Every time a couple tackles a thorny problem requiring change, they go through a predictable sequence of steps to make that change. I believe the same sequence happens when parents and children, or even flat-mates, are engaged in solving a problem that requires change. The sequence of change involves a journey from denial to commitment and action; but its not a linear journey, it usually has its share of roadblocks, false starts, unhelpful detours etc, so commitment and perseverance are big factors in success.
Watch the video below to see Pete Pearson and Ellyn Bader go through the stages of change as they conquer the problem of clutter in their home. Pete and Ellyn are the co-founders of The Couples Institute in San Fransisco, and Ellyn was one of my teachers in couples therapy a few years back.
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Do you tend to just jump right in to solving your partners problems as soon as you hear them, and then wonder why they get upset with you when all you are trying to do is be helpful? Frustrating right? If this is you the chances are you are a man, or the go-to problem solver type.
As a generalisation women tend to respond to a problem by turning to their friends, and sharing the problem. The experience of the other person getting them and responding with understanding and empathy has a connecting and calming effect that’s facilitated by the production of feel-good chemicals in the brain such as oxytocin. This calming effect reinforces connection in the face of a problem.
A majority of men on the other hand tend to respond to a problem as if it were a threat, something to be repelled or avoided rather than an opportunity for connection. When we experience a real or perceived threat we get a shot of adrenaline, which is a fight or flight activator and pushes us towards action rather than connection or curiosity. So we want to jump right in and solve the problem, but in doing this our partners are left feeling unseen and disconnected.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes our partners don’t just want us to listen. Sometimes they would like some kind of help or advice, but you will be in a much better place to offer what’s needed or ask about that after you have really tuned in to them and got what it is they are experiencing.
Ask your partner to use the phrase “Its not about the nail…..” next time you are missing them, and the chance to connect, by being unhelpfully helpful.