Last fall, husband and I had a chance to visit Kauai. We were there with family and we also got some time to ourselves. With little hesitation, we rented snorkel gear and stand up paddle boards on the first day. We ended up doing little of both because of the strong waves. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop us from trying.
We drove to Poipu Beach Park which is on the south end of the island. We saw some amazing sea creatures, but something else was bothering me: my goggles. It kept leaking water in. I’d be in the water for no more than 30 seconds and my astonishment would be put out by the gradual overflowing of salt water that threatened my eyes and I’d have to re-surface. My husband came and checked on me a few times and I kept trying to make it work: I tightened my goggles, I breathed in to suck the goggles to my face, I tried to remove every trace of hair that might have been in the way. Some of you reading this can come up with yet a 4th way I could’ve tried to make it work, but by now, my forehead was turning purple and I wasn’t having any fun. The changes I was making were not working.
We finally decided to cut the trip short and went back to Snorkel Bob’s to exchange for a new pair of goggles. The next day, we headed to Salt Pond Park. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but to wonder, “Are my goggles going to work?” I took a moment to adjust to the water temperature and dove in. I was expecting water to slowly fill up. Nothing. I paddled around for a bit longer and ta-da! My goggles were water proof, as goggles should be! We enjoyed the rest of our snorkeling experience and saw for the first time, trumpetfish!
Shallow changes in intimate relationships
So why am I telling you this story? I believe that we often try to make shallow changes in our intimate relationships, changes we call “first order change” in family systems theory. First order change is when patterns of interactions are changed at the surface level and they usually involve changes in behaviors. Let’s say you and your partner are not getting along. Well, you should learn to communicate better, use “I” statements, carve out time to go on date nights or address a fair share of household chores.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for these changes, except I don’t believe that’s really the problem. These surface level changes will improve things momentarily, probably for longer than 30 seconds. But they don’t change the fact that something more is likely going on that’s causing the “leak” in your relationship. These problems might be surfacing because of deeper underlying issues in your marriage.
Deeper changes in couple relationships
So what is this deeper change and how is it possible? Yes, you guessed it: it’s called “second order change.” Second order change is when your relationship itself changes based on feedback from each other and hopefully, for the better. Underlying rules and beliefs about the relationship is called into question and altered. Let’s come back to your relationship.
Where you’re stuck in your relationship
Same problem: you’re not getting along. Your partner is super defensive when you bring something up and ends up hiding out at work. You become more frustrated every time you approach him and all he hears is your anger. You want to feel loved, accepted, important, and connected and it’s not happening. Your partner feels criticized, misunderstood, like he can’t do anything right. He also feels scared about rocking the boat, because he doesn’t want to make things worse. His feelings of inadequacy makes him withdraw even more. Sounds familiar? Are you tell me that this is just a communication problem and you can fix it by throwing solutions at it?
Want to feel close and connected with your partner?
The thing is, deeper changes lie in each of you recognizing that you have a part to play in the dance. As one of you pursues, often times out of desperation seen as anger, the other gets defensive and withdraws, often due to feelings of incompetence and shame. It’s not as simple as asking you to stop pursuing and the other to stop running away. After all, you have reasons for why you do what you do. Rather, it’s about recognizing that this dance is not working and it’s time to put on a different set of music. We’d still go snorkeling, but let’s switch out the goggles.
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT)
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) is a heavily research-based model for the treatment of couples. It gets at the underlying needs for couples to feel close, desired, and accepted in their intimate relationship. It focuses on how each partner influences the other and whatever rules or beliefs you had about your relationship will naturally shift as you experience your partner in new ways.
This is hard work and it’s not for the faint of heart. Let me know when you’re ready to trade in your goggles. I'll be here.
Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps distressed couples and breast cancer patients. That can also mean couples distressed by a partner’s cancer diagnosis, or couples wishing to use their marriage as a resource during their cancer journey. When she’s not thinking about couples and cancer, she loves to go play with her husband! Her favorite sea creature while snorkeling in Hawaii will always be the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a.