We’ve all experienced the dance of a relationship – whether it’s an intimate partnership, a friendship, or a work relationship – together choreographing those steps that over time develop into an established routine. Sometimes the steps are smooth and coordinated with the other partner, and the dance has a flow and ease to it. Sometimes, the steps are awkward or unbalanced, and the dance is clumsy, or worse, difficult and painful.

Remember in the early days of your relationship, when your dance had the grace and beauty of a waltz? (Or perhaps the passion of a tango?) No matter what your partner said or did, you responded with curiosity, with empathy. You listened. You gave him the benefit of the doubt. You treated him with respect.

An example of an “Early Relationship” dance:
• You come home from work stressed. Your partner immediately senses that you’re “off.” He stops what he’s doing and asks if you want a cup of tea.
• Even though you’re distracted and annoyed, you know you need this “reconnect” time. You accept the tea and sit with him.
• He listens patiently and with curiosity as you tell him about your day. After a while, you’re calmer. After dinner you return to your desk to finish up some work, feeling more centered and more connected to your partner.

As the relationship matures, you begin to take one another for granted; you settle into a routine and give less attention to one another and to the relationship.
• You come home from work stressed. Your partner notices that you’re “off.” He pauses and asks if you want a cup of tea.
• You’re distracted and feeling overwhelmed with work. You’re a bit resentful that your partner doesn’t seem to be working as hard as you. You feel like you’re carrying more of the burden. You decline the tea and say that you need to take care of some things on email.
• Later, at dinner, he asks you about your day, and you give him just the headlines. You’re too tired to really go into it. He wouldn’t understand anyway.
• After dinner, you return to your desk, tired, stressed and mildly annoyed at everything.
• Over time, you lose the close connection you once had, and you feel alone and misunderstood in the relationship.

If this goes unchecked, you may find yourself among the half of married couples who wind up divorcing. And, if you’re going through a divorce, your dance probably more closely resembles a wrestling match than a waltz. No matter what your partner says or does, you react with suspicion, defensiveness, irritation. You are constantly on guard. You assume the worst intentions on his part.
• You come home from work stressed. When your now-ex comes to pick up the kids, he notices that you’re “off.” He pauses and asks, “What’s the matter with you?”
• You respond “What do you care? You’re 20 minutes late again. If you really cared about me and the kids, you’d make the effort to be on time.”
• He says “ME not on time? You’ve never been on time in your life! I spent fifteen years being late for everything because of you.”
• You respond “Oh sure, throw the past in my face. It’s always my fault.”

Sure, your partner may have changed over time. He may not be the loving, sensitive man he once was. But you’ve changed also. At this point you have a choice. You can either blame him for who you’ve become, making him responsible for your feelings and actions. Or, you can take responsibility for your self, for your life, and for the dance that you have co-created.

Here’s the key – and it’s a lesson that has proven true for me time and time again: It only takes one person to change the dance. And the good news (and bad news!) is that you don’t have to wait for your partner to change. You don’t have to follow. YOU can change the dance.

Here are the keys to shifting the dance (I remember this with the acronym “OREO”):
1. Openness (control your defensive reaction)
2. Respect (disagree while maintaining respect toward one another)
3. Empathy (make an effort to understand the other’s perspective)
4. Ownership (take responsibility for your part of the dance)

Simple… but not always easy. Because it requires you to give up being the victim of his behavior and take responsibility for your part of the choreography. In the above example, you can shift the dance at any time. You can be open and admit it’s been a stressful day. Or empathize that traffic at the 5:30pm pick up time is challenging. Or if you do lash out and he responds back, take a deep breath and own your part (you don’t have to do this overtly). Simply stop. Do not respond to the negative back and forth. Kiss the kids goodbye and wish them a good weekend.

Relationships involve an endless series of dance steps. If you change your steps, over time you can change the dance. You can even choose to lead.

Author's Bio: 

Renee Cooper is co-founder and coach at One Journey Consulting in Wayland, MA, a coaching practice dedicated to personal growth and renewal through significant life transitions such as divorce. Her six week supportive workshop series, Journey of Divorce Base Camp, for those separated or newly divorced begins another cycle on September 29. More information can be found at http://www.OneJourneyConsulting.com.