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Respond Ability

“Respond, don’t react.” “What?” The therapist repeated, “Respond, don’t react.”

Relationships are like two people playing tennis.

Each person has their side of the net and their boundaries therein. The other person also has their side of the net with their own boundaries. The net represents the obstacles between them. The rackets are the tools each has in order to accomplish overcoming the obstacles, and the ball is the connection that keeps the relationship together.

Let’s imagine two people, Dale and Jean, meet at a party. Dale asks Jean out for a date and they agree to meet at the tennis courts. In the beginning of their relationship, they compare their racquets and discuss levels of ability. Finally, they agree to play tennis together. Dale gives the ball to Jean and they walk onto the court. The ball is gently “lobed” by Jean over the net and Dale responds in kind. For a time, the ball goes back and forth with no increase in speed; a gentle connection is being created where each partner trusts the other to be kind and gentle. The tools (racquets) are used to the best of the individual’s ability, and whatever flaws in their response are quickly made up by the efforts of the other to chase down the ball and continue the connection.

Then an unspoken expectation is not met. Jean, who can’t hit very straight (poor tools) makes Dale chase the ball one too many times. He begins to criticize her ability to keep the ball in play and reacts. When Dale gets tired of chasing the ball, he resents Jean’s poor skills and in anger the ball is returned a little too fast to “get even” with Jean for making him work so hard. Jean, who did not recognize that a shift in Dale’s attitude was happening, is offended by the way Dale forcefully returned the ball and because she was not prepared, the ball went past her and out of bounds. When Jean asks Dale why he hit the ball so hard that she couldn’t return it, he reacts defensively blaming her for making him angry. Jean begins to cry because she is confused and feels hurt over the perceived insensitivity of Dale. Dale, not wanting Jean to be upset, runs around the net and retrieves the ball and hands it to Jean apologizing for losing his temper. Jean forgives Dale and they once again begin lobbing the ball across the net. Unfortunately, Jean still lacks the skill to return the ball properly and Dale returns to compensating for her inaccuracy. When he again gets tired of chasing the ball, he slams the ball back at Jean who is again caught off guard and unaware of his frustration, which comes out as anger aimed at her. She cries expecting he will retrieve the ball, only this time he doesn’t. She is left with the choice of leaving the court (ending the relationship) or retrieving the ball herself. Because Jean wants the relationship to work, she retrieves the ball and apologizes to Dale for making him angry. Dale now takes no responsibility for his behavior (losing his temper) and Jean sees herself as the cause of his anger (codependency). She feels if she is the cause of his anger, she can also correct his anger to make him happy and she finds ways that do make him happy (sex, money, food, etc.). They have just established a pattern, which some people repeat for years and even decades. Jean reacts to Dale’s behaviors while Dale takes no responsibility for his.

Let’s say that Jean recognizes that she has been taking responsibility for Dale’s angry responses and seeks coaching (counseling) in how to be better at hitting the ball to Dale so he does not have to chase the ball, thus ending the cause of his anger. Jean improves her ability to respond to Dale’s returns. Eventually, Dale becomes angry anyway because he is not getting the “benefits” he received when Jean felt she needed to make him happy. He begins to hit the ball back with force at her even though there is no cause, just to make her feel bad. Only Jean, who is a better tennis player, tells Dale she is not responsible for his poor sportsmanship and she responds by ending the game and walks off the court. Dale is left with two choices: Stop being abusive toward Jean and seek help, or leave the game altogether (ending the relationship). Either way, Jean is not responsible for the termination of the relationship because she did not return abuse for abuse.

I tell couples who come into therapy there are two reasons couples seek counseling: one is to repair the connection and improve skills that will enable the relationship to thrive, and the other is for one or both of the couple to say “I tried counseling, it didn’t work.” Only the individuals in the counseling session can make the decision to commit to stay in the relationship, or they commit to the end of it. No amount of therapy will help when one of the two is committed to ending the relationship. Each person can respond and take “response ability” of their side of the net. They have no power over their partner’s side of the net or their willingness to be “response able.”

If you’d like some skills training in how to improve your tennis game, call Encouragers Counseling & Training Centers for a lesson today.

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