter. While having to dress up, put on makeup, and meet someone for a first date, like the women he’s meeting have to do, seems like an awful lot of work. If you’re asking for the same thing he or the other women are getting, be sure you want it.
This is called procedural justice. If you’re concerned that he broke his vows, told lies, did the whole thing in secret, and didn’t allow you the chance to object, approve, or solve the problem he used to rationalize his adultery; then you’re concerned with procedural justice. If he had just spoken up, you might have gone for an open marriage or an uncontested divorce. What burns your ass is that he disrespected you so much that he went behind your back. He could have just talked to you, but he didn’t.
We’re generally OK with an inequitable share when there has been a fair procedure to divide the shares. No one begrudges the victors of a sports contest the spoils of victory when the ref has been impartial. No one objects when hard workers live better than those who sleep late and leave early. You know that there are times when your partner is more needy than you and are OK with it because you’re in this relationship for the long haul and things balance out over the long run.
There are some problems with seeking procedural justice in a relationship. First of all, few couples, and fewer parents and children, if that’s the relationship in question, have a complete set of by-laws that govern their interactions. Much of what passes for procedure are vague, unspoken norms. He may not have known he could have talked to you or he might have thought you would have gone ape shit if he confessed he was attracted to other women. Furthermore, many relationships are built on a foundation of lies. In the beginning, you hide all your faults and he hides his; then, when you see them, your answer is to pretend they’re not there. If you like strong men who take care of themselves without whining and complaining, then you can’t blame him if he failed to come to you with problems.
Here’s another thing. As long as there are only two people in a relationship, it’s easy to come to an impasse. There’s no referee to adjudicate disagreements and often no way to resolve differences. Intractable conflicts go on being intractable conflicts when there’s no procedure to settle the dispute.
Finally, he can only be as honest with you as he is with himself. If he’s fooling himself, then he can’t help but try to fool you.
So, when you are in many relationships, it’s like you’re in a court of law with no judge, no lawyers, no due process, and a litigant and a defendant who may be incapable of participating in their own defense. That’s a funny place to ask for, much less expect, procedural justice.
The day you found out about his Ashley Madison account, you called him all sorts of names and made him sleep on the couch. You’ve been cold to him ever since. You made him hand over his cell phone and forbade him from touching the computer. You told his parents what he did and explained to your kids that he must not love his family anymore. When you make dinner, you only make enough for you. He’s in the doghouse now.
Your objective is not to make him hurt as much as he made you; for that would be a negative form of distributive justice, making sure everyone has a fair share of what’s bad. Your objective is to make him hurt more. You want retributive justice.
You could be even more punitive, petty and vindictive. You know where his buttons are, so you could push them. You know where his skeletons are buried, so you can dig them up. You could get on Ashley Madison, yourself, and see how he likes it. You could derive satisfaction from not saying what you want and make him sweat. You want revenge.
When you want revenge, you’ve not interested in fair play; revenge is all about imposing your will on the person you’re punishing. When you want revenge, you’re not concerned with fair shares; you’ll take greater than your share because you believe it’s owed you. Retributive justice throws out the claims of distributive and procedural justice and pins its hopes on deterrence, incapacitation, and retaliation.
It’s believed that retributive justice deters crime by increasing the cost of wrongdoing. In our case, he’ll think twice now before he cheats on you. Retributive justice is supposed to incapacitate criminals from committing any more crimes by throwing them in prison, executing. or otherwise handicapping them. In this case, how can he go on Ashley Madison if he has no access by phone or internet? Retribution feels good. It’s said to remove your humiliation by humiliating him. No one will blame you for retaliating, up to a point. Your girlfriends may even cheer you on.
But, is this the relationship you want to have? Do you want to be so bitter? Deterrence sometimes works to prevent people from doing harm, but he had to know there would be hell to pay when he got caught and he did it anyway. As for incapacitating him from doing it again by taking away his cell phone and computer: who are you kidding? Do you know how easy it is to get a cell phone and access to a computer?
Retributive justice is like scratching an itch when you been touched by poison ivy. It feels good; but it not only doesn’t solve the problem, it makes it worse.
So, you see, all the types of justice fall short to some degree when used in their unadulterated form. However, I believe it’s possible to combine elements of all three in a mindful, deliberate, and, shall we say, judicious manner that fulfills most of their virtues while avoiding their shortcomings. This is called Restorative Justice. If your main concern is to fix what’s broken, then you’re concerned with restorative justice.
If restorative justice had a sound, it would be the sound of a door opening, not a jail cell slamming. It smells like spring, not death. It looks like someone who’s done the wrong thing, now doing the right thing and holding his head up high, not cowering in a corner. It’s an open hand, not a closed fist. It’s a new contract, not a death sentence or a pronouncement of guilt. Repairs make the world a better place, not a worse one; they spread goodness around, not more heartache.
If you ask me, I think restorative justice should really be called renovative justice. You’re not restoring a relationship to what existed before the problem came along. You’re renovating it to be better than ever. Chances are, your relationship was not that good before he went on Ashley Madison. Chances are, it could be better.
Let’s look closer at restorative, or renovative, justice in the next chapter.
Restorative Justice in Your Relationship
Something called Restorative Justice is beginning to appear in the court system. It also has a place in personal relationships when there has been an injury and trust needs to be repaired.
This is how restorative justice works in the court system: A kid gets caught with a can of paint, spraying a swastika on a synagogue parking lot. The congregation is outraged. Intense fears and memories of the Holocaust get activated. The kid appears before a judge and admits he’s guilty.
