Posted on February 7th, 2017
It happens frequently in couples counseling. A husband or wife will agree to try some new behavior their partner has been asking for. It doesn’t matter what the new behavior is—showing up on time, saying positive things, putting dishes in the dishwasher, not fading out of conversations. When the couple returns for their next session, the one doing the action will say the week was very different, but the recipient has not noticed any change.
When this happens in everyday life, it can result in frustration, arguments, and the end of trying any new behavior. One advantage of couples counseling is having the emotional space to ask what is actually going on in this situation.
The answer almost always is that the new behavior has not crossed the threshold of awareness. You can try some new behavior dozens of times. But if what you do is not noticed by your partner, it is as though it never happened. Neither of you is wrong, but the new behavior has just not been done largely enough to get your partner’s attention.
We are all often oblivious to noticing new behaviors; we see what we are used to seeing. We also commonly have resistance to new behaviors, even ones we have been wanting. New behaviors requires new responses, and it’s easier to do what we have always done—even if that is complaining—than it is to notice that things are changing and to have to deal with the impact of the change on us.
No one is necessarily at fault in this situation. What is required is a larger and much more sustained level of activity around the new behavior, more attention on the part of both partners. It helps to think of this as a collaborative process, rather than an oppositional one. Two people are working together to do something new, something which you both want. As soon as it is noticed, you are both likely to be pleased and have new energy for productive change.