This week on the Get Your Marriage On! podcast , we talked with Lair Torrent about his book the Practice of Love. Torrent is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who has been working with couples for years. In his experience, couples therapy goes very well in session. Couples generally feel hopeful about making changes; however, too often the situation returns quickly to the status quo, with seemingly no progress.
Why is it so hard to make changes in a relationship? If both spouses want something better, what keeps stopping them?
In this post, I want to dive into why it is so hard to make positive changes permanent, and what we can do to purposefully change bad habits.
General Systems Theory
Readers, I am officially done with my first semester of my Master’s program! I have already learned so much about marriage and family systems. Listening to this week’s podcast, I felt the desire to share some of what I’ve been learning with all of you. So, please excuse me as I nerd out in this section.
In the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) field, there are a lot of different theories on how relationships are formed and how they develop. However, there is a baseline understanding of systems that is the foundation of all MFT theories. This is called General Systems Theory (GST). Although some scholars use different words, the underlying concepts are the same.
The first principle of GST is homeostasis, or the idea that there is a comfortable pattern that each family system falls into. A family system can be you and your spouse; it can also include each child and your relationship with them. Your family of origin will also have a homeostasis that will affect what you bring to the table in your marriage. Our family systems are also influenced by the cultural system we grew up in and basically everything around us.
All these factors combine in our family to create a balance. That balance is the homeostasis between family members. It governs the ways we interact with each other. However, just because there is a balance doesn’t mean everyone is happy with the situation. Every family and marriage has ways they can improve so that each member can find more happiness, acceptance, and love within the system.
These improvements are hard to make because they throw off the homeostasis. The balance of the system is threatened by any change. Therefore, when one member starts to do something different, the whole system can start to feel strained. The quickest way back to comfort is to return to the original homeostasis. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are most comfortable in that balance.
This is why it is so hard to make changes permanent. Your therapist or coach can teach you all the best tricks and tips for marriage; but if you can’t push through the discomfort caused by change you will find yourself back in homeostasis.
Okay, nerd time over. To make a long story short, every marriage system has a comfortable state. Even if you aren’t completely happy with the way things are; it is a knee-jerk reaction to return to familiar patterns when things get hard.
This can be so frustrating! Spouses can practice active listening, “I statements”, love languages and other tools, yet still find themselves reverting back to bad habits when tension rises. Why do we continue to act poorly, even when we know better?
Different Parts of Us
Life is not easy. I’m willing to bet that each of us has been hurt in some way. These hurts created wounded parts of us that long for love, affection, respect or whatever they were denied. These wounded parts of us can emerge in our relationships, making us feel vulnerable to more attacks. Therefore, we develop protector parts of us that are there to stand in for our wounded sides. Whether we realize it or not, these protector parts will come up when we feel threatened.
These protector parts are not very good at understanding or changing. They are there to shield our vulnerable parts and get us back to a comfortable place as soon as possible. By learning to recognize, understand, and govern the different parts of ourselves, we can enact real change and alter the homeostasis of our marriages.
None of us get through this life unscathed. Our inner selves get damaged as we grow up. Lair offered four questions that can help us determine how our wounded selves are feeling in a relationship in a given moment. They are…
Am I loved?
Am I safe?
Am I enough?
Do I matter?
When we combine these four elements together (this person makes me feel loved, safe, enough, and like I matter) we call this unconditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard is the glue that holds a couple together. It is not a static concept, but something that we need to be continuously working on.
If we feel like the answer to any of the questions is a no, or if we are unsure, our wounded selves feel vulnerable to pain. In these moments, our protector selves come out to do their job. Note: remember that the answers to these questions are subjective to all of your experience. If you do not feel loved or safe in a situation, it could have little to do with what your spouse is doing and a lot to do with things that trigger your past hurts. Later on, we will discuss the importance of getting to know yourself and being aware of what is happening inside of your mind.
It is important to understand that your protector parts are not bad. They are there to help keep you safe. There may have even been times in your life where you needed to rely on those parts of yourself to survive the situation you were in.