The judge could sentence him to jail, but how would that help? In jail, the kid might likely fall in with a gang of skinheads who would further radicalize him, casting him as the victim, not the perpetrator of injustice. His schooling would be interrupted, his friendships disrupted, his time wasted; all at great cost to the taxpayers. The congregation might enjoy some small satisfaction that the power of the state is being used to punish the kid, but there would be no true healing, only retribution.
The judge might give the kid probation or a suspended sentence and say, don’t get in trouble again. Many, including the congregation and the kid, might think he got off easy.
Many judges, wanting to avoid these unproductive options, might send the kid to someone like me to arrange a restorative justice conference.
The first time I meet with the kid, I’d check to see if he was ready to take responsibility for his actions. I’d ask him if he could imagine how spray painting a swastika on a synagogue parking lot might affect the congregation. I’d invite him to consider how he could make amends. If he can’t do any of these or is not willing to make amends, I’d send him back to the judge.
If he was able and willing, then next I’d meet with representatives of the congregation. I’d tell them about restorative justice. I’d ask if they’re willing to participate. I’d invite them to consider how the kid could make amends. If they can’t deal with meeting him, or if there is nothing he could do to make amends, then I’d tell the judge that restorative justice is not right in this case.
But, if we have a go on both ends, then we arrange a conference with everyone. The kid speaks first, taking responsibility, acknowledging the harm he’s done. The congregation then speaks, filling in details the kid might have missed. If the apology is accepted, we move on to construct a plan to make amends. The kid and the representatives work towards an agreement on what he’ll do to make it right. Maybe he’ll scrub the parking lot, rake leaves, speak to the whole congregation, or whatever. A time limit is placed and everyone shakes hands.
If the kid follows through with his promises, then the judge dismisses the charges, the congregation forgives him, and everyone moves on. The taxpayers keep their money. The skinheads look for other recruits. The world is a better place.
You can do the same thing in your personal relationships. If you need it, someone like me can help you.
You walked in and found your wife having sex with another man. You could pull out a gun and shoot them both, but that would just get you in trouble. You could just get a divorce, but how do you get that image out of your head and move on? You could just tell her not to do it again, but that seems too mild. Your wife is remorseful. She’s ended the affair. She wants you back. She wants you to forgive her. You need to be able to trust her for any forgiveness to be real. You could have a restorative justice conference.
Restorative justice is only possible if your wife is ready to take responsibility for the affair. She may want to point to things you did that “made” her have an affair, but, for restorative justice to work, she’ll have to lay those points aside so you both can get past the incident. She should be able to say how you might have been affected by seeing her having sex with her lover in the marital bed. She should consider how she could make amends. If she can’t do any of these or is not willing to make amends, then skip the restorative justice conference and head right to the divorce attorney.
Even if she is able and willing, you need to be, too. You have to be willing to meet with your estranged wife and work with her to develop a plan for making amends. You have to be open to her repairing things and not be stuck in retaliation mode. If you can’t deal with meeting with her, or if there is nothing she could do to make amends, then you need a divorce attorney more than a restorative justice conference.
But, if it’s a go on both ends, then you have a conference. Your wife speaks first, taking responsibility, acknowledging the harm she’s done. Then you speak, filling in details your wife might have missed. If you have questions about the affair, you ask them. If she answers them fully and if the apology is accepted, you move on to construct a plan to make amends. You both work towards an agreement on what your wife will do to make it right. Maybe she’ll never talk with him again, maybe she’ll go to therapy and change factors that led to her affair, maybe she’ll paint the bedroom, burn the sheets, buy a new bed, and let you use that position you saw her in with her lover but never lets you try. Whatever floats your boat.
Coming up with ways to make amends is often the hardest part. Your wife would do well to not agree to tasks that degrade her or that are impossible or vague. She can’t promise to never talk to another man. She may promise to love you, but what does that mean? You would do well to make them hard enough to be meaningful and related to the wrongdoing. The best amends are measurable, attainable, and concrete.
A time limit is placed and everyone shakes hands. If she follows through with her promises, then you let it go. That’s your promise. If you still have mistrustful feelings, dismiss them. That’s called forgiveness. Everyone moves on. The world is a better place.
Using the Rupture Ratio to Decide What You Want
Hurting sucks. You’ll want to move on. Before you can, you’ll need to know where to go. What is it that you want, exactly?
If your wife has been sleeping with another man, you might not know how to heal. It’s not like she can undo what she did or that you can unknow it. What’s done is done. You find it hard to trust and a persistent image keeps popping into your mind whenever you go to kiss her. You try to imagine feeling the same about her as you once did, but you can’t get there from here. It seems like the roads have all been closed and a confusing array of detour signs are sending you every which way.
The rupture ratio
Pick a number from zero to ten that expresses your interest in staying in the relationship, versus the desire to leave. Zero means you’re certain you never want to see your wife again. We’re not only talking divorce, we’re talking a scorched earth annihilation of affection, here. If there are kids involved or an equally cherished Doberman, you’ll even walk out on them so you don’t have to see her again.
You’re at a one if a bitter, no nonsense divorce is what you want; angry enough that she keeps her distance, but not so contentious that you lose the kids and the Doberman. Two is your number if you’d like to be amiable; three means a trial separation.
