During a marriage, couples learn to relate to one another and create their own particular relationship dynamic for the marriage. These dynamics can be blatant or subtle, positive or negative. We often just slip into a pattern of relating to one another without being aware of it. After several years, these patterns and dynamics become automatic, like a knee-jerk reaction. I would say that one of the main reasons couples divorce is that the patterns and dynamics they have developed are not healthy. Couples with healthy dynamics have a greater chance of working through difficulties and conflicts constructively together. Couples with unhealthy dynamics often haven’t developed the skills necessary to face life’s challenges together.
There is a good chance that the relationship dynamics that you and your soon-to-be ex have developed are not healthy. If that is the case, this is your opportunity to recognize what works and does not work about your patterns and make some changes. Both of you played a part in creating the dynamics of your marriage relationship. It only takes one person to shift the dynamic and create different ways of relating and communicating.
How do you identify the relationship dynamics of your marriage? Think about specific times when the two of you made a decision or faced a problem together. Were you each collaborative or combative? How well did you listen to one another? Did you reach a conclusion that was mutually acceptable? Did one of you consistently have the final say? What was your role in the interaction? Passive? Aggressive? Try to examine these questions without assigning “blame” (which we will discuss in more depth) by merely noticing what the patterns seem to be. How well did these patterns work for you?
The next step to improving your relationship dynamics is to focus on what you can change, not on what you think your spouse should change. You cannot change someone else; you can only change yourself. If you decide to no longer participate in the same way or participate in a different, more positive way, the relation- ship dynamic will change. This change may be subtle in the relationship at the start, but by staying the course with your own changed actions and reactions, you will see a greater change fairly quickly.
Respond Versus React
When we get stuck in a relationship dynamic or pattern, we tend to be reactive rather than responsive. Reacting is that knee-jerk feeling where you end up saying or doing something impulsively, almost as if you have no control. Know the feeling? It is when your emotions are triggered and those emotions determine your next move. It’s when someone pushes your buttons and who knows how to do that more effectively than your spouse? When we are reactive, we are falling victim to life, circumstances, other people and our own emotions. We speak and act out of fear, anger, or sadness. When we are operating from a reactive mode, we rarely make choices or decisions that are in anyone’s best interest, especially our own. In reactive mode, we give up our power to choose wisely.
Responding on the other hand is calmer, more thoughtful and definitely more likely to get you where you want to be. This distinction between being reactive and proactively responsive can be confusing for some people. In his book, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Dr. Stephen Covey does a good job of explaining the difference. (If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. I re-read it often, and frequently suggest that my clients read it.)
Stephen’s first habit in the book is: Be Proactive. By this he means to take initiative in life by realizing that your decisions deter- mine the quality of your life, not your circumstances. He urges us to take responsibility for our choices and the consequences that follow. He writes, “Proactive people recognize that they are response able.” In other words, they do not simply react to someone else’s words or actions or even their own emotions. They choose from a place of being responsible.
To be proactive rather than reactive, you need to learn to recognize when you are triggered, to listen to yourself in that moment, and to pause before you respond. That moment between the stimulus (when someone has pushed your buttons) and your response is your greatest place of power. In that moment, you have the freedom to choose how you will respond. Stephen Covey says this about it:
“One of the most important things you choose is what you say. Your language is a good indicator of how you see yourself. A proactive person uses proactive language—I can, I will, I prefer, et cetera. A reactive person uses reactive language I can’t, I have to, if only. Reactive people believe they are not responsible for what they say and do—they have no choice. Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control.”
From this response-able place you are now better able to move through your divorce with less conflict.