Like anyone who has worked with couples for decades, it has become easy for me to identify the classic steps to the difficult relational dances that can unfold.
Tolstoy wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina : “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” With deference to one of the greatest writers in any language, I would say Tolstoy got it backwards. Happy couples are not alike because they are able to express their unique selves in relationship and therefore every happy couple is singing a very specific song. Unhappy couples fall into one or more of several classic power struggles that are remarkably predictable from couple to couple. The one I want to look at in this post is what I call “The Serenity Prayer Couple.”
The Serenity Prayer, believed to be coined by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, has been made famous by the 12-step community. It goes like this:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference."
A Serenity Prayer couple is a pairing where each knows how to live one half of the prayer but very much needs to learn how to do the other half. It makes sense they would be partnered with someone with the opposite challenge, but usually it causes them trying to change the other rather than change themselves.
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Let’s make this concrete. At the extreme end of the continuum, this is the classic substance abusing/codependent relationship. The substance abuser is great at letting go of control (often to the point of being out of control) but needs to learn how to be more in control, to “change the things I can.” The codependent partner is great at being in control, to the point of wanting to control the out of control substance abusing partner. She (usually it’s the woman) needs to learn to let go of control, to “let go, let God” (in 12-step parlance), to realize that she cannot control her partner’s substance use and she should focus instead on “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.”
At a less extreme end of the continuum, this could be a couple where one partner is Type A, on time, organized and independent (but less relational) and the other partner is much more present and accessible but much less in charge of his or her life. It looks different in the particulars from the substance abusing couple, but it’s the exact same dynamic, of one person needing to learn to let go of control and the other person needing to learn to take more charge in life.
While this makes eminent good sense on paper, what happens in a relationship is that in the couple one fights with their partner over what they really need to change in themselves. Rather than criticizing the partner with “Why are you so controlling?” the laid back partner needs to challenge himself to take more charge of his life. Rather than fling insults to the relaxed partner (“I feel like I have an extra child in the house!”) the Type A partner needs to challenge herself to loosen up more and let go of control and micromanagement.
Talk about what it means to be a good person. Start early: When you read bedtime stories, for example, ask your toddler whether characters are being mean or nice and explore why.
There is meaning in pairing up as we do and when we accept that meaning we are in a place to do the work we partnered up to do. Then the relationship gets less polarized and more integrated, with each partner holding both sides of the continuum. It is then that the third line of the Serenity Prayer becomes relevant: needing the discernment to know when to do what. And at that stage you have the unique version of the happy couple.