By Dr. Steve
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Accountability - -Chinese Proverb
Do not use a hatchet to remove
fly from your friends forehead.
about to discuss with you the most crucial ingredients of any relationship. Without these
elements, the relationship will become undefined and chaotic. Ive learned many
lessons aboutrelationships. No lesson has been any more important than the one I am going
to discuss now.
Support is the most important nutrient that allows any relationship to grow and thrive.
Support is to a relationship what water and air are to you and me.
I have worked with so many couples on this one skill and have
seen their lives change dramatically. Most people react the same way when I share the
lesson with them. I can see how support is critical, but how do I give support any
differently than I am giving it now?
Im going to share with you what I believe part of the
confusion about support is, and then demonstrate for you a simple four-step process. When
you master these four simple steps, you will have mastered the essence of
Support is a very simple thing to give, but I constantly see
people trip over themselves when trying to give support. Some people confuse fixing or care-taking
In my mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Support
is the communication of understanding, caring, and concern for your partner. Support is
the communication of the fundamental belief in the capabilities of your partner. Support
is acknowledging that your partners thoughts and feelings are valid and O.K. Support
is the communication of your belief in and your commitment to the relationship.
I was on a train one time for a ride to the country. A couple
was seated next to me. It was fall and the trees had just exploded into full color, but it
was obvious these two would not notice the beautiful scenery. They were on the verge of
shouting at each other. The argument went something like this.
He said, I would love to stop fighting if you would only
show me what we are fighting about. I dont see what we are supposed to fix by
arguing like this.
I dont want to fix anything, she said.
I wish you would slow down and listen to me. I feel so separated from you.
Then we should do stuff together, he said.
Maybe we could hit a ball game or go shopping. You like shopping.
No, just listen to me, she said.
What do you want? he said.
"Nothing, just listen ...
O.K. what? he said.
You dont have to do anything. I need your
support, she finally explained. But I did not get the feeling that he really
Often times people believe they are providing support by
creating solutions for a certain troubling circumstance. These well-intended people are
often confused when their partner responds negatively to their attempts at being
supportive by trying to solve the problem.
Solutions are not support. They are disguised attempts at
talking your partner out of their feelings in order to enhance your own level of personal
I observed another couple whos conversation went
something like this.
Lets go to a movie, O.K.? he said.
"I dont really feel up to a movie, she said.
Cant we go tomorrow?
Is it something I said? he asked.
I dont know. Just because. I just want to sit home
You dont feel like a movie because you just want
to sit and feel tired. Why cant we just get over these little setback kind of
feelings and go to the movie? It will make you feel better.
I dont want to.
You never want to, he pushed. Cant you
just get over it? I know this may seem tough, but, its for your own good.
I see support-giving go wrong time after time. Peoples
attempts at support-giving often disintegrate into a dissection of explanations and
justifications. One partner is looking for support, the other partner is looking for
vindication. Denying your intentions is not support. Explaining yourself is not support.
Your partner is never seeking a justification of your
behavior. Your partner is seeking acknowledgment that your behavior affects them--not an
explanation of your good intentions.
Your partner is seeking confirmation that you understand
them--not that you can analyze and explain your partner to themselves. Your partner is
seeking the comfort of realizing they are worth taking the time to be listened to--not the
covert message which fixing communicates,
You are hopeless, helpless, and worthless.
I know two fine people who have been together for many years.
One day I asked what secret kept them both talking to each other after so many
conversations for so long.
Well, he doesnt spend much time talking about my
reasoning or my ability to think in a straight line, she said smiling. You
know, our days are filled with wonderful smells from the flowers in the garden and tastes
from our kitchen and colors from the sky, and emotions. Thats what we talk
Her husband leaned over and said something I thought was
amazing. Life is a lot more fun son, when you can feel it instead of just think
He thought for a second before he continued, And
conversations about thinking get old after about
three or four years. If we didnt move on, wed have been stuck in a rut for the
past thirty years. Who wants to talk shop that
O.K., I hope Ive sold you on what support is. Now let me
take care of the second half of the challenge. How to provide support. Here it is in all
of its simplistic wonder.
Talk to your partner's feelings--not to your partner's
logic and beliefs.
This is one of my all-time favorites. The sheer elegance of
this statement is in its simplicity--the sheer majesty is how powerful it is.
Very simply, never, ever argue with your partners
feelings. You may not realize thats what you are doing. You may not have intended to
do it. You may want only the very best for your partner. But by violating this very simple
principle, you are causing more harm than creating good. Let me show you what I mean.
I know a doting mother who loves her daughter to death, and
with very good reason. This little girl is an angel.
One day I ran into the mother and I asked her about the joy of
her life. She looked at me with great hurt in her face and said, I feel
broken-hearted. She is so sad and I dont know what to do.
