What Kind of Partner Do You Aspire To Be?

I have a deeply-held belief that everyone has the capacity for growth and change.  Not only can we change if we challenge ourselves to do so, but also we all have room to grow.

The Developmental Model teaches us to ask our clients “what kind of partner do you aspire to be?” Asking people to reflect on where they can grow keeps them from grouchily obsessing over how they wish their partner would change, and frees them up to identify their own motivations for change. It encourages them to imagine the possibilities for their life, and their relationships, on their own terms, rather than in reaction to someone else.

Paradoxically, when clients are able to do this, it often ends up making space for their partners to become more considerate, more reliable, and more present. Nobody likes to feel pressured, coerced, or guilted into changing. In fact, pushing someone into a defensive posture is a pretty effective way to ensure that their behavior doesn’t change.

The truth is, differentiation of self is a lifelong project. We all have more work to do if we’re going to truly embody the fullness of who we want to become, in the relationships we want to have, and in the world in which we want to live. The way we draw closer to that person is by choosing, every day, to be a little more patient, a little more courageous, a little more compassionate, a little clearer about our values and how we might express them.

As the days get shorter, and winter holidays approach, many of us, and many of our clients, experience internal and/or relational challenges. This year, I am asking myself, and invite you to join me in asking: “what kind of person do I aspire to be in this world, in this family, in this relationship? What can I do to get closer to that?”

Don’t Try to “Win” A Fight With Your Partner

Your partner should be your collaborator, your ally, your co-conspirator. Yet all too often couples end up treating their relationship like a zero-sum game.

If you see your partner as a competitor rather than a collaborator, discussions about big topics like where to live, whether to have kids, and what kind of life you want to build become battles in which only one person can triumph. If you win, then your partner loses, and vice versa. It’s easy to see how quickly this kind of attitude can suck the fun out of a relationship.

Yet, at the same time, it’s pretty understandable. Most of us aren’t taught the skills we need to approach disagreements collaboratively. That’s why I would like to use today’s post to share some of my tips for shifting from a competitive to a collaborative attitude when working through disagreements with your partner.

  1. Take the pressure off. Chances are, you don’t need to come to an agreement right now. Remind yourself and your partner that you have time to figure things out. Maybe you can decide together to take a break from the discussion and do something fun, and set a time to return to the topic.
  2. Get curious about your partner’s mindset. Next time you disagree, instead of trying to make your point, take some time to simply ask your partner why they feel the way they do. I’m not talking about leading questions that are designed to find some flaw in their argument–I’m talking about sincere, thoughtful inquiries made in the spirit of learning more about the person you love. There will be time to share your perspective, too, so don’t feel like you’re losing out by getting curious.
  3. Think creatively. All too often clients get locked into an “all-or-nothing” mindset. “You win, I lose.” “You get everything you want, I get nothing.” If you step back and look at the situation creatively, you’ll likely notice that there are more options than just “what I want” and “what my partner wants.” Let yourself consider the whole menu.

I hope that these strategies help you next time you find yourself in conflict with your partner. As always, I advise you to ask yourself “What kind of partner do I aspire to be? How can I grow towards that, in this moment?” Aspiring to be a collaborative rather than competitive partner will take a lot of the heat off your disagreements–as well as opening up a world of possibilities beyond “I win, you lose.”

When Partners Encourage Each Other To Lie

Of course, we all want our partners to be honest with us. But, at the same time, there may be some things we just don’t want to hear.

There’s a concept in the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy: “lie-inviting behavior.” What this means, basically, is that if you flip out when your partner tells you something uncomfortable, you’re sending them a message. Without meaning to, you’re saying “Next time, either don’t tell me at all, or don’t tell me the truth.”

Flipping out in any of its forms–yelling, crying, storming out, shutting down, name-calling–probably won’t stop your partner from doing or thinking the thing you don’t like. It will almost certainly stop them from bringing it up to you, however. That leaves you with a choice: would you rather do your best to withstand the discomfort in order to be able to hear the truth? Or would you rather push your partner to go underground, in exchange for feeling more comfortable?

If you want to truly know your partner, then you will need to be prepared to hear them talk about what is true for them, and what their perceptions, feelings, and desires are. If this is what you want, you will need to show your partner that you’re capable of handling hearing their truth. It’s your partner’s responsibility to be honest–but you can make that more likely by listening without judgement, holding steady through difficult emotions, and framing your responses as being about you, your feelings, beliefs, and the meanings you have learned to make. It’s particularly powerful if you can find it in yourself to thank your partner for telling you the truth even if it was hard for you to hear.

If you’ve been very upset in the past when your partner has told you a difficult truth, you may want to take the time to make a repair. You can go back to your partner and say, “I realize that my reaction to what you said may have made it hard for you to talk about this topic. I want you to know that, regardless of what I said in the heat of the moment, I appreciate that you trusted me enough to tell me the truth. I want you to be able to be honest with me, even about difficult topics, and next time I will do my best to take it in stride.”

If you’re a therapist, keep your eye out for lie-inviting behavior. Holding steady through a difficult conversation is a real differentiation-of-self challenge. I like to tell my clients that their efforts will be rewarded with the deeper intimacy that comes from truly knowing one another. Most of us want that, and being able to tolerate the discomfort of having differences is a big part of creating that closeness.