The middle range, four to seven, represents a particular kind of hell of indecision and vacillation. You might even find the needle moving wildly throughout the day, depending on what you are thinking about at that moment. There are many factors to consider and it’s all very complicated. The fact is, from four to seven you don’t really know how you feel or what you want to do. You may be sitting on the fence, keeping your options open, waiting to see which way the wind will blow. What your partner will do next will determine which way you go.
Eight is a grim decision to stay together for the kids, the Doberman, or financial reasons because there are some benefits to the relationship, but you’re not feeling so lovey dovey about your wife herself. Nine is reserved for people committed to the relationship for religious reasons, or those who believe that a vow is a vow. You hurt like hell but are not going to let a little thing like suffering get in the way of doing the right thing. You’re willing to extend grace, even though you don’t feel like it because we all need forgiveness for something.
If you’re a ten, you’re in the kind of love where nothing she could do could change how you feel about her. You want to stay together, no matter what. Divorce is off the table. No matter what she does, there’s no need for reconciliation.
You can apply this scale and these questions to ruptures in other kinds of relationship. If you were hurt by an abusive father, you may want to consider how close you want to be with him today. Would you invite him to live with you and your family? That would be a ten. Live in the same town and see him regularly? Nine, or so. Or are you at the filial equivalent to a one and do no more than send Christmas cards, or a zero and never want to see him again? Or are you somewhere in the middle?
You might be surprised to hear that I, speaking as a certified shrinker of heads, am most suspect of the people at zero or ten. They need to have their heads examined more than the ambivalent do. While indecisiveness is torture, it’s also the normal, and even adaptive, state of affairs, especially in the beginning, when the news is fresh and you don’t know how it’ll all play out. While we would all like to feel certain, certainty is an almost psychotic level of denial.
What moves you?
What matters more than where you are on the scale is what way you are heading and the direction you are moving. To get you going somewhere, whether it be towards zero, or ten, I have two questions for you, in no particular order:
- What gets you going towards ten, in the direction of reconciliation?
- What actions move you towards zero, meaning dissolution of the relationship?
If you’re in the middle range and your numbers are vacillating wildly from day-to-day, then you have a lot more information about what gets you going in one direction or another. You’re feeling warmer towards her when she asks you about your day; colder the more time she’s on her phone. You really felt hopeful when she made that appointment with a therapist; but you were discouraged the time she stayed out late. These observations tell you what you want and what to ask for.
In a like manner, you’re own actions can move you up and down that scale. Notice how you feel after you start a fight versus after you make a confession. When you engage in retaliation, does it bring you closer together? When you snoop, does it drive you apart? The answers to these questions tell you how to heal.
Asking for what you want without asking for trouble
All too often, people who know what they want, fail to get it, not because their partner is unwilling, but because they ask for it in a manner that starts a fight. If you’ve been following along as I describe the road to reconciliation and dealt first with your own shortcomings, before correcting the faults of others, you can avoid a lot of these unnecessary fights; but not all. Manners still matter. The way you talk about things matters as much as the things you say.
If you want to ask for what you want and actually have a chance of getting it, there are certain rules to follow, regulations to adhere to, guidelines that increase your chance of success. I wrote about all of these in detail in my other book, Constructive Conflict, but let me summarize some of these regulations for you here, now.
Pay No Attention to the Alarm Going Off in Your Head
When you’re upset about something it’s like there’s this alarm going off inside your head, telling you its an emergency. Unfortunately, you can’t start a thoughtful, considerate, patient conversation in the middle of an emergency. Whatever way you do it, you have to calm down first.
Pick the right time and place
Don’t start a difficult conversation just anywhere or at any time. Do it in a thoughtful and considerate way so that all extraneous factors can contribute to success.
Start with the easy stuff
Don’t go into your conversation loaded for bear and begin with guns blazing. That’ll put him immediately on the defensive. Start with things that you already agree on first.
Don’t expect your partner to change the past. She can’t do it. All she can do is change what she does in the future.
Know what you’re asking for
Work out what you’re asking for beforehand. Know what you want or what you get may fail to satisfy.
If your partner has something to say, summarize it aloud before you think you understand it. You may be getting it wrong. Ask your partner to summarize any important points you have to make, so you can be sure he gets it.
In a similar manner, summarize any strong feelings, as well as thoughts, that your partner expresses; just to be sure you’re getting it right.
Avoid defamation, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt
These are the four fouls that never fail to start a fight.
Defamation is a false statement that disfigures the character of your partner. It occurs when you take normal complaints and turn them into pronouncements about your partner’s personality.
To spot defensiveness, listen for when you are more concerned with blame than solutions.
Stonewalling is otherwise known as the silent treatment.
You’re showing contempt when you engage in eye rolling, sneering, sarcasm, or an exasperated sigh. And then there’s name calling, mockery, scorn, and the pulling out of all the dirty laundry. Contempt is implicit in domestic violence, back stabbing, betrayal, and alienating him from his children.
Don’t be evil
If you are trying to ask for what you want, ask for what you want; don’t use the occasion to inflict punishment or retribution.
You probably can tell the split second when things start to go south in a conversation with your partner, when you say the wrong thing or she takes it the wrong way. When that happens, don’t keep hammering away at the point you were trying to make. Stop, repair the injury, and get back on track.
If you find yourself gridlocked, step back and be a dream detector. Behind every seemingly inflexible position is a dream or a value that you and your partner find essential. Acknowledging and respecting these deepest, most personal hopes and dreams is the key to getting past the impasse.
You don’t have to have everything done your way, even when you’re right.