She went on to explain her daughter had entered that special
time of her life when boys had become her only interest. The fly in the ointment was her
daughter had expressed her belief that she was unattractive and would never be able to
have a boyfriend.
The mother went on to explain how she tried telling her
daughter how wrong she was about her attractiveness. Mom kept saying, You are wrong,
youre very attractive and youll have plenty of boyfriends.
It was then the mother looked at me with a confused look and
said, Steve, the more I kept trying to reassure her, the angrier she got.
The daughter finally stormed out of the room shouting at her
mother, You don't understand me and you dont understand what Im going
The mother looked sadly at me and said, All I was trying
to do was help by making her feel better.
I said to her, I dont doubt your good intentions,
but wouldnt you like to be well intended and effective at the same time. She
said, yes--so I gave her a few pointers.
Do not talk to your daughters beliefs. Father Martin
once said, Beliefs and attitudes die about six months after you do. People
will defend their beliefs to the very end.
Figure out what emotional experience your daughter may be
having. Is she scared she wont fit in with the right crowd? Is she ashamed she
doesnt dress the way everybody else does? Is she terrified the boy she likes will
not like her back? Is she confused by the whole new scene of dating?
Talk to whatever emotion you believe your daughter is
experiencing. It must be scary to like somebody and not be sure if he will like you
back, or It must feel awkward for you to try and fit in, or It
must feel overwhelming to figure out all the things you have to sort out about dating for
the first time.
Give your daughter permission and time to figure her feelings
out. Let her use you as a sounding board--not as somebody to invalidate whatever she is
going through by trying to talk her out of her beliefs.
This is the ultimate formula for support. When this formula is
implemented, any relationship will be less conflictual and more open. You will both feel
more validated and less misunderstood. These are the important seeds that create the
growth of more trust and support in the relationship.
Another time I was driving in a car with some close friends as
their young daughter talked about how much she disliked her new family. You see, her
mother had recently remarried and along with a step-father, came two step-brothers.
The mother reacted to this complaining by constantly
correcting her and telling her it wasnt true that she disliked her new family.
In fact, the mother gave her several reasons why she should be happy for this new family.
I watched sadly as the little girl gave-up and
withdrew--knowing no one would understand how she was feeling. No one would give her
permission to have those feelings--let alone talk about them. The mother wanted to hold
onto the appearance of happiness rather than risk rocking the boat and validating this
little girls feelings.
How would you have handled such a situation?
Tell the little girl how wrong she is? Or
... Provide support by listening instead of arguing with the
little girls beliefs.
Give 10 reasons why the little girl must be wrong? Or ... Try
to understand what feelings the little girl must be experiencing to have these beliefs.
Maybe she is frightened her mother wont love her anymore. Maybe she is feeling
jealous of the attention she will have to share with three new people. Maybe she is
feeling uprooted and not trusting the world is safe and predictable.
Tell the little girl, If you dont stop your
complaining, I am going to ground you for a week. Or ... It must be scary to
have all this change happening and you not knowing if you are still going to be loved the
same by your Mom.
Say to the little girl, I dont want to talk about
this any more. Or ... Whenever you want to talk about what is troubling you, I
want to be there for you.
O.K. thats support. Lets move on to limit setting
and accountability. These two ingredients are what provide strength and integrity to the
relationship-bridge. Without these two ingredients, any relationship bridge will be
structurally unsound and likely crumble.
Imagine a bridge constructed with crooked steel. Or a bridge
constructed with the kind of materials you dont know from day-to-day whether the
bridge will be rigid and brittle, mushy and collapsible, or flexible and
Would you trust your life to such a structure or find another
route to travel? Limit setting and accountability are the materials that ensure a
relationship bridge remains flexible and adaptable rather than becoming rigid and brittle
or soft and collapsible.
Limit setting and accountability permeate all aspects of the
work that takes place in our Bridge-Building groups. Many times the group members are
confronted with the job of limit-setting and creating accountability. It can be one of the
more frightening things for the group members to tackle. I have also seen it be one of the
most rewarding things group members have experienced when it is done effectively.
First-things-first. What is limit-setting and accountability?
People in a relationship must define what is in and out-of-bounds. People define this in
the following manner. The couple declare what is appropriate and what is not appropriate
behavior. This is done for the various facets of the relationship.
You pick the point of discussion. Is it a monogamous
relationship? Is it a relationship where you call each other three times a day? Is it a
relationship where people will be on time? Is it a relationship where people will
humiliate each other? These are all worked out through discussion. Remember, no question
is silly. Everything counts.
