We all are faced at times with trying to persuade others to make behavioral changes, or needing to do so ourselves. These efforts can leave us feeling frustrated and helpless; our good intentions seem to be in vain.
Why is it that we don’t act to change patterns, even when we promise to do so and it is obviously in our best interest? A good example of this seemingly illogical phenomenon comes from therapy. We invest time and money in counseling but then, even when we agree with the given recommendations or homework assignments, neglect to follow through.
Often it takes repeated failures for us to figure out that something is awry and more is needed than willpower or good intentions. In many situations, we never even question whether the person we are trying to help is actually on board as a true ally in the work, though this is often the key issue.
Michael’s therapist had been seeing him and his wife in marital therapy. When they met privately, it became clear that he had again failed to follow through on homework that he had agreed would help improve his marriage. This was curious, given his motivation and genuine desire to be closer with his wife. His progress had not been a problem before, particularly because his wife had been very rejecting and critical of him for years. She was the one who needed to change first in order for the marriage to go forward. She had since worked hard to make those changes and was, in fact, sustaining the relationship. But now Michael was causing a stalemate.
Michael explained that he was “forgetting” to do the assignments. Though at first this sounded like an excuse, it actually was not implausible — Michael was somewhat forgetful in general. Further, given his limited experience and lack of comfort with emotional expression and connection, the changes he needed to make were not natural to him and required conscious thought and effort. However, this is true with most change.
In this case, Michael was asked to state aloud to his wife positive feelings about what she was saying, doing, or how she looked. This assignment required him to notice and make explicit his own feelings and feelings about her. Though he could retrospectively report having positive feelings toward her at various times throughout the week, these internal experiences were often not “on his radar screen” or easy to make explicit.
Making a Commitment to Change
Michael was a highly successful entrepreneur and a man of integrity. To have reached such a prominent position in his career, he must have figured out how to remember and follow through on difficult matters. But why couldn’t he do the same in his private life?
Michael had a ready answer to this question, and knowingly described how he did it. The most important part was that he would make a firm commitment, and then later remind himself explicitly by thinking about it and planning the details. Once he did that, success in following through was guaranteed.
Michael’s resistance to change — which took the form of a lack of commitment to his therapy assignments — was surprising, and had been well hidden. He did not seem to be struggling with anger or resentment, the most common reasons for couples’ underlying resistance. Anger and resentment often express themselves as resistance to moving forward through passive-aggressive acting out. Then, disowned anger or resentment spills out unconsciously and symptoms such as “forgetting” occur. However, Michael did not seem to be harboring resentment or acting out. He also seemed fully engaged and motivated in the treatment.
As sessions probed Michael’s failure to commit to therapy and the work required to improve his marriage, he talked about feeling hopeless that his marriage would work out in the end. He feared that it would not and seemed to be preparing himself for the inevitable. Believing that his actions would not have an effect on the marriage was a familiar feeling for Michael. A central dynamic in his relationship with his wife was that he felt invisible, dismissed, and devalued. This dynamic accumulated, leading him to feel defeated and give up (though this was unconscious), despite his wife having made changes.