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November 15, 2006

THE EFFECTS OF CONDITIONING IN RELATIONSHIPS…yes, it may be worse than you think

Recently, my colleague and I, ran a family of origin workshop. Again and again, the participants would start by saying that their childhood wasn’t that bad. If they were hit by a belt, they would explain that was what was done back then. If there was no affection, they would explain how that was okay since they weren’t very affectionate themselves. The minimization and rationalizations were present with almost every participant.

When it came time to actually share their story with the group, it was almost shocking to hear the discrepancy between what they said they lived with, and what they actually lived with. It was as if they all were raised with blinders on.

I see this same dynamic in couples. I’ve heard couples talk about how great they get along and how much they love each other…then the woman will say they got into a fight. The fight consisted of her partner calling her a slut, grabbing her hair, or throwing something in anger. He says that she does the same thing. They both say that doesn’t happen that often...typically they only yell and swear at each other.

They both report that the relationship did not start this way.

I wonder how it started well, turned significantly bad, and yet, neither of them is very concerned. They minimize and rationalize--just like the participants in the workshop.

Recently, I found a passage in Patricia Evan’s book, "The Verbally Abusive Relationship", that talks about this very phenomenon.

Patricia tells the story of a scientist who uses two frogs to study the effects of conditioning.

The scientist places the first frog in a pan of hot water. The frog immediately jumps out. The second frog she places in a pan of cold water while the scientist gradually turns up the heat. The frog doesn’t move. The scientist gradually turns up the heat again. The frog continues to stay. The scientist continues to turn up the heat…the frog stays. Finally, the scientist turns up the heat to a boiling point. The frog continues to stay—until it’s boiled to death.

I believe that abuse often starts out slowly, and gradually picks up speed, and intensity. This pattern can continue unending for years and years. Slowly, day by day, a person’s soul is chipped away at. One day the person wakes up and realizes he/she has been sitting in a pan of boiling water.

Have you ever been in a relationship that led you to wonder what the h*ll you were doing staying? Or have you looked back on a relationship and been shocked that you took the treatment you did? Are you in a relationship now where others keep telling you it’s unhealthy and you deserve better…or where the healthiest part of you knows this relationship isn’t right?

If so, you may have, or may be, experiencing the effects of conditioning. As you can see by the story of the two frogs, conditioning can be powerful and deadly. If this is the case for you--wake up, jump out of the boiling water, and insist that you and your partner get help. If your partner refuses to get help-- leave.

Challenge: Take a good look at your relationship and protect it from the effects of conditioning. What issues, if any, have been building up that you haven’t discussed or looked at? These can include: distance, verbal abuse, issues of addictions, physical abuse, sexual problems etc.
Deal with the issues head on rather than waiting until they reach a boiling point.

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