| Family Reflections |


When people don’t want to change, you can’t make them

You know how it goes: two kids are screaming and clawing at each other, trying to grab something, pushing, shoving, yelling for you to come. You arrive.

“What’s going on here?” you inquire. “He started it!” the two boys shout simultaneously.

Even when you try to slow things down, to understand what happened step-by-step, the stories are filled with blame. “He wouldn’t let me have my turn!”

“Well my turn wasn’t up yet, and he always comes early and tries to push me off!”

“Not true!”.

“Is so true!” and  on and on and on.

You’re confused and decide that punishing both of them makes the most sense. “You’ve both lost dessert.”

Actually, that’s what you want to say, because that’s what your mom would have done in this situation. But clever you: you know better. You know you’ve got to support both of your children emotionally, validate their concerns, guide them gently in the art of negotiation. Too bad they’re still screaming.

You Don’t Get It

Even if you attempt to help them now, these kids aren’t listening. They’re too wrapped up in their stories. “You always let him get away with it!” says one, wallowing in feelings of betrayal and victimization. Why aren’t you punishing the villain? Why are you even listening to that guy’s pack of lies? There’s no justice in this house.

At least, that’s the way this youngster is feeling.

And the other one? He’s just as certain that you’ve done him wrong, that you  don’t understand how annoying that brother is. He sees you trying to be fair and realizes that you do not — and will not — ever understand his pain. You’re in a no-win situation here. There are no customers for your “classes.” No one is budging. They’re stuck.

Each of these two children feels victimized by the other. And not just today. It’s been going on for years. Each new episode builds upon the previous one, solidifying feelings of resentment and helplessness. The kids are on their own, fighting for their own survival. Or so it seems to them.

But why? These fights are so silly. Or so it seems to you. Why can’t they just get along? Why don’t they compromise, find solutions, realize that working together will bring them closer and make them happier? Why don’t they just try to look at it from the other fellow’s perspective? It’s not that hard!

The Blame Game

Only it is. Adults act pretty much the same. Husbands and wives tell their therapists, “He/she started it!” The hurtful incidents occur for years on end, building a wall of resentment and pain between them. The therapist who understands them both, clearly doesn’t understand either of them.

As for reconciliation — no way. The other spouse can’t be trusted to be nice. “He/she will never change.” There’s a standoff, with each one refusing to make a move. “I’ve tried enough. I’m tired of trying.” They want the other partner to do all the changing now, while believing that he or she is incapable of change.

The clients are stuck. And so, like the parent, the therapist is also stuck. Can you make anyone change who doesn’t want to? Can a bad relationship become better if neither party wants to change?

Getting Unstuck

Obviously, someone has to acknowledge wrongdoing, apologize, make amends, and do better in the future. Waiting for the other party to do it won’t work because the other party won’t do it. Do I (or you) want a more peaceful, happier, more love-filled life? Then it’s up to me (or you) to make the change that will start that process.

Parents, therapists, friends, and others can only understand the relationship pain of others up to a point. Hurt and heartbreak is held in the privacy of the soul. No outsider can really get it. People who are hurt have good reason for remaining stuck, and if that’s where they want to stay, others need to respect that. “You’re both hurting and neither of you wants to fix it. I get that. If anyone changes his/her mind, I’m here to help.”

Sometimes, when kids or adults realize that no outsider can actually help, they decide to help themselves. Given the freedom and the right to be in pain, they become ready to find healing and happiness. Helpers need to know that sometimes, just allowing people to remain stuck is what allows them to become unstuck.

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 679)

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Tagged: Family Reflections