This year for the holidays, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about relationships and our interactions with other people in our lives. The holidays often conjure up tense emotions and thoughts about family members and friends. Rather than looking forward to spending time with those we love, we often spend time re-hashing old fights and salting old wounds.
So often our struggles with others in our lives boil down to something very simple: we want these humans to act differently. We want our mothers-in-law to be kind and loving, we want our siblings to be non-judgmental and friendly, we want our parents to be welcoming and proud of their kids and grandkids. We want our spouses to be outgoing and friendly to our families, our partners should help us cook and clean for the holiday party, we want our kids to be on their best behavior and for GOD’S SAKE, can grandma just have one nice thing to say this year?!
Whether it’s the holidays or just another Monday, my clients are often challenged and frustrated by the other humans in their lives. In my experience, most of these relationship struggles are driven by our desire for others to act how we want them to act. For example, most of us want our spouses to be responsible, organized, considerate, and loving. There is nothing wrong with those expectations. Those expectations form your “manual” for other humans fulfilling certain roles in your life. We all have manuals. The people in our lives have manuals for us too. For example, my partner would love for me to be a night owl who is easy-going and more than happy to spend all night binging on Tarantino films. I, however, would like him to have “normal” sleeping habits and sleep in the same bed with me at night.
It’s human nature to want and expect certain things from the people in our lives.
The problem is that we want other people to change and live according to our manual. We believe our manuals have their best interest in mind. We believe our manuals are the “correct” way to be. So, when other people don’t subscribe to our manuals or change to fit our models we lose. our. freaking. minds.
Many of my clients are so angry with their partners because they aren’t cleaner, they don’t help with the cooking, they aren’t good with money. etc. They truly believe they are angry because of their partner’s actions or inactions. That could not be farther from the truth.
When we are angry or sad about the actions of the people in our lives, the reason we are upset is because of our thoughts about those actions (or inactions). If my partner doesn’t vacuum the house, that fact is neither good nor bad. I make it something positive or negative by my thinking. Of course he didn’t vacuum, he never does anything around the house. This relationship is completely out of balance. I have to do everything around here. Those thoughts make me feel angry and indignant. Those thoughts lead to a lot of silent treatments and passive aggressive stomping around. Those thoughts typically set the stage for a battle.
Usually that battle brings to light the other person’s manual for you: I work more than you and when I’m on my days off, I just want to relax and I don’t want to do housework.
Now we have a war of conflicting expectations. These types of small spats plant the seed for dueling manuals and un-met expectations that can rot a relationship from the inside out. Usually, my clients will explain that from these small spats, they are now bogged down with new and more interesting thoughts: We are never going to see eye-to-eye, we have totally different values, this is never going to work, he will never respect me, etc. When each party equally subscribes to the validity of their own model, no one wins. The relationship crack simply grows into a chasm as each party reveals more about their manual and how the other party doesn’t meet its criteria.
How do you move forward? First, recognize that you each have manuals for each other. Second, THAT IS OKAY. It’s human. You will both have expectations of how this relationship should work and how the other should act.
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Next, decide if you are willing to live according to other person’s manual. My guess is that the answer is no. Either way, it is your choice. There are thousands of couples in this world that spend their entire relationship pretending to be something they are not. Trying to mold themselves to fit the other person’s expectations. I am not advocating for that approach, I am simply stating that it is not uncommon for people to choose this option. The question is this: Is that how you want to live your life? Is that how you want the other person to live their life? Is it important to you that you both be honest with each other about the relationship and who you want to be in that relationship? Do you want this person to have a relationship with you or their “manual” version of you and vice versa?
The other alternative is that you spend your life trying to find someone who fits your manual 110% on their own accord. Good luck with that. Even if that were possible, would it be beneficial to you to be in a relationship with someone who doesn’t challenge you? Who acts exactly as you would prescribe?
Assuming you still want a relationship with this human, ask yourself if you are willing to love this person as they are—not who you want them to be.
Do you like the relationship once you stop fighting about each other’s manuals?
How do you get there? You must recognize that the only reason you feel upset and frustrated with the relationship is because you want the other person to change. You want them to act in a different way. It is not their actions that make you feel terrible, it is your thought that they should be different. They shouldn’t talk down to me, they shouldn’t criticize my weight, they should be more considerate, they should be more loving. Those thoughts all indicate that a manual is at work. Stop blaming them for how you feel and take 100% ownership for your feelings. Your thoughts are creating your feelings, not the other person.
Ask yourself how you want to feel about that other person. Do you want to feel love and kindness toward the other person? Do you want to feel compassion? You have complete access to those emotions now. You just need to access thoughts that will generate those emotions. Seems like a stretch, I know, but bear with me.
When you approach the person or the situation from a place of sheer curiosity, you can typically work into some thoughts that general feelings of compassion or love. For example, if your partner is terrible with money and you are furious about it, thinking why can’t you be more responsible, I can’t be with something who is always living paycheck to paycheck, consider asking yourself why your partner acts that way. What could be making them spend money with abandon? Maybe they were never taught how to handle finances, maybe their heart is bigger than their finance-brain so they spend all their money on other people? Maybe they are deeply insecure and spend money trying to feel better about themselves? Having done that experiment, can you imagine circumstances in your life where you were uneducated, gave others too much of yourself, or felt insecure? If so, maybe you can relate to and have more compassion for their actions because you can typically find ways in which you might have acted similarly.
If you can examine the other person with curiosity, you can usually generate some compassion for how they are acting, given your own humanness. When you approach that relationship from a place of compassion and curiosity, you can have a productive conversation about the issue at hand. You can approach it from a place of love and understanding rather than a place of judgment, frustration, and ultimatums.
The rationale for this approach is that the key to every human relationship is to see each other as perfectly loveable and worthy. There is nothing that can make that person more loveable. They already are good enough. And so are you. When you are able to put aside your manual and approach other humans with curiosity, you can access that place of love and compassion. Those contributions will always advance the relationship. It doesn’t mean the other person will change and it doesn’t mean you don’t place healthy boundaries where needed—Dear mother-in-law, if you criticize my husband, we are going to leave and will re-evaluate whether we are coming to Thanksgiving next year. What it means is that you can flex that muscle of compassion and learn to love that person for who they are. You meet them where they are, warts and all. From that place you can examine the relationship from a neutral place. Only once you remove the manuals, can you really experience the relationship as it truly is and experience the other person as they truly are. From there you can determine whether you want to be a part of that relationship.
As part of that process, you must evaluate your manual from a place of honesty with yourself. Why are the elements of your manual important to you? What will be different if the people in your life acted exactly as you wanted? What will be the same? When you examine you manual you are able to consider the rationale behind the manual and ask–do you like your reasons? Those answers will support you examination of the relationship from a place of honesty and compassion both for the other person and yourself.
In reality, what’s the alternative? Do you want to spend the entirety of the relationship spinning in frustration because the other person isn’t acting how you want them to act? Or would you rather find a way to love them and have compassion for them as they are? The choice is entirely up to you.