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Every Relationship Frustration Is a Goldmine for Growth

Been thinking more about couples therapy lately? When you’re in a long-term relationship, it’s a given that you’ll feel frustrated with your partner at one time or another. Often, these frustrations can seem both silly and vitally important at the same time.

But why?

That’s the key question. Because there is a reason that specific issues make you feel more frustrated than others. Why you “pick” particular things to be frustrated about out of the 10,000 things that could bother you.

For example, maybe you keep harping on the fact that your partner is so forgetful. “Why can’t you remember important appointments? How hard is it to keep track of your keys? I mean, I told you a thousand times…”

But you’re just not bothered by your partner’s messiness. “Clothes on the floor? Dirty dishes in the sink? Who cares! Those are small things.”

So, why do some issues frustrate you on a truly deep level… while others don’t? 

Once you can answer this question, you’re on your way to growth — both as an individual and as a couple.

How so? 

Fulfilling Your Unmet Needs Using a Behavior Change Request 

When seemingly small issues greatly frustrate you, it is because they are related to your unmet needs. What are those?

As a child, your parents were able to meet some of your needs better than others. It’s not their fault. Every parent has different strengths and weaknesses due to their values, their own upbringing, and the innate differences we are all born with.

But when someone’s needs are not met during the normal socialization process called parenting, it creates a desire to have that need met. And frustration when your partner’s behaviors clash with that desire. In Imago couples therapy, we use a tool called the Behavior Change Request to reveal your unmet needs.

How does it work? We start with one of those big frustrations. 

Let’s look at the example of forgetfulness.

First, we share the frustration.

“You’re always forgetting things. I can’t stand it.”

That’s a fine start. But it’s so vague that it’s not really helping. Moreover, it’s likely to make your partner defensive:

“Everyone forgets things sometimes. What about the things that I do remember? There are plenty of those!”

So we get more specific.

Talk about times when your partner’s forgetting has really made you feel frustrated.

“Remember the time I asked you to drop my package off at the post office on the way to work? I even put the package in your car. And you still forgot. It was sitting in the seat right next to you, and you didn’t remember it!”

Next, we look at how you felt at those moments.

“Hurt. Like you don’t listen to me. Like you forget about me. Like I don’t matter. Like my needs are not important enough for you to remember, and you don’t care enough about me to remember.

Then we look at what those feelings remind you of.

“When my mom forgot my seventh birthday. When she didn’t show up for school games and performances I was in. The basic story of my childhood was that she was too busy for me. I could never get her to see me as I wanted to be seen.”

And finally, we ask why that makes you scared.

“It scares me that it will always be like this. That you will never care enough about my needs enough to remember.”

This right here is what we call your “unmet desire” in couples therapy. The real reason you feel frustrated about those specific things. This reason always ties back to childhood in some way. Even if it isn’t specifically an unmet need, it could be that your partner’s behavior broke a “family rule” you had as a child but it never occurred to you before. 

When you can understand this, it can help you to stop criticizing your partner when they do something that makes you feel frustrated and focus on the reason and need behind that frustration. When your partner can understand this, empathy is increased, and they will be more willing to help you with your frustration.

Your Partner’s Role in the Behavior Change Request

From there, we have your partner mirror back what you have said. We help them until:

  • They can accurately mirror back what you said.
  • It’s clear they understand why you’re bothered by their actions.
  • They show empathy.

Then we ask for your global wish  — the pie-in-the-sky version of what you want from your partner to make your fears go away. For example, “I want to know you’re always thinking about me. I want to know I’m the most important part of your life.”

Obviously, that’s vague just like “You’re always forgetting things!” is. This is why the next step is to come up with a concrete list of things your partner could do to meet your desire: to make you feel important and loved. 

Often we give our partners what we want or what we think they want — not what they do want. This starts a list of what our partners really do want, which is often missing even with the most functional couples.

This list should follow the SMART guidelines you’ll learn in couples therapy. In other words, they should be small, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-limited. 

And your partner gets to choose which item from your list they want to do — or an alternative. An example might be asking your partner to greet you at the door with a hug and a kiss 5 out of the next 7 days when they come home. 

Your partner’s willingness to engage in these asked-for behaviors is the healing — not the behaviors themselves. It challenges the assumption that they will not respond in the way you want if you ask for change. (Something that has been true in the past because you weren’t really asking — you were blaming them for doing something you didn’t like!)

The Path to Personal and Relationship Growth

When you are able to own the reason for your frustrations in this way and ask for change without blame, it not only offers the opportunity for you to grow but also your partner. Because often when people change their behavior, even in small ways, it ends up fulfilling an unmet desire they didn’t even know about!

Want to learn more about how imago couples therapy can help your relationship? Get in touch today!

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Copyright @2020 Dana Cole, LMFT