If you’re unhappy, make a change. Sounds simple enough, right? Turns out a lot of us don’t actually want things to change. Dr David Burns explains in his book, Feeling Good Together, he tells his patients when asking for his help with their relationships, that they have three options: make a change, leave the relationship or keep everything exactly how it is. Surprisingly, (or not) he claims most choose to keep doing what they’ve been doing. They’d rather have something to complain about, somewhere to place blame, some kind of drama and excitement in their life, rather than make a change for the better, or leave the unhappy relationship all together.
Why is that? Why would we rather be unhappy than put in a little effort to change things we aren’t happy with? There are many reasons, but one is that little word I just mentioned – effort. It takes work to maintain a healthy, happy relationship in any area. Whether it’s romantic, friendships, or even a colleague. There’s uncomfortable conversations to be had, time spent doing things you’d rather not be doing, hard truths to face and bring into the light.
Another reason is that people enjoy feeling like they have the “upper hand” or a sense of superiority. I would love to disagree with this, say I’m above it, but reflecting on my last marriage, it’s painfully accurate. It was an awful relationship, from before we even got married. And yet I stayed for nearly a decade. Gaslighting is a powerful manipulation tool, I know that. But, there were times when I felt like I had the upper hand, like I was the “better person” after one of the dozens of times he cheated, for example. He’d cheat, I’d find out and in some way feel like I’d won something.
I spent a lot of time in therapy picking through this, and gaining some self-esteem and confidence made me realize that I didn’t need to feel like I had the upper hand to feel like I had some power and agency in my relationships. It was an incredibly toxic way to view things, and I had no idea when I was in the middle of it. I didn’t realize I was getting something out of it.
It’s hard to acknowledge and admit that you play a role in maintaining and fueling the problems in your relationships and with yourself. Self-awareness can be painful and feel humiliating. At least for me it did. To realize that I was doing things that actively disturbed my happiness because I was getting something out of it was devastating.
The good news, however, is that recognizing the issue is often the hardest part. Not always, since changing behaviors can be incredibly difficult obviously, but sometimes the answer is simple, and things can improve immediately, just by making some minor changes and some shifts in perspective. When you stop blaming other people for the problems you’re having, it opens up more options for healing, growth and happiness. And recognizing exactly what you are getting out of unhappy situations that you find yourself in over and over again is a great place to start.