Linda: There’s a story (it may be apocryphal but it’s a great story anyway) about a frog being put in a beaker of boiling water. Not surprisingly, he jumps out instantly and survives. When that same frog was placed in a beaker of room temperature water in which the temperature was slowly increased over time, he stayed in the beaker as the temperature slowly rose to the boiling point and he was cooked to death.
Human beings, as well as frogs, have remarkable powers of adaptation. And this is a good thing. We can adapt to an incredibly wide range of conditions as the circumstances of our environment change, as they often do. If these changes come about gradually, our powers of adaptation can work much more effectively than if the changes are more sudden. There is, however, a downside to this ability to adjust to changing circumstances, and that is that we may inadvertently adapt to conditions that are dangerous and even life-threatening when the changes are so subtle that we don’t realize that we’re being overcooked. It’s better after all to avoid or jump out of some things rather than to tolerate them.
In my line of work, I have had people come to me who have been suffering with various types of unhappiness for months, years, even decades. It is remarkable how pain-tolerant we can be. I frequently tell my clients the frog in boiling water story to offer them a metaphor that might help them to see the nature of their situation and choose to either jump out before they get cooked, or figure out a way to cool down the water temperature. I hope that my dramatic language will assist them to see that they are at risk of boiling to death if they don’t take some kind of action.
Most people get the point immediately. There is however, a world of difference between understanding something and acting on it. Making life changes is scary to most of us. We tend to want to hold on to what we know rather than to risk stepping into the unknown. The idea of doing your own work means accepting the fact that “if it’s to be, it’s up to me” and taking responsibility for doing our part to influence a shift in the relationship system that we’ve co-created. This doesn’t guarantee that things will change for the better; it just makes it more likely that they will. In taking this responsibility, we become clearer about what we want and need in order to thrive in our relationship and more aware of options that were not previously apparent to us.
There are lots of reasons that people have for staying in bad relationships: children, money, fear loneliness, fear of the unknown, concern about others’ judgments, fear of punishment, believing that commitment is forever, or retribution, hope that things will somehow improve, for starters. These reasons are neither good nor bad. They are simply the motivating forces that prompt us to stay in relationship. This is not to say that it’s better to leave a painful relationship than it is to hang in there and go the distance to try to make it work. As the song says, “knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em” is the real question. When we are in a bad relationship, we can feel trapped, helpless, ineffectual, and resentful. Pain is a great motivator to risk something new. No matter what the reason is for staying in a bad relationship, when we keep the focus of attention on ourselves and doing our own work rather than focusing on what our partner is doing wrong positive change becomes a greater possibility. Not a certainty, just a possibility. Doing something different than that which we were doing before means breaking old habits. It means detaching from the expectation that the other person will bring us happiness and taking responsibility for bringing it into our own life.
Once we commit to making ourselves happy by doing the activities that bring us joy and being with those people who reflect back to us our finer qualities, things will begin to shift. One of two things will happen if we consistently focus our attention on ourselves:
(1) The relationship will improve or
(2) It will become evident that the situation is unworkable.
One way or the other, we are out of the holding pattern where there was no movement. Either way, whether we stay or go, our self-esteem goes up, and we feel better about our life and ourselves.
This process may at times require us to be willing to risk losing the relationship. There may be times when a relationship that is not working for one or both partners, actually has to die in the form that it has been in.
This is the risk that may have to be taken in order to move from breakdown to breakthrough rather than breakup.
Our willingness to risk this and to feel the fear and pain that confronting the truth of our situation can bring opens our eyes to other possibilities that may be beneficial and valuable to us whether our relationship continues or not.
When both partners are doing their own work, the likelihood of a breakthrough is greatly increased. There are, however no guarantees that you will come through this process with an intact partnership. Some couples are just mismatched. The most gifted therapist and the most hard-working couple cannot be sure where this process will lead. Regardless of the outcome, if you’ve given things your best shot, the end result of your efforts will be a feeling of self-respect, without the regrets and “if-onlies” that come from jumping out too soon. Staying in touch with your feelings along the way and responding to the warning signals will help you to avoid the “frog-in-boiling-water” syndrome. In addition, it’s likely that you will have developed some worthwhile relationship skills that will hold you in good stead in this and/or future relationships.
Admittedly, this can be a challenging process. It requires the willingness to exercise such practices as speaking without blame or judgment, listening without reactivity, presencing vulnerability in regard to fear and pain, and the willingness to identify and heal emotional wounds that have kept us locked in defensive patterns.
It is always, of course, a risk to leave the holding pattern behind. It’s a risk to dare to raise the standard of the relationship up to gold status. We may have to deal with that part of ourselves that may not feel worthy of “going for the gold” and disengage from outmoded beliefs of our own deservedness.
This “inner work” grows us into the person who we have always hoped to become, the person of our dreams, someone who is capable of creating a truly fulfilling relationship with a partner who recognizes and appreciates our beauty as do we ourselves.
Examine what holding patterns you may be settling for. Tell yourself the truth and examine the options. When two people are making skillful relationship choices, there is no limit to where things can go.