As a psychology student, I had the opportunity (if that’s what you want to call it) to observe how quickly rats learn by observing them as they searched through mazes looking for a piece of hidden cheese. We can take a lesson from these rats.
You have a maze that contains five tunnels. Take a piece of cheese and place it down tunnel number four. Release a hungry rat and initially the rat will explore the tunnels looking for the cheese. As soon as it discovers the cheese is down tunnel number four, it will begin its search there each time. As long as you continue placing the cheese down tunnel number four, it will ignore all the other tunnels and only go down tunnel number four. However, if you change things and place the cheese down a different tunnel, the rat will very quickly switch gears and search the other tunnels.
Now, it is said that the only difference between rats and human beings is that human beings will go down tunnel number four for the rest of their lives because they will tell themselves, “I know this is the right tunnel. It’s got to be here. I know I’m right.” People are more intent on proving to themselves that they’re right than they are in achieving their goals! A friend of mine says that human beings will even set up lawn chairs outside of tunnel number four waiting for the cheese to arrive! Funny, isn’t it?
When it comes to pursuing the cheeseless tunnels in our lives, it isn’t very funny at all. It makes us miserable and weakens our marriages. Why? Because when you do more of what hasn’t been working, you not only fail to eliminate the problems in your life, you actually make things worse. How?
When we’re unhappy in our marriages, we do something to try to fix the situation. If we’re successful, life goes on. If we’re not successful, instead of telling ourselves, “That didn’t work, better try something new,” we simply keep doing more of the same. Often, because we assume that we weren’t emphatic enough, we even step up our efforts, and try it “one more time with feeling.” That’s when real trouble begins.
The wife who wants her husband to be more communicative sits him down and tells him she’s unhappy about his aloofness. He empathetically acknowledges her concern. But the next morning at the breakfast table, he picks up the newspaper and starts reading. She tells herself that she probably didn’t make herself clear so, once again, she tells him of her dissatisfaction. Now, he feels she’s nagging so he withdraws even more – which prompts her to lecture him again. Feeling badgered, he leaves the room and she follows him, crying. The more she pursues the more he withdraws. The more he withdraws, the more she pursues.
Consider Sue and Sam. They had major disagreements about how to handle their teenage son, Larry. Sue thought Sam was too strict, whereas Sam thought Sue was too lenient. Every time Sam laid down the law, Sue would intervene and undermine his plan. This enraged Sam, and he became even harsher with Larry. Seeing Sam scold Larry prompted Sue to defend Larry more emphatically, which, in turn, triggered an even harsher response in Sam. Sue didn’t realize how her intervention brought out the worst in Sam. Sam didn’t realize how his hotheaded approach with Larry triggered Sue’s interfering behavior. They were both doing more of the same, and their family life deteriorated.
Sometimes the very thing you do to solve the problem – the strategy you use or the coping mechanism that comes naturally to you – is what’s actually prompting your partner to persist and escalate the annoying behavior. I’ve seen this happen in my practice all the time.
The first thing you need to know here is that everybody in the world engages in “more of the same” behavior. We all do it. I do it. You do it. Your spouse does it. Your neighbor does it. Everyone does it. In fact, I would say that the reason you do what you do to solve problems is because it’s the most logical thing to do. You may have done a lot of research and you’re convinced it’s the “best” thing to do. But just because your plan of attack is logical, doesn’t mean it is going to be effective. I can’t tell you how many couples I see who stay stuck in the same marital problems for years because each spouse is convinced that s/he is right, and therefore, is unwilling to try a new approach. Never mind that it isn’t working!
Have you and your partner had arguments where you say and do the same exact things each time the disagreement pops up? You make your point, your spouse defends him or herself, you do the same, and you’re off and running. You can predict with great accuracy every expression on your partner’s face and the precise words s/he will use. Your partner can do the same thing about you. You’ve had these arguments so many times you’ve memorized the entire scene. You know your spouse’s lines so well, if s/he got sick, you could be the understudy. I sometimes jokingly think that instead of doing the same old argument over and over couples should just say to each other, “Honey, we haven’t done argument # 7 for a long time, why don’t we do it tonight?”
