13. Stuck Patterns of Behavior - RonaldMah

Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist,
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13. Stuck Patterns of Behavior

Therapist Resources > Therapy Books > Out Monkey Trap- Breaking Cycles Rel

Out of the Monkey Trap, Breaking Negative Cycles for Relationships and Therapy
by Ronald Mah

The therapist is often required to get the individual, couple, or family out of strongly rigid relationship habits and into a new pattern without the existing problems.  The couple often has strident enduring patterns of behavior that perpetuate disconnection and distress.  These characteristics can be suggestive of using strategic theory to understand the relationship and strategic principles to create change.  The therapist may need to expose that sometimes the lack of a decision is the decision.  For some issues, a continuing conflict without resolution means that one of the individuals is winning by default.  An individual, partners or family members can co-exist for long periods without active battling and arguments.  This could mean that the individuals are able to work out and resolve potential conflicts.  However, it can also indicate that they cannot find solutions that are acceptable to everyone in the relationship.  On the other hand, sometimes the default- the lack of an affirmative decision leaves a status quo of one person having his or her way.   An enduring conflict may be accepted as not fixable, because a fix in one person or another's direction risks tearing the relationship apart.  Giving in may symbolize a loss or betrayal of deeply held values that is intolerable.  The intractable conflict may not only be extremely agonizing but also indicate that the relationship is doomed.

"Perhaps a single issue of disagreement could do this… But it also may be that what appears to be a single difficult decision issue is entangled in much more.  Entangled in the overtly expressed decision issue may be the fact that one or both partners are fighting to maintain self-esteem.  Or it may be that the issue at the focus is linked to broad power battles in the couple, battles that are present on many different issues" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 202-03).  Examination of the relationship may find that the presenting issue actually involves ongoing power struggles, indecisiveness, long held resentments, or self-esteem threats.  The deeper issues often keep individuals from dealing readily with relatively simple issues.  With effective relationship-oriented, couple, or family therapy, what was undoable can become simple and easy to resolve.  "Helping the couple to explore the presenting problem issue and to go deeper into more complex patterns and processes may take some finesse depending on the urgency of the issue on which they are stuck and the flexibility of the clients" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 204-05).  The impasse can be accompanied by intense emotional reactivity between the individuals.  A relative simple situation or issue can veer off into a core impasse.  While a problem or decision may be difficult to address, the greater problem for the relationship may be their dysfunctional process of communication and negotiation.  "In our view, a core impasse is experienced as such a difficult entanglement because it involves the activation of vulnerabilities and survival strategies, which complicates the couple's process.  This activation may include emotional overlaps of meanings between their present situation and experiences in the past, or between their present situation and a current painful experience of one or both partners in another context"(Scheinkman and Fishbane, 2004, page 281).  Other underlying grievances, injuries, and stress may create core impasses around incompatible gender expectations or cultural standards.  The therapist should consider how social-cultural or political awareness modeling might be intertwined with individual psychology and interactions between or among individuals.

Strategic theory along with many other orientations often starts with simple directives and interventions to prompt change.  Making a straightforward suggestion for an alternative approach for finding a compromise can be useful.  However, the individual, couple, or family may often find a suggestion difficult to apply or it may trigger feelings or thoughts that may be overwhelming and hard to handle.  This can ignite or uncover pervasive issues such as chronic depression, generalized anxiety, low self-esteem, existential dilemmas, or fundamental attachment and intimacy issues.  "In such a case, typical second-order change strategies would include:

(a) a developmentally focused reconstruction of the history and patterning of the problem,

(b) a gradual elaboration of the client's tacit cognitive models of self and world that are not longer viable,

(c) a full exploration, and

(d) therapist support for the client's construction of new meaning structures (cf. Carlsen, 1988; Guidano, 1987)" (Lyddon, 1990, page 125).  

To determine the direction of therapy, it becomes critical for the therapist to explore what being stuck means to each person and collectively.  Meanings of being at an impasse to explore include:

What are the cultural meanings of compromising and not compromising to each partner?

Do the partners perceive the issue in the same way?

What are the gains and losses from not compromising?

Might not compromising be keeping the relationship together?

Are there ways that being stuck on an issue feels familiar and easy to the partners?

Has conflict around an impasse ever helped the partners to respect each other and to improve their conflict resolution skills?

How might the partners see the patterns established in their families of origin and their history as a couple playing into how they are dealing with the impasse? (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 205-06)

Individuals may not have examined implicit but unexpressed meanings.  Individuals, couples, and families may suffer the results of being stuck without being fully conscious of its origins or full impact.  The therapist brings the consequences of impasse to the individual for careful examination.  Wounds of being stuck or of compromising to examine include:

How is the tone of the relationship and the emotional life of each partner affected by not being able to compromise on an important issue or by compromising?

Has either partner ever felt they lost something important because of an impasse or a compromise in the relationship?

Have there been times when the relationship has felt intolerable because of an impasse or a compromise?

Do either of the partners worry that the two of them are fundamentally incompatible because of an impasse or because of the ways a compromise has played out? (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 206).

