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5. New Perspectives on Old Relationships

Even in the most tranquil of lives there lurks the Difficult Person. It might be a colleague who never does what he says he'll do. Or a sibling who shirks responsibility for looking after your aged parents. It might be a parent who doesn't seem to have noticed that you are no longer five years old. Or a member of staff who is always late. Or an impossible boss. Whoever or whatever your difficult person or relationship is, if it has been going on for some time there is one thing that it will have in common with everyone else's. A pattern. A very long time ago I read a book called The Dance of Anger by psychologist Harriet Lerner. I have absolutely no recollection as to why I bought it, but I remember its contents to this day. What Lerner says is that in every relationship there are patterns of interaction that are endlessly repeated. This is the kind of example she talks about: Husband comes in from garden in muddy shoes which he fails to remove. Mud on carpet. Wife notices, irritated. 'Look at your muddy shoes!' she says. Husband looks at feet and carpet. 'It's only a bit of mud', he says, 'it'll brush off easily enough'. Wife erupts. Does he know how much that carpet cost? Does he ever actually brush the mud off the carpet? Does he give a damn how she feels? Husband tells her she is overreacting. 'For God's sake, calm down,' he says. Wife moves from anger to incandescence. Husband takes self and muddy shoes back into the garden. Wife sits and cries. This scenario has happened not once, not twice, or three times, but tens of times in their relationship. As Lerner says, laboratory rats learn quicker than we humans do. In these repetitive situations we know very clearly that in order for the problem to stop, the other person just has to do x, or y. So simple, why on earth don't they do it? You may have noticed, however, that logical though your solution may be, somehow it never happens. You may also have noticed that you have no control whatever over what the other person does or doesn't do. In his famous book, Games People Play, Eric Berne talks about the way people issue invitations to play certain games. For example, there's the 'Ain't it awful game'. By way of invitation to play this game, Mr A says to Mr B, have you heard about how the government are planning to put tax on sandwiches, isn't it dreadful?' Mr B is well aware what is expected of him. 'I know,' he says, 'this government just keeps getting it wrong. And it's always people like us who have to pay. And did you hear what they did last week about schools?' Mr A responds with despair over education policy. And on it goes. Now, what if Mr B decides not to play the game, and says: 'Well, actually I think we do need to pay a bit more tax and see if we can get rid of some of this deficit we've got.' ? Everything becomes a little awkward. Mr A is stopped in his tracks. He probably feels a little annoyed with Mr B. Since when has he been an apologist for the government? And, more importantly, if they can't talk about what's wrong with everything, what on earth are they going to talk about? The same kind of thing was happening in the story above. Husband was effectively saying, 'Hey darling, we haven't played that 'I'm a slob, you're a victim' game for a while. How about it?' To which of course she replies, 'Absolutely!' If you have one of these patterns in your life and you're tired of it, the answer is to change what you do. The game can't proceed without you. Imagine how different it would be if Wife says: 'Oh! I'm so pleased you've come in with your muddy shoes on - I was just thinking yesterday that it would be best if we took up this carpet and put some vinyl down - that way it won't matter how much mud gets on it. What do you think? Try this 1. Identify a difficult person/relationship you want to handle better 2. Take a pencil and paper and draw a television screen. Draw yourself and the other person as two pin people talking to each other in a typical situation. 3. Watch and listen to the other person - What adjective would you use to describe the other person's behaviour? - What are they trying to achieve with their behaviour? 4. Then watch and listen to yourself - What adjective would you use to describe your behaviour? - What adjective would the other person use to describe your behaviour? - What are you trying to achieve? 5. Look carefully at this interaction and ask, - What is the pattern here, that keeps repeating itself? - How, precisely and expertly, have you been maintaining this pattern? 6. What could you do differently? Warning: If you do something different, the other person may not like it, and may try to pull you back into the usual game. If you really want to change a pattern, you need to persist through this phase.