Follow these rules and you will be more likely to get what you’re asking for, and not trouble.
Don’t Force It
My father was a car mechanic. When I was a kid, he tried to teach me all about cars, but I wasn’t very interested. After a while, he might have thought he was wasting his time, but one of his lessons stuck with me. I think about it every day.
“Don’t force it,” he often said.
He was troubled by the way I was so determined to get those bolts loosened that I would stand on the wrench, extend it with a pipe, or perform any number of crazy stunts to get it to turn. A couple times, I snapped the bolt or rounded it off. Then we had had real problems. That’s why he kept repeating, “Don’t force it.”
“How am I supposed to get the bolt off, if I don’t force it?” I asked. “It doesn’t want to go.”
He answered. “Look at it from the bolt’s point of view and work with it. What’s keeping it from turning? Is it rust? Then WD-40 would help. Is it in too tight? Heating it up, then cooling it down will loosen it. Is there a nut you have to hold at the other end? Do you even have the right sized wrench?”
I thought he was crazy, trying to understand the problem from the bolt’s point of view; but his advice prepared me for working with people.
Every day, I sit with people who won’t change. They stubbornly persist with the same habits that get them in trouble. Strategies they’ve adopted don’t work, so they try them again. I often have ideas of what could help; but my father’s words come to me from beyond the grave.
“Don’t force it.”
So, I try to understand the issue from the client’s point of view. What do they need to be able to see things clearly, to do something differently, to change? Then I work with them. I don’t force it; I collaborate.
You might have a loved one who you believe needs to change: a husband who leaves the toilet seat up; a wife who won’t go down; an old mother who says whatever she thinks; a young adult son into drugs; anyone with a gambling problem using your money; anyone whom, when you tell them something they don’t want to hear, you don’t know what they’re going to do. These are all bolts you’re trying to turn.
Don’t force it.
When you’re using violence, you’re forcing it, of course. But, when you bring up serious things at a bad time, you’re also forcing it. When you complain about her when she complains about you, you’re forcing it. When you find yourself in an argument and, instead of patching things up, you hammer away at whatever point you’re trying to make, you’re forcing it. When you don’t let your partner come up with his own solutions, you’re forcing it. When you lecture, when you accuse, when you shame, you’re forcing it.
Don’t force it.
How can you tell when you’re forcing it?
When there’s resistance.
The more you try to force the issue, the more resistance you’re going to get. Are you getting an argument? Is he defensive? Does she agree with you, but go on doing what she wants? Does he have a million excuses? Does it seem like you are working harder at change than she is? Then you’re forcing it.
Don’t force it.
What should you be doing instead?
Take a look at the problem from your loved one’s point of view. Why is leaving the toilet seat up important to him; why is not going down on you important to her? Does your old mother feel she’s not taken seriously? Does your young adult son believe he can do life on his own? What’s the payout the gambler is looking for? What is the fear the angry guy is trying to avoid? Nobody does anything for no reason; what is their reason and is there another way to do what they want to do?
Don’t force it; understand it. Your problem is their solution. Understand their problem before you offer another solution.
Then, work with you partner. Don’t lecture; have a conversation. Put your heads together, don’t knock them together. Don’t confront; collaborate. Don’t force it; just, like, relax man, and chill out.
Two Ways to Deliver a Message and Two Ways of Doing It Badly
If you have something to say to someone, there are two ways to deliver the message. You can go to the front door or the back door.
The front door and the back door
When you you go to the front door, you’re saying what you need to say clearly and directly. There’s no mistaking what you want. You’re being honest, sometimes brutally honest, often presumptuous. This can be risky business if the person you are delivering the message to rejects you or takes offense. For that reason, many people prefer the back door.
When you go through the back door, you’re subtle. You don’t come right out and say what you want, you make allusions to it, hoping that they’ll get the hint. You make a joke of it or pretend that it’s no big deal.
Here’s some examples:
Front Door: “When you blow your nose at the dinner table, it makes me want to gag. Could you please go to the other room when you need to do that?”
Back Door: “Did you hear a moose?”
There is no question about what the person in the front door example is asking for. He’s being up front about what he wants. The nose blower cannot say that he didn’t know how he felt. The nose blower is put on the spot. A line is drawn in the sand. There is an obvious confrontation. The front door approach can be effective; but, depending on the sensitivities of the nose blower, it could cost you the relationship.
In the back door example, it’s easy for the nose blower to miss the point or not even know that the moose refers to him. He may understand his nose blowing is loud, but may not know it’s disgusting. He may not know what to do and may go on making moose calls, thinking it’s amusing. The nose blower might be embarrassed if he realizes he’s being compared to a moose, but he’s unlikely to feel put upon. He can easily save face. The back door approach is a light touch. It’s easy to back down if it results in a confrontation, but it’s unlikely to be effective.
You probably have an approach that you favor. If you’re a front door kind of guy, you often get results, but people may perceive you as pushy, a bully, a whiner, a type A personality, a bitch. The results may not be worth the costs you accrue.
The back door person is a lot more fun to be with. Some will say you’re easy going, but others will say you’re passive-aggressive, the sneaky kind who never says how he feels. Therefore, you not only get fewer results, you may also earn their contempt.
Maybe you’re the kind who tries the back door a few times. If it works, great. When it doesn’t, you have a choice. You either try another back door approach, go in the front, or give up the whole project. What you don’t get to do is pout that no one is listening. You haven’t really tried to communicate in a clear fashion, so you can’t blame people if they don’t know what you’re trying to say.
