"Can a person really change?" This is a question I hear a lot when people are talking about struggles in their relationships. They wonder if their partner will ever start being more romantic or stop getting in such bad moods. It's easy to dwell on that which we cannot control, but the truth is there is a lot we can. By taking charge of our half of the dynamic, we give our relationship at least a 50 percent better chance of survival. We can't make another person change, but we can develop ourselves in ways that would encourage our partner to reciprocate. Then, if we're still not getting what we want from the relationship, we are in a far better position to make a decision about moving on.
So, how can we make changes that will actually alter and improve the dynamics of our relationship? What attachment research tells us is that real change becomes possible when we're willing to look at our history. According to attachment research from Mary Main and Erik Hesse, the biggest predictor of how we'll be as parents isn't what we experienced as children, but how much we were able to make sense of and feel the full pain of those experiences. This statement can be applied to all of our closest interpersonal relationships.
Our ideas about relationships are formed very early in our lives. Our attachments with important caretakers create our "internal working models" for how relationships work. Throughout our lives, without even knowing it, we may act based on these old ideas, and many of our reactions in our current relationships may be echoes of the past, a subject I talk more about in the blog "Where Our Relationship Patterns Come From."
As we uncover the attachment style we experienced as children and the effects it can have on the ways we relate, we can start to better understand our current behavior. We can come to know where our insecurities come from, why we react negatively or emotionally to specific interactions, why we pull away from loved ones, or whatever destructive dynamics we may be bringing to the table. We can learn what triggers us and even uncover the reasons why we choose the partners we do. Making sense of our experiences leads us to no longer be ruled by them. Peeling away our past from the present involves some key steps, which include:
Recognizing negative self-talk. We can start to become aware of a destructive, self-limiting thought process known as the "critical inner voice." This voice is both shaped by and fuels our negative ideas about ourselves and relationships in general, reinforcing old messages like: "You are undeserving of love." "You can't trust him; he'll leave you." "She doesn't really care about you. No one does." As we notice it, we can start to challenge this "voice" and its intrusion on our relationships.
Noticing patterns and triggers. Once we understand how our past influences our present, we can recognize when we are being triggered by the past. If we feel flooded by emotions like jealousy, suspicion, fear, or rage, we can start to understand that sometimes these reactions have more to do with emotional triggers from long ago than they do with what's going on in the moment. We can also see ways we may be projecting onto our partner or turning on ourselves in moments when we're triggered.
Choosing our actions. When we're able to stop and notice when we're triggered, we can make better choices about how we want to act in our relationships. Even though we may be having a strong emotional reaction, we can take some time to calm down, reflect, and choose how we want to act. What actions are in sync with our ultimate goals? Taking this time to pause and evaluate helps us to separate our present from our past and not fall victim to our emotions.
Making better choices. In addition to choosing our own actions and deciding how we want to be in our relationships, we can make better choices about who we want to be with. When we find people who have a healthier attachment style than ours, we can actually form a secure attachment. This helps us to change our internal working models and restructure our ideas and expectations about love.
Everyone struggles to some degree when it comes to getting close to someone else. In a course I co-lead with Dr. Daniel Siegel, "Making Sense of Your Life," we explain how the steps of creating a coherent narrative can help us to grow and evolve to become who we want to be in our relationships. We can all develop in our relationships when we're willing to take the challenge of creating this type of narrative of our past, so we can understand ways we may be limiting ourselves in the present. We can even encourage our loved ones to do the same in a way that is compassionate and supportive. By taking these steps, we can achieve real change and become more loving and secure in our relationships.
Learn more about the eCourse with Drs. Lisa Firestone and Daniel Siegel, "Making Sense of Your Life."
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org