Written on July 26, 2011 by Laura in Choice Theory and Reality Therapy
“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
As long as we insist on controlling people around us, we will create completely unnecessary suffering in our lives. Dr. William Glasser, creator of choice theory and reality therapy, explains that people are in control of almost all of their behaviors. We are all driven by our genes to satisfy our “basic needs”: survival, love & belonging, power, freedom, and fun. While we all vary in the degree to which these needs are important, what we all have in common is the need for satisfying and healthy relationships with others.
From a choice theory perspective, virtually all of our behaviors are chosen. Consider the common example of the phone ringing when you are sitting or working at home. If you answer the phone, what would you say was your reason for answering it? This perspective tells us that the reason that we answer is phone is not “because it was ringing” – it is because we chose to answer it. There was an option to not choose to answer the phone.
While this example is silly and small, it exemplifies a much larger truth embedded within choice theory… the idea that we are in control of choosing all behaviors. This is Glasser’s concept of “total behavior.” Many of his ideas are controversial because he also believes that people choose the symptoms that cause misery and suffering, such as depression or anxiety. The basic concept is that people will choose the “best” behaviors that they can come up with at the time. Sometimes, choosing “to depress” is a better option that facing the world when feeling miserable inside. Either way, Glasser sees all behaviors as choices.
Choice theory provides us with “Seven Caring Habits” and “Seven Deadly Habits” that affect our important relationships with others. As you might guess, underlying these habits is the extent to which you are attempting to control others with your behaviors. We are happiest in relationships where we are able to satisfy our basic needs, feel supported and loved, and feel that the other person is not trying to control us.
Seven Caring Habits
People thrive in relationships where they feel supported for their true selves and in the pursuit of their dreams, goals, and aspirations. Support means being there physically, mentally, and emotionally for the other person as well as taking on a greater share of responsibilities when they are suffering or in need.
We all benefit from encouragement in our close relationships. This can take the form of reminding your partner of their strengths, past successes, or positive qualities. Remember that encouragement is most effective when it is authentic (i.e., not based in exaggerations).
To provide your partner with your total presence through fully hearing them and receiving their messages is extremely valuable. Practicing mindfulness can allow you to become more present with your partner and actively engaged in listening.
When we feel completely accepted by another person, it provides an invaluable sense of validation. This is often a cornerstone of many therapeutic approaches as well (e.g., unconditional positive regard). When we offer the gift of acceptance to our partners, we are telling them that we “see” them for who they are and choose to accept them completely. This does not mean accepting behaviors that we not do approve of, but rather accepting the individual as loved and worthy of that love.
Trust goes both ways in relationships, and part of building a strong and healthy relationship involves opening yourself up to fully trusting your partner. It also involves modifying and shaping your own behaviors so that you are a trustworthy partner.
Healthy relationships need to be built on a foundation of mutual respect. This means treating loved ones with dignity, affirming their worth, and respecting their boundaries and limitations.
(7) Negotiating Differences
Relationships must have compromise. Relationships where neither partner has to make “any” compromises are few and far between. Mature relationships mean that both partners cannot have all of their needs met all of the time. Think about that. You must be willing to openly discuss what you are and aren’t willing to compromise for the sake of the relationship. Through compromise, you are able to build stability, trust, and strength in your relationship.
Seven Deadly Habits
When we criticize someone else, we are telling them that we are somehow superior to them or that they are unworthy in some way. Criticism comes from a place of wanting to control another person through the hope that making them feel insecure or bad about themselves will result in them “changing” for the better. This doesn’t work. Criticism only makes your partner want to get away from the source of such pain and unloving behavior – i.e., the person doing the criticizing.
This involves placing the responsibility for some sort of outcome on another person, often in a sanctimonious or self-righteous manner. Of course, there are plenty of instances where our partner genuinely is to blame for something unpleasant. However, the way that we choose to go about expressing our displeasure is what is important. There is a way to let your partner know that they need to accept responsibility for their behavior without “blaming.” It is through honest and loving communication.
No one “likes” complaining… except the person doing it. When we choose to complain about something we are also saying that we refuse to take responsibility for it. Complaining often results in the other person feeling as if they should somehow “fix” the problem or else just get away from the complaining. Whatever the outcome, it puts distance between us and those we love.
This is absolutely central to the concept of external control. When we nag someone, it is because we are trying to get them to change a behavior through negative reinforcement (i.e., when they change the behavior, you stop the nagging). People don’t like to be coerced into doing things they don’t want to do. If you really want your partner to change a behavior, they must choose to do so on their own. If it is important enough for discussion, an open and loving discussion about compromise can be helpful.
When we wield threatening power over someone, we are hoping that they will essentially be “scared” into complying with our demands. This is what tyrants do… and people who want to be assured that they will drive their partners away from them. This doesn’t work! When we threaten others (directly or passively), we become a source of fear and control, when we want to be a source of love and support.
From an operant conditioning perspective, the concept of punishment means that a negative condition or stimulus is introduced as the consequence of behavior that you would like to weaken. An example would be yelling at your partner each time he or she did something that you didn’t like. While this can result in the behavior diminishing, it also wreaks havoc on your relationship. Similar to these other examples, with punishment you become a source of fear, control, and general unpleasantness.
(7) Bribing / Rewarding to Control
Sometimes we “reward” people when they do things that we want them to do. This seems much nicer than threatening or punishing them, but it is still a form of wielding external control over your partner. You are still attempting to control their behavior, even if it seems loving or altruistic. It is always best to allow your partner to come to their own conclusions about what behaviors they wish to change. This can certainly result from an open discussion about compromise, but the final decision to change behaviors needs to come from within the individual to avoid building resentment.
Do you feel as though your past or current relationship(s) are based on choice theory or external control? Do you find that you have better outcomes when you stop trying to control people you love? It can be frightening for many people to give up their attempts to control others. This often comes from childhood backgrounds where they didn’t feel in control of what was going on around them.
Be compassionate towards yourself if this is the case. It can take time to become comfortable with letting go of control. The potential result of a relationship built upon a foundation of choice theory is a long-lasting, stable, and harmonious union of two people who are secure in the knowledge that they can truly be themselves and are free to reach for their dreams. Since all behaviors are choices, what is one “deadly habit” that you are willing to commit to letting go of in your relationship?
William Glasser Institute. 2010. Retrieved from http://www.wglasser.com/