It’s more difficult to try the front door first and change approaches if it doesn’t go well. Once you go to the front door, you’re committed.
I think there are times that call for either approach. It pays to be flexible, to be able to go through either door as the situation warrants; the front door for highly important matters, the back door for less essential messages. However, few people are flexible. They tend to favor one approach over another because they’ve had more practice with it and make blunders when they try the other.
Two ways to deliver a message badly
Here’s a blunder that back door people make when they try to go through the front door. Rather than ringing the bell and waiting for someone to open the door, they conduct a home invasion.
Ringing the Bell: “Excuse me,” you say, taking the nose blower aside. “Can I talk to you about something that’s bothering me?” Then, after getting permission, “When you blow your nose at the dinner table, it makes me want to gag. Could you please go to the other room when you need to do that?”
Home Invasion: “That’s disgusting!” you interject. “Go blow your nose somewhere else!” Everyone at the dinner table looks up in shock. The nose blower turns red. So do you, when you realize what you’ve done. You have succeeded in being clear and direct; but you embarrassed the nose blower, and yourself in the process.
You see the difference between ringing the bell and conducting a home invasion? When you ring the bell, you wait for permission first. When you conduct a home invasion, you just barge right in. Now that you see the difference, maybe you’ll find it easier to go in the front door as long as you ring the bell first.
Similarly, front door people have trouble trying the back door. They’re concerned they won’t be taken seriously, that they won’t be heard. There are two ways of delivering a message at the back door. You can leave a message on the step and run away or you can hand it over and wait to get a receipt.
This is the difference:
Leaving a message on the step and running away: “Was that a moose?”
Handing over a message and getting a receipt: “OK, who let in the moose? Can you please keep the moose away from the table?”
You see the difference between leaving a message on the step and running away and handing it over and getting a receipt? When you leave a message on the step and run away, you’re leaving your delivery entirely up to chance. When you hand over the message and wait for a receipt, you’re ensuring the message is delivered, albeit in a humorous, understated kind of way.
Front door or back door, it doesn’t matter which, so long as the message gets delivered safely and they let you come to the house again.
The Broken Window Theory of Personal Relationships
Go to any down-in-the-heels, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken inner city and you are certain to find one thing. Lots and lots of broken windows. Most of these broken windows will be in abandoned buildings, where no one appears to care and no one seems to be affected. Windows don’t break on their own, someone picked up a rock and winged it. It’s fun. If you’ve never done it, try it. Try it on your own window. Please don’t do it on an abandoned building. Even though it may appear that no one is affected, people are.
The presence of broken windows, besides just looking bad and being a safety hazard with all that shattered glass around, signals that no one cares about the neighborhood. They advertise that minor laws can be broken with impunity. Someone else’s property can be damaged and no one will stop you, they say. Broken windows proclaim you can do what you want, whatever feels good, because the consequences don’t matter. There are no consequences. There’s no reason to be restrained, no cause for self-discipline, no rationale for the delay of gratification. Pick up whatever rock you want and chuck it. It’s fun.
The presence of broken windows can have a profound impact on the psychological health and social functioning of everyone in the area, but you would never know that if you looked at the priorities of many police departments in many cities. They’re more interested in going after the big crimes: murder, grand larceny, kidnapping, rape; not in hassling kids chucking stones.
However, it is those very kids chucking stones who grow up to be murderers, thieves, kidnappers, and rapists when no one intervenes when they commit the petty crimes. It is for that reason that many of the smartest police departments have chosen to focus on quality-of-life issues, like vandalism, littering, fare-dodging, and loud music, as well as major crimes. There is some evidence to believe that it makes a big difference.
Some people have credited the broken window theory of community policing for the dramatic turn-around that occurred in crime statistics over the past few years. Some others have blamed it for the poor relations that police departments have with the people they serve, people who are sick of being hassled and criminalized over trivial stuff.
The broken window theory has fallen into some disrepute as it’s used to justify stop and frisk police tactics, vigilantism, and as a cover for the blatant harvesting of fines. Then there are the critics who question the methodology of the studies that draw a link between broken window policing and the drop in crime. Nonetheless, I believe we can learn from the broken window theory, both in its application and misapplication, even if we are only people in personal relationships, and not people charged with the law and order of great cities.
If you were to apply the broken window theory to your personal relationships, you would pay attention to the small annoyances before they get a chance to fester and corrode. If you let the little things go and then go all ape shit over the big things, then you can learn from the broken window theory. Learn to intervene, earlier, before you lose it. Talk to your partner about what bothers you. Show respect, admiration, and express gratitude. Practice simple civility.
However, if you go after the small annoyances with the same assertiveness that you address the larger issues, then you’re doing it wrong. In the same way that a police officer must deal with a murderer differently than a vandal, you should complain about infidelity differently than, say, the toilet seat. One requires decisive action. The other, nuance, discretion, forgiveness, and mercy. If the police are perceived as coming down too hard on the vandal, or you are perceived as complaining too much, you both alienate the very people you are trying to enlist.
There is a second misapplication of the broken window theory to look out for. It is not the kid chucking rocks through windows that starts a neighborhood on its decline. He is only creating the symbol of that decline. The decline started when the building became abandoned in the first place, when the business relocated, when the banks redlined loans, when realtors busted blocks, when landlords stopped making repairs. Is anyone intervening then? Does anyone stop and frisk people in business suits? If not, then why go all fascist when a kid picks up a stone? Why does the kid get probation when the board of directors gets a raise?
