As a relationship expert, understanding the nuances of how people behave, especially in response to one another is particularly fascinating to me. When people come to my office, most of them are able to tell me what event(s) has molded them or upset them. These are usually the big events … the ones that are easy to point to.
So, it’s without difficulty that you raise the harsh or insensitive remark made by your mate. It’s understandable that you’d be hurt because your partner forgot to ask about something important going on in your life. Or, naturally, if you’ve found out that your significant other has lied to you in some manner, it’s going to cause a breach in trust.
However, being an observer of human behavior, I’ve come to realize how very often there is disruption in the partnership due to circumstances that are far more subtle; ones that are not quite so discernible.
I think it would be fair to refer to these as butterfly effects. Wikipedia defines the butterfly effect in the following way: “Small differences in the initial condition of a dynamical system [which] may produce large variations in the long term behavior of the system.”
Let me offer you two real situations taken from my clients, who will, of course remain anonymous. A wife, who’s always been the initiator sexually starts to feel that she’d like to have her spouse be more proactive. She announces that she’s no longer going to be the one to make the first move. He has a negative reaction to this, but never lets her know … nor does he change his behavior of ten years.
The result is that she assumes she’s not desirable since he hasn’t made any advances and she, in response, withdraws; he feels her pulling back. This never gets discussed. Two years later for no apparent reason, he cheats on her! When we process this, her initiating always made him feel special. When she withdrew, he needed the attention.
Here’s another situation. The male was in a situation where he was going to sell his business. It was a very difficult time for him and his wife had some serious concerns about it. However, she never expressed them to him. Though she chose not to because she felt that if she did it would be construed as intrusive, he took it to mean that she didn’t care or didn’t want to be involved. Following her lead, he didn’t talk to her which led to a major point of disconnection in their relationship.
Initially, it was the wife who told the story, and she was very hurt and angry at feeling excluded by her husband. It was easy for her to point out both the triggering incident and the reaction that resulted from it. However, not until we looked closely at the more subtle details, did she realize how her behavior had affected the larger picture.
Small behaviors really can have large influences. It’s important that when you reflect on things that have gone awry in your relationship that you consider all possible contributors, not necessarily just the ones that stand out like a neon sign.
On the flip side, also know that small positive behaviors can also have a major consequence on your partnership. You don’t even have to wait for your partner to do something to get a change to occur. I very much believe in the idea of Action = Reaction; that is, if you start to act a certain way, your partner will respond in kind. (On this website, there’s a free 3-week program based on this principle that will get your relationship back on track).