Whether from a garden variety of boredom or from the aftermath of trauma, most couples eventually get to the place where they say, tacitly or overtly, that something different needs to happen in the relationship. What they are usually looking for is something new, something alive...a change from the old, familiar pattern of relating. Ordinarily, it is easy to change the intensity and/or duration of an already patterned behavior. For example, if a couple has a habit of spending Friday evenings together, it doesn't take much to add going out to that behavior. Or, if a couple typically makes love four times a month it isn't very difficult to add or subtract one occasion.
Problems arise when a couple wants to change the fundamental quality of their relating-- when one or the other says, "I want us to be with each other differently. I don't just want us to talk about something difficult. I want us to talk about something difficult in a way that is unlike previous conversations. I want a new kind of conversation." This usually reflects a desire to engage at a deeper level.
The difficulty of this desire is compounded by the fact that if something is genuinely new it is also unfamiliar. So, the desire for something genuinely new amounts to one or the other asking for something neither knows how to do. A bind has effectively been created. At its most benign level this will be frustrating. Occasionally, the bind creates desperation. When the need for something new and alive is joined by sufficient frustration, the situation can become so discouraging it threatens the relationship's survival.
Resolving this bind requires engaging a new pattern, even a new paradigm. Couples have to be willing to proceed in a clumsy, awkward and confusing way. Doing something genuinely new can never be done well. For example, most of us have developed a post-shower drying off technique that we repeat daily and unconsciously. The next time you shower, try starting at at different place on your body--a new place--and see how it goes. In all likelihood the experience will be uncomfortable, confusing and frustrating.
Interestingly, introducing a genuinely new way of relating requires couples to tolerate failure. Maybe that's way so few couples are able to experience something new once their relationship his developed some momentum. Confusion, if not failure, is a prerequisite to discovering something new. Couples,therefore, have to be willing to fail repeatedly. Ask any research scientist. They will tell you that good things come from confusion, failure, persistence and hope.
Jake Thiessen, PhD
I've been working with couples for a very long time. And, I love it! This blog is my attempt to communicate some of the things I've learned over the past 40 years.