However, in a safe and loving marriage, those protector parts can discourage or completely block the ability to make positive changes. When your wounded self feels threatened (by feeling unloved, unsafe, or not enough) these protector selves will use all the old tricks to get out of the situation. This can look like yelling, arguing, silent treatment, people pleasing, or any number of bad habits. Therapeutic intervention can’t help you become more intimate with your spouse if you are not working with the intimate parts of yourself.
So How do We Change?
To be able to enact the changes we are trying to make, we need to first be aware of the different parts of us. We need to get to know ourselves. What are the different parts of you? Lair suggested naming your parts (his protector is named Mitch). By giving them a name, you can conceptualize that while these parts are all at work inside of you, they do not have to control you. They are not You.
How do we get to know these parts and learn to master them? It starts with mindfulness.
We’ve talked about mindfulness a lot on this blog. But it’s worth mentioning again, because it’s just that impactful. Mindfulness is the best way to stop our knee-jerk, protector reactions. Mindfulness can create a space, even when we feel threatened, for us to choose our next move. Being mindful can also help us get in touch with the different parts of ourselves. We can learn what things set us off, and what our protectors do to keep us safe.
We can also learn to choose in that space to say no to our protector. We can be conscious of the fact that we are in a safe place. We can let our wounded selves come out and start to heal. This is being vulnerable, and the first step in becoming truly intimate with your spouse.
For someone just starting to practice mindfulness, start by taking deep and slow breaths into your belly. Work through each of your 5 senses, seeking to be aware of everything you can see, touch, hear, smell, and taste. This will help your mind and body connect. For more on mindfulness, you can learn more here or here .
Once you are aware of your different parts, you can practice purposefully choosing to implement good habits even in tense moments. You can thank your protectors for the work they do for you, but choose instead to create a new homeostasis. Here are a few more tips on how to enact positive and permanent change in your marriage.
Gratitude: Feeling gratitude is a great way to change the narrative of your marriage. To genuinely feel grateful, you can’t just run through a laundry list of things your spouse does. Take the time to really ponder your spouse’s character and their strengths and how they bless your life. Your protector parts can be harsh editors, getting rid of the things your spouse does right in favor of highlighting how they have hurt you. Gratitude gives attention to positive feelings and will help to shift your thought process to allow you to be vulnerable with your spouse (as this positive narrative proves your spouse is a safe place.)
Choose your spouse: Every day, choose to be vulnerable with your spouse. Choose to trust and love them. Choose to put your relationship over your comfortable homeostasis. Recognize the moments where you did not choose your spouse and evaluate where you can change.
Address the 4 Questions: Check in with yourself. Do you feel loved and safe? Do you feel like enough? Do you matter? From these questions, you can determine where you may need to work on self love. You can communicate what you need from your spouse. And you can also become a better spouse by making sure your spouse feels secure in your love and safety.
Affection: After evaluating these 4 areas, work on showing and receiving affection. Show your spouse that they are important to you with continuous and steady affection (even in hard times).
Take Personal Responsibility: there are two sides to every coin. It will be easy to use this information here to point a finger at what your spouse is doing wrong. That’s your protector trying to deflect! Choose instead to take responsibility and accept the things you need to work on. This is how change happens.
Attunement: it is wonderful to feel loved, and profound to feel understood. Work on not just loving your spouse, but seeing who they truly are (all of their parts). We are often very casual with our spouse, even though our marriage is most precious to us. Seek to be reverent with your spouse and honor the opportunity to know them intimately.
Changing bad habits can be really hard. In order to make change a possibility, we need to be in touch with all the parts of ourselves. We need space to consciously choose a new path for ourselves. Remember that love takes practice. It will take a lot of time, patience, and effort to change your homeostasis. But it is in that effort that we show our spouse that they, and your marriage, are worth changing for.
Next week, we are going to be talking about goal setting and ways to improve your marriage in the new year. I challenge you that as you set goals for the New Year to include getting to know all the parts of yourself and create space to choose a new path for yourself and your marriage.
Written by Amanda Severson with Get Your Marriage On!