The other way to define the out-of -bounds line is for one or
both partners to test each other with behavior. People are always looking to redefine the
line or make the line crooked. We may have agreed to be punctual with each other, but I
continually show-up 10 minutes late. We may have agreed that I would no longer drink, but
I keep going over to my buddys house for a beer. We may have agreed that I
wont belittle you, but I continue to tease you and poke fun at you.
That is where accountability comes in. If you dont
create accountability for your behavior, the relationship will become distorted and less
defined. No one will know what to count on each other for. The sense of appropriateness
becomes distorted and less important.
I knew three roommates in college who got along better than
any three people living on campus. They shared a small apartment. One day I saw one of
them taking out the garbage, and I realized he had been taking it out every day that week.
When I asked why, he said, In our group, if you miss
your turn to do the dishes twice in a row, you have to take the garbage out all week. I
missed my turn twice, so I take the garbage out. Its kind of tough, but the system
makes sure we dont make each other miserable with filthy dishes.
I asked him what happens if he was completely irresponsible
and forgot to take out the trash as well.
I think they would empty it themselves, right on my
You may be asking yourself, if support, limit setting, and
accountability are so important, why is it so difficult to create and maintain?
In our Relationship Bridge-Building groups, we have a basic
contract that everybody has agreed to follow. However, many times someones behavior
will be different than what they agreed to in the contract. For example, anybody joining
the group agrees to attend meetings every week. Every so often, a group member will
repeatedly violate this agreed upon condition of the group. I always ask the group members
what they want to do about the situation.
Invariably, their first reaction is shock and surprise that
they have any kind of power to affect change in the way the relationship contract is being
honored. They are more accustomed to peoples behavior not being congruent with
their words and even more accustomed to the resultant feelings of powerlessness that goes
with such a situation.
The second shock comes when they realize their many fears
about creating accountability in their relationships. Once I challenge them to do
something about the lack of accountability, they become overwhelmed with fear and
self-doubt. What can we possibly do? What right do we have to impose our will on somebody
else? Wouldnt it be better not to say anything at all and hope that it will change?
The group members real fear was if they create
accountability in the relationship, the person will quit the group, or get angry and tell
them where they can get off. After the people in the group better understand how
frightened they are and what their fear means, they are more ready to do something
After the group members understand how their fears have eroded
their own personal empowerment, they are more ready to reclaim the power they have given
away. After the group members understand limit setting is an act of love and respect, not
an act of coercion and power, they are ready to implement the following basic steps to
creating limits and accountability in their relationships.
Initiate a discussion about what is happening in the
Articulate three specific points: 1) the specific behavior
that has created the concern; 2) the specific agreement that the concern has violated; 3)
the specific ways in which you are affected by the behavior of your partner.
Initiate a discussion that focuses on: 1) reconfirming the
initial agreement; 2) making any adjustment as needed to the original agreement; 3)
agreeing on consequences if the agreement is broken again.
Have the courage to be consistent when the agreement is broken
These four steps are the components of the formula for
predictability and accountability. I am going to apply the formula to the example I
discussed about a group member not attending weekly sessions.
STEP #1: Acknowledging the Problem
The members of the group must first initiate a conversation
with the group member who has been missing several group sessions. It must be specific and
to the point.
STEP #2: Addressing the Problem
The message from the group might sound something like this.
Your attendance has been irregular. We agreed we could expect each other to attend
weekly meetings. When I see you come irregularly, it makes me not able to trust you. It
makes me feel that Im not worthwhile. It makes me doubt your commitment to the
well-being of our relationship.
STEP #3: Solving the Problem
The process of solving the problem might go as follows.
It is important that we jointly come together on some sort of agreement whereby we
all can agree on what the solution to the problem is and what the consequences will be if
the misbehavior continues.
STEP #4 Enforcing the Agreement
Enforce the agreement as the need arises each time a problem
Let me emphasize one critical point. The process just
described should be undertaken in a spirit of mutuality and cooperation. This is a process
of negotiation--not imposition. This is a process of give-and-take--not
take-it-or-leave-it. This is a process that leaves everyone with their dignity--not a
process that strips somebody of their own right to make whatever choice is best for them
despite the consequences of their choice.
This allows everyone in a relationship to know what the
dimensions of the playing field are. It allows each other to know what is in-bounds. This
formula communicates love and respect for you and for your partner. And it allows any
relationship-bridge to maintain its integrity.
Years ago, I knew a couple who worked hard at this process.
They learned to give and they learned to take. It was really beautiful to see two people
whose life had dramatically changed by learning a skill. One night we were talking and I
said, Both of you are so obviously happy, what is the lesson you got out of learning
to do all of this Bridge-Building work?
One of them smiled back at me and said something that has
stayed with me since, Sometimes the biggest problem is trying to play the game
without knowing all of the rules.
chemical dependency and its toxic impact on family members. Raise your
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