I think the most useful thing I’ve done in my relationship with my partner is to stop complaining about what I didn’t get, (“I’m upset because you _________.”) and instead, ask for what I want.
This doesn’t mean I always get what I want, but the vast majority of the time I do.
I helped myself greatly when I stopped trying to link every behavior to a cause. I no longer use some event from my childhood to explain why I behave the way I do as an adult. I no longer even use my wife’s behavior (the cause) to explain my behavior (the effect). In essence, I’ve done away with building cause-effect arguments.
Why? Well, you see when I was four-years-old I suffered a terrible tragedy . . . just kidding! I’m not going to tell you why. I don’t care why. All I care about is how I conduct myself in the moment. To me, this is a step into maturity—dealing with what’s going on right now.
The entire cause-effect construct, which is at the heart of Newtonian physics, reduced the world to this idea that one thing causes another. Your behavior causes my behavior. My upbringing causes my present day immaturity. My getting bad news about something gives me a right to be impatient with you.
I think this is one of the great flaws in contemporary psychology. When we listen to our clients tell us their stories and then we sincerely validate their experience, we are largely validating their belief that they behave the way they do because of some external event or some internal belief. But what happened to choice?
I don’t want to sound uncaring when a client tells me their story. I have compassion for the suffering my client’s experience. But I don’t want to support the idea that what they are telling me is real and true.
We each make up the meaning for every event that takes place in our lives. Most of us never learned how to make meaning, it’s just something we picked up from our parents or teachers of various sorts. And, one of the primary ways that most of us make meaning is by linking cause and effect—creating a story to justify our behaviors.
See what happens if you stop doing this. The next time you get ready to complain about what your partner didn’t do right—which you are suggesting is why you are unhappy—don’t! Just ask for what you want. Skip the story. Stop building a case. Just ask for what you want. See what happens.
For those of you who work with clients in therapy, see what happens if you stop buying into their cause-effect explanations. What I do is I shift the focus from cause-effect to a simple question, “How would you like to conduct yourself now?” Regardless of what happened, yes I heard you say that it was terribly unfair, but I’m mostly interested to understand, “How would you like to conduct yourself now?”