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Waiting for Change in Others

Every therapist frequently faces a difficult question from clients, either directly or implied: Under what circumstances can anyone 'trust' what seems to be change in others who have hurt, exploited, or annoyed us? It is common for people to profess change when asking for something, another chance, a date, a loan, a favor etc.. Past experience warrants skepticism, but also the 'offender' is behaving differently. It is hard not to drop some recently trialed boundaries, sometimes against gut feelings. This doesn't turn out badly in every instance, but it does frequently enough to instill cynicism.

While others may change, it is counter-productive to wait for them. Good boundaries and alternatives do not stop others from changing if they wish. Rather, boundaries and alternatives support sanity and integrity. Waiting for others to change may come from not wanting to make the responses that are clearly called for. Instead the behavior that is desired is waited for.

In a troubled or damaging relationship, the change that matters is a change in the basic goal of behavior. Tactics change when circumstances change. For instance, verbal abuse may lessen when the recipient starts limiting contact, but the goal of weakening the recipient remains. Below are several ideas about change:

Rigidity is well understood and easy to recognize. It is sometimes called 'refusing to change.' A rigid person responds the same way to many different situations. Their behavior may not be disagreeable in itself but be difficult because of the unbending and universal way it's applied. Rigid behavior stops growth and limits relationships. Though frustrating, it is not manipulative. People are most often rigid because they perceive the same basic threat constantly, and don't have confidence that they can survive any other way. From the inside rigid behavior feels like a realistic response to the situation. Pressuring a rigid stance is counterproductive.

Tactical Change refers to efforts to achieve a persistent goal, often control of some sort, by different behavior, only because the nature of the contest has changed. Tactical change is common where there is a struggle for power and control. For instance, one partner oppresses the other in a relationship, insisting on making all the decisions, verbally abusing and manipulating. The oppressed partner moves out but maintains some contact. The dominating partner becomes less authoritarian, listens more, starts spending money on the other partner, etc. The oppressed partner senses that the change in behavior is more than a thin put-on. It is, but only because different behavior is more successful in that situation. If the partner moves back in, the abuse will usually start again because it is in that context more effective at achieving what has been the goal all along: power and control.

Superficial Change is also easily recognized since it is usually a visibly half-hearted attempt to please the other. Because the goal remains the same, it cannot not last. Sometimes superficial change is presented as the 'start of change', with the implied demand that this other person be allowed back in our lives now. Remember any urgency is usually a sign of an attempt to control. Also remember that while real change may start small, it starts with a change in goal.

Cyclical Change is often prominent in abuse and addictions, but most relationships develop some repeating patterns. As feelings of insecurity or shame grow in one person certain problem behaviors develop. Those in relationship with the person tend to adjust their behavior to maintain stability, but tension increases. At some point a crisis or explosion occurs which is disorienting and consumes everyone's attention for a time, and tension falls. A period of lower tension follows. It may be thought that problems are finally "behind us." But inexorably tension begins to build again. Different family or group members may take turns driving the cycle, and the crisis may vary. It may not appear that any cycle is occurring, only a lot of "bad luck," interspersed with hopeful times. Behavior can be plausibly seen in the short-run as a realistic response to events. The goal is usually to escape a pervasive feeling of shame. Feelings of “deja-vu” may indicate cyclical change

Authentic Change is evidenced not just by persistence over many weeks and months and many opportunities but also by an essential change in the relationship goal.. For instance, a man or woman trying to keep his marriage stable (really prevent abandonment) may for a long time persist in controlling behaviors that actually alienate his partner more. If he learns a new way living in that situation, his goal no longer will be to control and limit his partner, which may much more effectively achieve his personal goal of not being alone. Likewise for over-accommodating behavior. To achieve authentic change, a person must accept responsibility for his or her behavior and the consequences.