Changing the pattern of a relationship

When people are in a relationship, whether as romantic partners, friends, or co-workers, they often fall into a routine of how they interact with the other. Once this pattern is set early in the relationship, it often does not change. This can be problematic if the pattern does not serve one of the participants, or if the people in the relationship have grown or changed. The story leading off Radical Candor is one example where a manager gets stuck in a pattern of dealing with an employee, but it can happen in almost any relationship between people, including friendships, work situations, and marriages.

What makes it so hard to change the relationship pattern after it has been set? One reason is that change would require one person to speak up and say they want things to change. This can be uncomfortable and upsetting, because they are expressing that they are not fully satisfied with the relationship as it is. In particular, they may risk losing the relationship and all of the good feelings associated with it. So they rationalize to themselves that whatever is bothering them is not that big a deal, and it’s better to live with it rather than risk losing the relationship.

What happens after that? They grit their teeth as the pattern continues….right up until a threshold has been crossed, and they lash out in anger, or there are other irreparable consequences. The story from Radical Candor is a good example; Kim didn’t speak up about Bob’s poor performance at the first project review, then felt like she couldn’t bring it up because she’d let it slide the first time, and then after a year of underperforming, she had to fire Bob.

What I’ve been asking my coaching clients in these situations is whether they are happy with the way things are in their relationships. If they say no, then I ask them why they haven’t spoken up in the relationship about their needs or desires. And they say some variation of “Well, it would be uncomfortable, and it’s easier for me to just go along rather than cause a big fight which will take up time and energy I don’t have.” And then I remind them that if they don’t speak up, they will stay in this holding pattern where they aren’t happy, and ask them how they expect the relationship to change if they don’t do something different.

The other reason they give me is that they once tried speaking up and explaining to the other person how they would like the relationship to change, but then the other person didn’t change immediately, so they feel change is impossible. This seems like a good argument until we look at our own behavior, where we continue to do things we know aren’t good for us (e.g. fried food is a weakness for me) even after we’ve been told it’s bad for us. If we don’t always change ourselves at the first intervention, why would we expect others to do so?

What I hear in these stories is that the person I’m talking to is taking all the burden of the success or failure of the relationship on themselves, whether they realize they are doing it or not. They believe at some level that the relationship is so fragile that if they speak up, it will shatter. They are not even giving the other person a chance to change their behavior; in fact the other person might not even know how their behavior is affecting the relationship, because they haven’t been told. In some sense, the person complaining is not treating the other person in the relationship as being equally responsible for the relationship.

So I ask them what will change if they keep playing the same scripts? And they realize that nothing will change. That makes them realize they are in a dilemma where they don’t want to speak up and have an uncomfortable conversation, but they also aren’t happy with where they are now in the relationship. They have to confront whether interrupting the current pattern and having a potentially emotionally charged conversation might be worth it if it will start to shift the long-term pattern of the relationship.

And sometimes it’s not worth speaking up. If it’s not a relationship that they care deeply about, maybe they just spend less time with that person. Or maybe they realize that the behavior that bothers them is relatively minor relative to all the benefits they get out of the relationship and they accept that tradeoff. Essentially, they have to consider whether a relationship where they can’t share their true vulnerable feelings and believe they will be supported is a relationship they want to continue investing in. And I believe that’s a question worth asking regardless of whether the relationship is romantic, a friendship or even a working relationship (particularly with one’s manager).

This is another example of where I believe in the power of vulnerability as a filter; maybe the other person reacts poorly to sharing that I am not happy with the relationship as it currently stands. But if that’s the case, isn’t it better for me to learn that before investing more in the relationship? At this point in my life, I’d prefer to find out sooner rather than later whether the relationship is valuable enough to the other person that they’re willing to make a (reasonable) change to keep it going. If not, it is probably not a healthy relationship for me, if I’m valued so little that I’m “not worth the work” (as I was once memorably told while being dumped).

I should note that there are more skillful and less skillful ways to express one’s dissatisfaction with the current state of a relationship. A less skillful way would be to say something like “You need to stop doing [X], or I’m leaving!” This turns it into an emotional confrontation and escalates the stakes. A more skillful way is to use the Non-Violent Communication process, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, where the focus is on expressing one’s personal needs and values, and leaving it to the other person how to respond to that information. In other words, rather than making a demand that the other person change, express it as “when [X] happens, this is what I feel, because I need or value [Y]”. By making it an “I feel” statement, it focuses on sharing your experience, rather than making a demand of the other person (n.b. I am not an expert in NVC, but I would like to learn more).

So the next time you are bothered by a relationship pattern, and you decide to shut up rather than make an issue of it, consider whether you’re willing to experience the short-term discomfort of vulnerably sharing how that made you feel, for the sake of improving the long-term relationship. I’ve been experimenting along these lines for the last couple years, and I’ve been surprised at how much better I feel about my relationships when I am able to express my feelings and needs honestly and openly in them, both at work and at home. It’s also made it more apparent which relationships are not serving me in that way, where I am doing all the work, and both sides are not equally committed to making the relationship work; with that information, I can decide which relationships I want to invest in.

P.S. I recently read this article on why Mexican-American kids were more likely to do their chores, and it’s a similar phenomenon. Western parents often rebuff a toddler’s offer to help with household chores, as the toddler will slow things down or make a mess. Then, later, when the child grows up more, they don’t feel they should have to do chores, so the Western parent has to pay them to do so. Meanwhile, the Mexican-American parents lean into the toddler’s desire to help, and include their toddlers in chores, even though it slows things down in the short-term. But it means that the toddlers feel valued and proud to be doing work that helps the family, making them excited to pitch in as they get older. I thought it was an interesting example of investing more time in the short-term for the sake of a better long-term outcome, that parallels the discussion in this post.

3 thoughts on “Changing the pattern of a relationship

  1. I’ve been guilty of doing the chore thing, but it’s something where I think something in my head “dinged” randomly a few weeks ago, and I’ve started asking the kids to help with the laundry. They’re excited to have a job to do – it’s not necessarily that they love doing it all the time, but they’re happy to do it and not upset, and as long as I’m okay with stuff taking longer, it’s good. So yeah – just “seconded” on that last paragraph. But it can be difficult to overcome an “optimization” mentality for the short term in order to gain long-term rewards. šŸ˜€

    1. Yeah, the reason I linked that story at the end is that the same “optimization” or “efficiency” mentality is mentioned by clients (and myself) as a reason to not speak up about a relationship. “if I speak up, it will lead to a big fight, and I don’t have the time or energy for that, so I just suck it up”. This post is an attempt to explain why it can sometimes be worth taking the short-term loss to improve the long-term trajectory.

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