I get a lot of clients who do good work in therapy and therefore start seeing changes in themselves and in their spouse. Everybody begins feeling hopeful and then invariably – and almost predictably – something happens that puts them right back in that place of pain, disappointment, or hopelessness that brought them to therapy to begin with.
I will hear them say things to me like, “The change is never going to last.”, or “This isn’t working.” when maybe a week or two ago, they were feeling very hopeful.
So what’s happening?
How Change Really Happens
The natural progression of change is happening. You see, change does not happen on a graph as a straight line up. It simply doesn’t work that way.
The best way I know to explain change is from a poem I read a long time by Portia Nelson, and it’s called “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk”, and it goes something like this:
I’m going out for a walk one day, the skies are blue, the sun’s shining, all of a sudden it’s really dark. I have fallen into a hole. How did I get here? It’s not my fault. I don’t know how to get out. But somehow I get out and I go on my way.
And the next day, I know there’s a hole. I try really hard to avoid it, but I end up sliding into the hole anyway. I’m back right where I was yesterday. I get out and I say, I’m never going to do that again.
And yet each day I go out, knowing exactly where the hole is and doing everything I can to get around it, I sometimes still end up in the hole.
Finally, one day I realize I just need to take a different sidewalk. I know there is a hole in the other one and I make a conscious decision to take a new path.
That’s how real change happens. It’s not a one and done. It’s a process.
Learning to Avoid the Hole
If you don’t have grace for yourself or for each other in the process, you’ll never get to the finish line. Instead, you’ll give up. This is especially true of hard change, like changing the way you react to things or changing the way that you hear or don’t hear your partner. It takes time and practice.
And so, if you’re seeing improvement, if you’re seeing you or your spouse making strides and you still end up back where you thought you were, don’t get discouraged. Remember, it’s just another hole in the sidewalk. Get yourself out of the hole and keep on tracking. That’s how change occurs.