There's only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self," novelist Aldous Huxley once wrote. His words sum up the premise of a new book by psychiatrist David D. Burns, MD, a pioneer in cognitive behavioral therapy and adjunct clinical professor emeritus at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Feeling Good,
Burns' 1980 book about combatting depression, was a best-seller. Now, based on new research involving more than 1,000 men and women and 25 years of clinical practice, he's written a sequel—Feeling Good Together: The Secret to Making Troubled Relationships Work.
"You can heal a relationship quickly and dramatically, with mind-blowing effects," Burns says. "But you must be willing to examine your own part in it and to see whether you are actually triggering the very problem you've been complaining about." Not that this is easy. We don't want to see ourselves as the cause of the problem, he says, "because it's painful—it hurts tremendously. But we need to give up blaming the other person, and to focus all our energy on changing ourselves." As extreme as it sounds, Burns insists that no matter how much at fault the other person is, you can't fix him (or her); but in a healthy relationship, once you start changing yourself, your partner will change too.
In Feeling Good Together
, Burns writes about a woman who is frustrated with her husband because he won't do his share of the chores; worse, when she tries to get emotionally close to him, he pushes her away. It's a classic case of she nags, he withdraws. One day, while he is making a potato casserole, she repeatedly suggests he use a food processor. He finally snaps, "Don't be so pushy! Leave me alone."
"Does it bother you when I suggest things that may make life a bit easier?" she retorts, stomping off in a huff. But what if, as Burns advises, she had said something like "Honey, it's hard for me to hear you say I'm pushy; I know you're right, and I'm sure it's irritating. I really love you and want to hear more about how you're feeling. But you just asked me to leave you alone, and I understand if you're not in the mood to talk right now." The simple—and courageous—act of finding the truth in what her husband is saying suddenly makes the wife appear neither bossy nor annoying. This truth-seeking skill is central to improving relationships, Burns says. "It's really difficult to see things through the eyes of the other person, but when you do, it's like seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. You wonder how you could have been missing it all these years." When the wife took Burns's advice and realized she was the one pushing her husband away, she began to cry—a breakthrough that opened the way to intimacy.
Such powerful insights are available to everyone. "If you are willing to change yourself and have a real love for your partner," says Burns, "you can both be reborn."
Does your relationship need a tune-up? Try Dr. Burns' exercises.