So how to break the cycle? Simply recognizing it is a big first step. Polarized partners can get so caught up in blaming each other that they fail to acknowledge their own role. Shifting focus from what the other person is doing wrong to where the system is going wrong can edit out the mutual maligning that makes polarization so toxic. Couples learn to see the source of their disagreements as existing outside themselves: The problem becomes an "it" rather than a "you."
With my lists and my nagging, I had slid right into the demander role. And Dan's vagueness was a maddening form of withdrawal. Our stances were reinforcing each other: The more I put my foot down about L.A., the more Dan put his foot on the brakes. But finding our polarity—realizing I'm a more impulsive decisionmaker than Dan—gave me patience with his vacillations. No matter how much I prodded, he wasn't going to book the next flight to the West Coast, and I had to make peace with that. The problem wasn't him. It wasn't me, either. We just made decisions differently. In better times, I treasured his thoughtfulness. As I'd been telling my clients for months, it's easier to change the "system"—by changing yourself—than to change your partner.
We started small. One couples therapy technique is to take issues off the table temporarily when they become too loaded—to get a bit of breathing room, relieve the tension that's choking off a relationship's oxygen, and stop feeding the demand-withdraw beast. So Dan and I put a moratorium on talking about his move. In the phone calls that followed, we talked about his music, my classmates—anything and everything but the specter of Los Angeles. I felt as though I was talking to a friend again.
Then, a few weeks into our self-imposed hiatus, I broached the Big Move as carefully as I could. "I know this is hard, and we don't want to get into another rut where I'm confronting and you feel attacked," I began. "So let's talk about when you'll feel ready to come out here. No matter what you say, I'll listen and I won't try to argue with you."
Dan's response floored me. He'd been struggling with the prospect of the move more intensely than I'd ever suspected. And he hadn't been dragging his feet because of doubts about our relationship. It was fear—not an allergic reaction to me—that was holding him back: He felt terrified that if he left his New York contacts behind, he'd never find steady work in L.A.
We Hear You!