Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Does it take two for positive change in a relationship? Can one person do it alone?

From time to time I've had individual patients come to me requesting marriage counseling.  "Where's your spouse?" I ask them.  The reply: "He/she refuses to come."  My response has always been to explain that marriage counseling requires the participation of both partners; you simply cannot do marriage counseling alone.  But is this really true?

Change on the part of one person can certainly alter the dynamics of a relationship.  A dynamic is by definition an interactive system or process.  Change in one part of a system therefore changes the dynamics of that system.  An inter-action requires at least two individuals, each responding to the other.  Person A says or does something; person B says or does something in response.  Person A responds to what person B has just said or done; person B then responds to person A, and so on and so forth until the interaction is over.  Because humans are creatures of habit, two people in a relationship begin to develop "typical" ways of interacting with one another over time.  These sytles of interaction become increasingly automatic and are repeated across a variety of situations; they solidify into identifiable patterns.  If these patterns facilitate effective communication and serve to enhance the relationship the relationship will most likely thrive.  Sometimes the patterns of interaction between two people are dysfunctional: they interfere with effective communication and perpetuate conflict.  If the couple does not learn to interact in healthier ways their relationship becomes toxic and will probably not last. 

One person can disrupt unhealthy patterns of interaction in a relationship; it takes two to tango, so to speak.  To do this, one person in the relationship must choose to alter his or her reaction to the other person's behavior.  It only takes one person, for example, to walk away instead of engaging in conflict.  One person can choose to stop making demands of the other and learn to accept that their partner is not going to comply, give in, or otherwise do what they're being asked (or told) to do.  One person can decide not to become defensive when their partner makes a negative comment.  One partner can stop bringing up a topic that leads to arguments. 

There are a lot of things one person can do, particularly if the goal is to reduce overt conflict and/or confrontation.  And sometimes change in one partner can lead to change in the other.  The key word is sometimes

On the other hand, one person cannot "fix" a broken relationship.  One person cannot coerce another to acitvely participate in a relationship.  One person cannot force another to care about his or her wants and needs.  One person cannot convince another person to share his or her desires. 

If a person wants help in reducing conflict in his or her marriage then there are things I can do to help.  It is important, however, for the person to understand that this might mean accepting the behavior of his or her partner, even if the behavior in question is not really acceptable (e.g., cheating).   


  1. So what transpires when one has an affair?

    1. That's a complicated question with no easy answer;-)

  2. ^Trust is broken, which is hard to earn again even if it is a one time event.^
    It really depends on if a person is worth forgiving, and the strength of the relationship.
    If on shaky grounds, then no one has a good well-fertilized field with which to plant a healthy tree.

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