Similarly, in your personal relationships, that thing you are so annoyed about is seldom the beginning of the annoying chain of events. If you are angry that he doesn’t put the toilet seat down for you, do you put it up for him? You do stuff, too. If you are wondering if there are things you do that are part of the problem, there are. If you’re still wondering what they are, ask your partner. He or she will know better than you.
The broken window theory teaches us that small things matter, that there are consequences to our actions; both when we break a window and when we make a complaint.
Sharpening the Point Till You Miss It
There are two way of asking for what you want; you can be broad, or you can be precise. It’s possible to be too broad or too precise.
Let’s say you’ve been together for years and you have become vaguely dissatisfied. Nothing really bad has happened between you; but nothing exciting has happened, either. One year goes by after another and it’s the same thing. The fire’s gone out, the passion is quenched. You’re feeling taken for granted. You could complain; but what could you say? He may not know what you’re talking about. He may not know what to do about it. Your dissatisfaction is pretty vague.
So, you sharpen your point and be specific. You use the rupture ratio I wrote about and identify what could make you feel warmer towards your partner and what makes you go cold. You come up with some specific things and complain about them directly. “You never bring me flowers, anymore… You never talk about how you feel… You never thank me for all the things I do for you…” And so on.
That’s getting pretty specific. It gives him something to work on, some concrete examples; and it gives you a solid standard so that you can measure progress or stagnation. If you have never operationalized your dissatisfaction in this way, you should do so, if only so you can clarify what it is you want. But, don’t confuse bringing flowers, talking about his feelings, and expressing gratitude with what you want. They are the symbols of what you want, not the actual thing.
Chances are, if he dutifully starts bringing you flowers, talks about his feelings, and thanks you for everything; you’ll be very happy that he listened to you. You’ll enjoy the flowers, learn a lot about his feelings, and know that he notices all the little favors you do for him. But there will be something missing. For one thing; you had to ask for those flowers, those feelings, and that gratitude. It’s not the same thing as when they come unexpected. But, furthermore: all the things you ask for don’t quite cover the dissatisfaction you feel. They are examples of your dissatisfaction, not the totality of it.
The phenomena of wanting
To better understand the phenomena of wanting, let’s say you’re hungry. Before you can actually eat, you have to take this hunger and be more precise. What are you hungry for? When you have an image of just the thing that would satisfy your hunger, you know what to do. You go to your kitchen and make it. You must first transform a vague hunger into a concrete hunger for something in particular. This is why taking your broad complaint of dissatisfaction and turning it into a specific complaint of no flowers, no talking, and no gratitude is helpful.
But, let’s say you’re hungry and you start to imagine how beef bourguignon would be great right now. That’s pretty specific. The specificity directs you to find your recipe and assemble the necessary ingredients. If you don’t have any burgundy in your wine rack and you can be flexible, you settle for beef stew. But, to the extent that you crave beef bourguignon, nothing else will do.
When you cling to a specific solution to your problem, have a craving, in other words, you start to lose touch with reality. As you form a picture of yourself eating beef bourguignon, the rich browns, the pungent smells, the complex tastes become almost real to you. Your mouth waters. As you imagine yourself eating it, you’re an omnipotent, satiated hedonist. You leap over obstacles and evade frustration, rather than settling for anything else. You replace uncertainty with certainty. You’re triumphant. This triumph is a form of magic. The original hunger is still there, there is only an illusion of success over it. You enact a childish view of what it means to be satisfied. You seem to prevail over your need for food.
The problem is, the more you crave beef bourguignon, the less you’ll be satisfied with anything else. You may not even enjoy the bourguignon, if you get it, because the actual dish can never compete with your fantasy of it, except for the fact that you can actually eat it.
Craving begins as a flight from wanting, but it makes the wanting all the more problematic. Craving steals your hunger and pre-empts it with a ready-made, uncompromisable solution. When the solution to hunger is a craving for something specific, it becomes more of a problem than hunger, itself.
The same thing happens if you cling to the idea that, if only he will bring you flowers, you’ll feel excited again. The flowers of your imagination become greater than any actual flowers can match.
The point is, if you’re hungry, go ahead and imagine what will be good to eat. Look in your cupboards and see what you can prepare. If you don’t create a picture of what will satisfy your hunger, you could starve to death; but don’t get too attached to that picture, or you will waste away if you can’t get exactly what you want. In the same way, make concrete what you want from your relationship, but don’t get too attached to the forms of those wants. You can’t always get what you want. But, if you try sometimes; well, you might find, you get what you need.
If you hang around a therapist’s office long enough, or around anyone who’s seen a therapist, they’re going to tell you that you can’t change another person; you can only change yourself.
Basically, it’s true; but, like many adages, there’s more to it than that. It turns out, there’s a lot you can do to change a person. If there wasn’t, then there would be no therapists. But, once you reach a certain point, there’s nothing more you can do and the other person has to take over.
Cultivating change is a lot like cultivating a garden. With a garden, you prepare the soil, plant the seed, water, weed, and fertilize the plants; but the growing is up to nature. There’s a lot you can do to help nature do its thing. If you ignore the needs of nature, fail to prepare the soil, never plant the seed, and forget all about watering, weeding, and fertilizing, then you can’t blame nature for your bad crop of carrots.