Here are a few of the topics that prompt “more of the same behavior” in couples:
- Money matters
- How free time is spent
- Extended family issues (mothers-in-law, sisters, brothers, etc.)
- Household chores
Get the picture? Sometimes, it’s not the topic that pushes your “more of the same” buttons, it’s the time of day, week, month, or year. For example, lots of couples find themselves doing “more of the same” during the “bewitching hour,” in the evening when people take off their career hats and put on their family hats. That’s when the phone rings, the doorbell sounds, the kids are fighting, and the grilled cheese sandwich starts burning on the stove top. Couples tell me that even though they can and do anticipate the tension during the bewitching hour, they always approach it in the exactly same way, a way that adds to the chaos. Sound familiar? Here are some other time-related triggers:
- Bill payment time
- Mornings as everyone is rushing out the door
- Visits from out-of-towners
- Winters when the sun doesn’t shine
- PMS time (sorry, women)
- During an extra-heavy workload period
- Every Sunday night before the work/school week
I imagine that you can conjure some images of the scenes that have taken place in your house that have been instant replays. I also imagine that you have told yourself time and time again, “I can’t believe how stubborn s/he is.” Right? Well, my friend, the more stubborn you think your spouse is, the more stubbornly you have adhered to doing more of the same. It’s time to be honest with yourself and identify your own cheeseless tunnel. Get out your penicl and answer the following questions. Don’t fudge.
Think of a troublesome situation or argument that arises on a regular basis. What is it about? If you can think of more than one, write that down too.
- What is your usual way of handling it? What do you say? What do you do?
- What’s your partner’s usual way of handling it? What does s/he say and do?
- When your partner stubbornly makes his/her point or acts a certain way, what do you typically do in return?
If you are having any difficulty answering the questions above, answer the following question. Although you may not agree with your partner on this point, what would s/he say you do that drives him/her nuts in regards to this problem?
By now you should have a pretty good idea about the strategies you’ve been using that are worth abandoning. They’re not worth doing if they aren’t bring you closer to your spouse and helping you to feel more love in your life.
In every situation that arises in your marriage, it would be great if you could take a deep breath before you do anything and ask yourself, “What is my goal here?” Are you hoping to feel closer to your spouse Are you expecting to spend the evening together peacefully? Once your goal is in sight, ask yourself another question. “Is what I’m about to do going to bring me closer or move me farther away from my goal?” If the answer is “closer,” then, by all means, stick with your plan. If the answer is, “farther away” stop. Do not proceed. Do something different instead.
Now that you’ve had a chance to think about what you do that is unproductive, you can no longer pretend you don’t know how you have been contributing to the problems you’ve been experiencing. I want you to make a commitment to becoming more conscious of the times when you are only making matters worse by stubbornly sticking to what you know isn’t working. More important, I want you to promise that you will try your very best to become solution-oriented and more creative and try something really different when the same old situation pops up again. And it will. The great thing about marriage is that it gives you a lot of opportunities to practice and get things right!
I know that some people get really nervous when I tell them to switch gears because they’re afraid they might inadvertently make matters worse. If you’re nervous, don’t be. These new tunnels can ultimately save your marriage. Trust me on this one. The only way you can really screw things up is to continue doing what you know backfires. That’s the only formula for disaster. Most other alternatives are filled with possibilities. Give it a shot!!
Michele Weiner Davis is the creator of the Divorce Busting Centers, learn more on how you can solve marriage problems and stop divorce. Follow me on Twitter @divorcebusting, add my Divorce Busting Facebook Page, and subscribe to the Divorce Busting YouTube Videos for more advice and upcoming marriage saving events.