When it comes to change and growth, it’s easy to understand that it is a process without perfect progress. Just like the stock market, things go up and things go down, but the overall trajectory is upward. The same is true for relationship change. Most people would agree that change in relationship is going to take time and involves ups and downs. And, the longer the history of what you’re changing, the more ups and downs there will be on the way to doing something different. In couples therapy, Orange County couples I see often say, “We’re back at square one.” It’s usually when there is a downturn in the relationship progress and they are feeling hopeless. Now, I understand the discouragement when relationships slip back into old patterns. But, saying that things are “back to square one” isn’t really fair, or even accurate. All the change and growth that had been going on is still real and did happen. All is not lost. This is where I think we can all take a lesson from Grover, the fuzzy blue puppet from Sesame Street.
In one skit, Grover is teaching children the difference between “near” and “far.” He moves close to the camera and says, “This is near,” then runs to the back of the stage, and in a long, loud voice yells “This is Faaaaar.” I think that’s more accurate for describing the back and forth that happens in relationships, particularly when they are changing. Sometimes they are near and connected, and other times they are far and less connected. But, they are still visible on the relational “stage” even when they are far away. Just as Grover doesn’t disappear when he goes “far,” your partner, the progress they have made and the relationship are not lost when they are far away.
Now this all seems simple to say when things are going well and you are feeling secure and connected. But, when things have taken a downturn and the relationship becomes far apart, old fears and beliefs are triggered. Then, it’s very difficult to say what you would like: to be near. Outside of the triggering moment, it seems obvious that you’re going to get a better result if you say to your partner, “I feel distant and would like to get near again and connect.” That’s probably going to get a better result than saying, “You always pull away in our relationship and never want to spend time with me!” Both statements are recognizing the distance in the relationship, but the first version is saying what is wanted; to be near. The second statement is defensive and fear driven, and pushes the other person away. The desire to be near is hidden under the hurt-driven accusations and statements because it may feel in that moment that your partner isn’t even visible on the relationship “stage.” Those are the kind of “back at square one” statements that make reconnection so difficult.
Having the kind of courage to speak your desire for closeness takes practice and repetition. Just like Grover patiently repeats “near” and “far” over and over again to teach this new concept (with laughable results), it’s going to take practice and effort to learn how to speak the feelings of “near” and “far” in relationships without fearfully discounting all progress with a “back to square one” type statement. This is where couples counseling with an Orange County psychologist can help contain the reactivity and keep the focus on reality: that all is not lost and connecting again is possible. When I work with couples, I find what often helps is when the couple can put into language the ways in which they are triggered, and ask for what they really want. Staying silent about your need for closeness and connection is not neutral and, over time will actually drive a wedge and increase the isolation in a couple.
So the next time you’re feeling distant and “back at square one” in your relationship, take a lesson from our fuzzy blue friend, Grover, and tell the other person you are feeling “Faaaaaar” and would like to feel “near.”