Preparing the seedbed
In the first part of this book, I stressed the point that, if you’re feeling victimized, you’ve got to see the part that you played in the problem and take steps to change yourself. Doing this changes you, of course; but it also changes your partner and opens up your relationship. It’s analogous to plowing the garden and preparing the seedbed. If you’re feeling like the victim, it might seem that looking at the part you played turns everything upside down. Taking some blame may feel like a harrowing experience; but it gets your relationship ready for when you plant the seed.
Planting the seed
Planting the seed is an apt metaphor for when you inform your partner of the problem, ask for an apology, and demand change. If you never plant your carrot seed, you’re never going to get carrots; except maybe some wild carrots. If you never ask for what you want, the only way you’ll ever get it is accidentally.
Gardeners know that to effectively seed a garden, you’ve got to do it at the right time of year, at the right depth and the right spacing. Powerful agents of change know that asking for change is also a delicate matter of tact and timing. People who just complain a lot without paying attention to how they do it are like gardeners who just scatter their seeds across the ground. It’s a waste of seed and a waste of complaints.
Good gardeners know that some plants can be started by seed in the garden, others must be started indoors. Change is like that, too. Some changes need closer attention than others.
Once you’ve made your complaint, there’s still a lot you can do to be sure that the change you desire takes root and grows up big and strong. A good gardener walks through his garden frequently to look at what he planted and see how its growing. Does it need some weeding, some watering, or some fertilizer? Effective agents of change review progress often and make adjustments as needed.
If you complain effectively, something which may be unexpected may happen. He may begin doing the very thing you asked him to. Change is sprouting. When that occurs, it’s a good idea to notice. Don’t be one of those people who ask for an apology and convince your partner to change, but forget to follow up. Don’t speak up only when there’s a problem and fail to acknowledge when your partner is attempting a solution.
You might be skeptical that she’s making a permanent change. You might expect that, as soon as the heat’s off, she’ll go back to doing it again. You may be adverse to heaping on the praise for something he should have been doing all along; but, when you’re silent when the very thing you asked for occurs, you’re neglecting the most powerful means you have available: your affirmation. Praise and gratitude are like water and fertilizer.
If you frequently review the change you wanted, you might notice it’s not growing well at all. You asked him to stop gambling, but you’re still finding lottery tickets in the garbage. When a gardener finds his plants aren’t growing well, she investigates why that is. She doesn’t just blame nature for not cooperating, she looks to see what he could do to help it. Maybe the plant is competing with weeds. It could be that bugs abound. She could have planted the seeds poorly, so they’re crowding each other, and so on.
Effective agents of change know that if they make too many complaints, the person doesn’t know what to work on. When change fails to grow, they look to see if they can do some thinning. They concentrate their efforts on the things that matter the most and reserve the rest for later. If you peppered your partner with complaints about his gambling, his good-for-nothing friends, his intrusive family, the weight he’s gaining, and the times he spends money like there’s no tomorrow and weeks go by with him doing nothing about any of it, then you’ve asked him to do too much. Work with him to choose a single item to change and he will gather the momentum to eventually do something about the rest.
Just as gardeners know that plants need help to ward off pests and compete with weeds, effective agents of change know that sometimes people need help to achieve their goals. If your partner is still playing the lottery, then maybe he can’t stop gambling by his will alone. He needs some help, maybe more help than you can give.
Paying attention is so effective that, when you work out what you’re going to ask for, you might want to ask for the things your partner can easily do right away, just so you can more easily notice.
Let’s say your wife has had two DWIs. You have told her that if it happens again, you’re done. You’re leaving and she can have six DWI’s, as far as you’re concerned; you’re not going to stick around and watch it happen. She could swear to you that she’ll never do it again; but, you know, even when it happens a lot, it still doesn’t happen very often. Five years could go by and you won’t know if she’ll get another DWI again.
The things you ask her to do should be things she can do right away, or even every day, and be related to the offense. Rather than ask her to not have another DWI, ask her to give up drinking, for instance; or, at least limit it to when she’s already home. Ask her to find other things to do when she needs to cut loose. Suggest she see other friends who don’t encourage her to tie one on. If she makes these changes, which can be enacted immediately and noticed daily, avoiding DWIs will take care of itself.
If you’ve never grown carrots in your garden, then you’ve never know the wonder and delight of pulling a carrot from the ground and marveling at what you and nature accomplished together. When you serve your carrots to your family and acknowledge you grew them yourself, you’re tapping into a healthy source of satisfaction and pride. Eating a carrot you’ve grown tastes better than any you could buy in the store. If you have a garden and don’t partake in any of these pleasures, and just pull and eat your carrots mindlessly, then you’re missing out on the best part of the gardening experience. You’re likely to give up gardening and go back to buying your produce at the supermarket. So, take some satisfaction in a job well done.
In the same way, it’s important to commemorate change when it happens. Make a big deal out of it. Applaud what you accomplished together. Document the difference. Go out to dinner, take a vacation, or renew your vows in celebration of the change. Go to the hardware store, buy a hatchet, and take it out in the backyard and bury it. Create or designate some kind of a symbol of the achievement: a work of art or a piece of furniture, some jewelry, a tree you plant in the backyard. Have something you can point to as a symbol of reconciliation, an emblem of the renewal of love.
What if nothing changes?