A person may have interests that conflict with another person or persons.  Resolution can be gained sometimes when one person concedes at cost to oneself, with the expectation that the other person benefiting would reciprocate in a similar fashion at some later point.  A common compromise is to take turns such as visiting one partner's family for the holiday this season and then the other family the next year.  However, some such compromises result in one person being stuck in or with something intolerable.  Partners cannot take turns for some issues or situations- for example, wedding plans or having children.  These decisions happen once and do not recur again.  When issues are trivial, individuals often compromise readily.  However, some issues are monumental in comparison and not so readily amenable to compromise.  Choices by people can differ but be acceptable if that means each person makes a choice that does not limit or preclude the other making his or her own choice.  For example, one partner can join a church or club while the other chooses another.  Mutually allowing this may be difficult or impossible if one person finds a decision unacceptable for some reason.  Whether to raise children in one faith/religion or another is a decision that goes primarily or exclusively one way or another.  "Potentially, what a couple does with issues for which there seems to them to be no compromise (or no way to create or collaborate on a resolution of the disagreement) is extremely important to their future as a couple.  A decision (or no decision) may grate at one or both of the partners as long as they are together, may add tones of anger, pain, resentment, sorrow, disappointment, or vengefulness to the couple relationship.  It may leave partners in an intolerable situation.  It may establish a pattern that by the standards of one or both partners is not good.  It may even lead to the dissolution of the relationship" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 197).

Whether partners can come to a compromise, often has to do with nature of the issues themselves.  However, whether partners can come to a compromise, also depends on how they hold meaning for what is being contended.  "Symbolic interaction theory would suggest that it is the couple's shared meanings regarding the issue and their interactions around it that will play the most important role in their relationship and future decisions (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993).  And in this regard there may be very substantial cultural differences in the interpretation of an issue, its compromisability, or its significance to the couple" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 199).  The therapist or another person unfamiliar with the meanings underlying an issue may believe a compromise can be easily reached, and run into abject resistance by individuals, couples, and families.  The therapist may give a simple directive or suggest an obvious solution for a compromise.  The individual, partners, and the couple or family may be able to follow through readily, but if they cannot it can be an indication to the therapist to search for the deeper held meanings that are frustrating resolution.

Exchange theory posits an individual would be willing to give in to another person with the expectation of a reciprocal deferring on other issues.  This is qualified, however by how each person values each issue or decision.  "Some exchange theorists (e.g., Blau, 1964) have said that the exchange relationship is weighted by status, so that when two people in an exchange relationship differ in status, the one who is lower in status has to do more in order to achieve exchange balance in relationship to the one of higher status" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, 2009, page 201).  If the individuals do not acknowledge or interpret their respective status in the same way, compromise may be difficult to reach.  Relative status may be determined from equity perspectives that are in conflict.  For example, age, income, gender, and household activities may infer greater or lesser contributions to the relationship or system, and thus greater or lesser status.  "Thus, it is possible that with some couples dealing with an issue that they cannot compromise, it is not just the issue at focus that they are stuck on, but also how to sort out their relative power/status" (Rosenblatt and Rieks, page 201). Reaching a compromise or coming to some resolution may require partners address and work through relative power and status in the relationship, rather than continuing arguing over whatever the current triggering issue is.  This shift in focus prompts recognition that the underlying issue of power and status may be the real reason for being in an impasse.

When the therapist asks or gets individuals to slow down and examine their process rather than rush headlong into more stress, they may see, hear, and experience things that may create the change needed.  Paulie and Anita had not been getting along.  Anita felt that Paulie was insensitive, mean, dismissive, self-centered.  Her list of negative adjectives was a mile long.  The therapist asked her about each of the accusations.  He asked her if Paulie had been like this before.  What was the Paulie that she fell in love with?  What was gone?  As Anita went through her thoughts and feelings about Paulie, Paulie was quiet and listened attentively.  Anita talked about Paulie without talking to him and without looking at him.  The therapist told her to look at Paulie when she talked about what he did and how she felt about him.  She looked at him and spoke.  Paulie kept his eyes on her, looking sad and concerned.  Suddenly Anita exclaimed, "Oh!  That's my Paulie!  He's my Paulie!"  She beamed at him and went over and gave him a big long hug.  The therapist asked what happened.  Anita said, "I heard myself going on and on ragging on him.  And then all of a sudden I realized that he was my Paulie!  And my Paulie loved me… and my Paulie wouldn't try to hurt me on purpose!"  Anita had realized that Paulie could misunderstand and misstep, but that his heart was with her. And that was what she needed to know.  And that was what broke the negative cycle between them.

When a person recognizes how he or she holds what the problematic behavior means, he or she can consider if it really must mean that.  Anita held that Paulie's behavior must mean that he did not care or respect her, as opposed that he was something of a communication doofus!  She realized that he was a communication doofus but he still loved and cared for her.  When an impasse is broken, there may still be a lot of further work to do on the relationship.  However, after getting unstuck, often it is only the mechanics and techniques of their interactions to continue to work on.  Once there is the key shift to connectiveness, re-affirmation or re-discovery of love and trust, unity, or intimacy, the work becomes relatively easy.  It removes the anxiety and threat of relationship demise that made it so hard.

continue to Chapter 14
3056 Castro Valley Blvd., #82
Castro Valley, CA 94546
Ronald Mah, M.A., Ph.D.
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, MFT32136
office: (510) 582-5788
fax: (510) 889-6553
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