How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?
It’s a dumb joke, and I’ll let you suffer through it. But first, let’s talk about relationships.
Every relationship is more than just two people. There is an unspoken middle ground called the relationship system, a constantly evolving construct defined by the interactions between two people. In other words: how I act influences you, and how you behave affects me. Relationship systems have a memory, and past events color how we see each other. A good relationship system can produce trust, shared experience, and so much more. And when people have problems with each other, it’s usually best to start looking at flaws in the relationship system before trying to find fault in either party.
How do you improve a relationship? You have some control over your own behaviors, a little control over the relationship system, and absolutely no control over the other person.
To strengthen relationships, it helps to understand what I call the cardinal rule of mental health: your only real option to improve any situation is to change your behavior. That doesn’t mean that everything is your fault. It’s an acknowledgment that you wait for something unexpected to happen, change your approach, or leave. But you’ll never, ever, be able to force real change in someone else. You can ask them for change, support them, antagonize them, or even cut them off. No one strategy works in every situation. And yet all reasonable options start and end with you.
I’m not trying to minimize the capacity for change in others. I am fundamentally optimistic about our capacity to improve, despite the very real forces of ambivalence and habit. There are reasons why we do what we do, and reasons we want to do better. A good therapist digs deep to uncover motivation, but they can’t build on something that isn’t there. It’s rare outside of therapy to have the permission, skill, and safety to probe others this way. Instead, you get to decide if you can tolerate what’s happening right now.
That is the textbook definition of a boundary: “you can’t do this to me and expect our relationship to continue as it is.” How do you enforce a boundary? By changing your part in the relationship. You don’t have the power to do anything else.
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? How many people does it take to have a positive influence? One. But some small part of the lightbulb has to want to change itself. You don’t have to spend the rest of your life clinging to lightbulbs that refuse to budge.