If you effectively ask for your loved one to right a wrong he committed, you might find that he’s interested in what you have to say and will do everything he can to please you and become a better person in the process. He just might surprise you and change. If that happens, it’ll be an easy matter to forgive once you can trust that it won’t happen again. You might still have your moments of terror if something triggers you into believing the problem’s back, but you’ll be able to put those fears to rest after you alert him of the warning signs and he takes you seriously. The best road to reconciliation is through authentic change. Anything less than authentic change is a bad road, full of detours, that might not go where you’re wanting to go.
There are many cases, though, where you ask for what you need and you never seem to get what you’re looking for. What could possibly have gone wrong? What more do you have to do?
The problem could be you, the problem could be him, or the problem could be the problem.
The problem could be you
You might have committed an error in the way you went about asking for an apology and cultivated change. Ask yourself the following questions to see if your methodology is wrong. See if you could be getting in your own way.
- Do I expect him to change when I won’t?
- Did I accurately describe the harm he’s doing?
- Am I looking for a kind of justice that does not satisfy me?
- Do I know what I want?
- Have I asked for what I want or have I asked for trouble?
- Do I overlook the small violations that lead to the big ones? If I do, do I pounce on the small violations like I pounce on the big ones?
- Am I so particular about what I want that I can’t recognize a positive change that looks different from what I expect?
- Have I failed to give him credit when he did what I asked?
If you can say yes to any of those questions, or you’re not sure of the answers, follow the links, go back over the section that addresses it and try it again.
The problem is your partner
Once upon a time a girl was walking along a stoney path to her grandmother’s house. She heard a rustle and, looking down, saw a snake. The snake spoke to her.
“I’m about to die,” he said. “It’s cold and I’m freezing. There’s no food here, and I’m starving. Please put me under your coat and take me with you.”
“No,” the girl replied. “You’re a rattlesnake. If I pick you up, you’ll bite me and I’ll die.”
“I wouldn’t do that if you helped me,” the snake said.
The girl thought it over. “I believe you,” she said. “I’ll save you. I’m a kind person.”
She put the snake tenderly under her coat and went on to her grandmother’s house.
A minute later, she felt a sharp pain. The snake bit her!
“How could you do this?” she cried. “You promised you wouldn’t bite me! I trusted you!”
“You knew what I was when you picked me up,” the snake hissed as he slithered away.
If it’s not you, then you have to ask yourself. Is it him? Could my loved one be a snake? If your partner won’t change, true reconciliation is impossible. The best you can do is arrive at personal peace
Those who can’t change
There’s a second category of people who are the problem. Dead people. You might have been hurt by someone who up and died before you could reconcile with them. They’re incapable of hurting you anymore, except by what your memory of them does to you. You can’t expect them to change, so you’ll have to change the way you think about them.
You might have a similar problem with people who have hurt you in the past who are still alive, but you never see them anymore. Just like the dead people, they can’t hurt you, except by what your memory of them does to you. You can’t ask them to change, either. They would have no reason to please you.
You can’t complain to dead people or people you don’t see and expect them to change. True reconciliation is impossible with them; but I think you can arrive at a sense of personal peace. I’ll write more about this later.
The problem is the problem
When a person is set in their ways, or is addicted, it can be hard for them to change. The problem is just too big and it’s affected their brain. To understand what you’re up against, remember the last time you took a walk in the woods.
You probably walked on a path when you walked in the woods. It’s easier that way. Others have gone before and cleared a way for you. It takes you somewhere. It might even be marked.
Consider what makes a path. It starts off with small animals gathering nuts, seeking mates, escaping danger. They begin to wear out a trail that the larger animals take advantage of because it makes their travel easier. The deer and the bear begin to travel the same way that the squirrels and raccoons went. Then the humans take the same path because they’re chasing the deer or running away from the bear and they’d rather not have briars lashing their faces.
There’s one final step. Plants will not grow on an established path. All those briars, they’ll grow somewhere else where they won’t be disturbed. The more a path is established, the more the rest of the forest will be dense and impenetrable.
The brain is like the woods. When it thinks and acts, it takes a path. When it takes a path often enough, the path becomes well marked and easy to follow. It becomes automatic. You don’t even have to think about it. Alternate thoughts and actions become more and more difficult to access.
If you look at anyone with a well-established addiction, their brain is like a superhighway straight to the drug. Are you having a good day? Let’s celebrate and get high. Are you angry, sad, frustrated? Getting high is the cure. Did your doctor just tell you your liver’s shot? Did your probation officer threaten to put you in jail? Your wife just left? Your daughter won’t talk with you? Get high, get high, get high. The more the addict goes to the drug, the clearer and easier the path becomes.
At some point, the addict decides that the path she made does not take her where she wants to go. Then she has to make like Lewis and Clark and blaze a new trail. For her to change she has to step off the easy trail, right into where all the briars are, and hack a new way. It’s bushwhacking: hard work, easy to get lost, and tempting to return to the old trail.
The same is true with anybody with any habit, good or bad. When you finish dinner and can’t rest until you’ve washed the dishes, that’s the path you have established. When your husband takes it easy and doesn’t help you, that’s his path. Changing that pattern may take the perseverance of Stanley and Livingstone, for both of you.
The thing is, though: the brain is like the woods. When you jump up to do the dishes, you take a path. When you let him do the dishes, or do anything other than the usual way, a new path becomes established. In time, lots of time, the old path becomes overgrown and more difficult to find.
To sum things up, if you find that nothing changes, the problem could be you, the problem could be him, or the problem could be the problem. Some problems, by their very nature, are resistant to change.
In our next section, we’ll deal with the tougher cases, the situations when change and reconciliation may be impossible.