Dr. Lynn Margolies
We all are faced at times with trying to persuade others to make behavioral changes, or needing to do so ourselves. These efforts can leave us feeling frustrated and helpless; our good intentions seem to be in vain.
Why is it that we don’t act to change patterns, even when we promise to do so and it is obviously in our best interest? A good example of this seemingly illogical phenomenon comes from therapy. We invest time and money in counseling but then, even when we agree with the given recommendations or homework assignments, neglect to follow through.
Often it takes repeated failures for us to figure out that something is awry and more is needed than willpower or good intentions. In many situations, we never even question whether the person we are trying to help is actually on board as a true ally in the work, though this is often the key issue.
Michael’s therapist had been seeing him and his wife in marital therapy. When they met privately, it became clear that he had again failed to follow through on homework that he had agreed would help improve his marriage. This was curious, given his motivation and genuine desire to be closer with his wife. His progress had not been a problem before, particularly because his wife had been very rejecting and critical of him for years. She was the one who needed to change first in order for the marriage to go forward. She had since worked hard to make those changes and was, in fact, sustaining the relationship. But now Michael was causing a stalemate.
Michael explained that he was “forgetting” to do the assignments. Though at first this sounded like an excuse, it actually was not implausible - Michael was somewhat forgetful in general. Further, given his limited experience and lack of comfort with emotional expression and connection, the changes he needed to make were not natural to him and required conscious thought and effort. However, this is true with most change.
In this case, Michael was asked to state aloud to his wife positive feelings about what she was saying, doing, or how she looked. This assignment required him to notice and make explicit his own feelings and feelings about her. Though he could retrospectively report having positive feelings toward her at various times throughout the week, these internal experiences were often not “on his radar screen” or easy to make explicit.
Making a Commitment to Change
Michael was a highly successful entrepreneur and a man of integrity. To have reached such a prominent position in his career, he must have figured out how to remember and follow through on difficult matters. But why couldn’t he do the same in his private life? Michael had a ready answer to this question, and knowingly described how he did it. The most important part was that he would make a firm commitment, and then later remind himself explicitly by thinking about it and planning the details. Once he did that, success in following through was guaranteed.
Michael’s resistance to change - which took the form of a lack of commitment to his therapy assignments - was surprising, and had been well hidden. He did not seem to be struggling with anger or resentment, the most common reasons for couples’ underlying resistance. Anger and resentment often express themselves as resistance to moving forward through passive-aggressive acting out. Then, disowned anger or resentment spills out unconsciously and symptoms such as “forgetting” occur. However, Michael did not seem to be harboring resentment or acting out. He also seemed fully engaged and motivated in the treatment.
As sessions probed Michael’s failure to commit to therapy and the work required to improve his marriage, he talked about feeling hopeless that his marriage would work out in the end. He feared that it would not and seemed to be preparing himself for the inevitable. Believing that his actions would not have an effect on the marriage was a familiar feeling for Michael. A central dynamic in his relationship with his wife was that he felt invisible, dismissed, and devalued. This dynamic accumulated, leading him to feel defeated and give up (though this was unconscious), despite his wife having made changes.
Barriers to Change
In Michael’s case, hopelessness was the barrier to change. Other common conditions which pose obstacles to change include: feeling powerless, controlled, depressed and angry. There also is the compulsion to engage in competing behaviors, such as addictions. Identifying and trying to resolve whatever is driving the resistance is the first step toward creating an opening where change can occur.
Through discussion in therapy, Michael came to recognize that if his marriage in fact ultimately failed, he would feel guilty and unresolved if he hadn’t done everything in his power to try to make it work. This recognition was the leverage needed for him to be motivated enough to make the commitment to treatment. When he did make this decision, he was in fact able to have a positive effect on his marriage.
Fear often creates leverage, which is why sometimes couples cannot get “unstuck” until a crisis in the marriage leads them to the brink of destruction. Only then are they able to come face to face with the real possibility of losing their marriage. In such situations, in order to break through the resistance and provide the leverage needed to commit to do the work, the fear of loss has to become greater than the fear of change.
Identifying where the leverage is helps provide incentive needed to offset the risk and difficulty of altering familiar, “safe” patterns. Change is hard and takes people out of their comfort zone into new and possibly scary or risky territory. Why take a risk and do something unnatural? What will be in it for them?
In this example, the risk for Michael was that if he allowed himself to have hope, he might again be disappointed and rebuffed by his wife. The leverage, though, was helping Michael look into himself and project how he might feel in the future. In doing so he recognized that giving up now and not trying would leave him feeling more defeated and guilty, forever unresolved and uncertain. Also, he was then able to see that his hopelessness was self-fulfilling. Inadvertently, he had been setting up his marriage to fail rather than allowing himself to discover the actual truth about whether or not it could work out.
This process of thinking things through allowed Michael to be "onto himself" which shifted what he viewed as risky in the long run, and helped him make a more self-protective decision.
The final ingredient in the recipe for change is capacity. For example, a man who is unable to recognize his own and others’ feelings will not be able to become more empathic to his wife until he gets help with this problem and develops these skills. A child with an executive function problem will not be able to will himself to “buckle down” and complete his assignments. Instead he will need help developing strategies to compensate for the capacities that are compromised, while those around him must adjust their expectations of him to accommodate his capacities. Men with sex addictions or women with eating disorders cannot simply stop being self-destructive. They need help understanding the function of these behaviors, learning strategies to deal with the underlying forces driving them, and developing presence of mind and alternate coping strategies.
Change is complicated and multifaceted. Motivation accompanied by an explicit, intentional commitment to work toward change is the foundation of any psychological, behavioral transformation.
This commitment does not exist by default and should not be presumed to be in place. In fact, it is often the missing, invisible saboteur that acts as a roadblock to moving forward. Many "helpers" naively assume a "treatment alliance" (meaning an authentic alignment toward a common goal, which has a sustaining function through the often difficult journey of therapy).
So when you, a loved one, or a client is at an impasse, ask yourself or the one you are trying to help whether in fact such a commitment has been made. Explore directly the possibility of (unconscious) psychological interference and learn how to find where the leverage is.
Finally, if those elements are in place but progress still is not on the horizon, the person’s capacity to effect the changes in question must be reconsidered.
Disclaimer: The characters from these vignettes are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.