My partner and I sometimes try out different activities for fun and to nurture our feeling of novelty, challenge, intimacy, and excitement. A while back we went to an acro yoga date night and then signed up for salsa dance classes.
The first salsa class was fun. We learned some basics, and although it felt awkward and stiff, it was also new and exciting. The second class was awful. We barely had a grasp on what we’d learned in the first class, and now we had a bunch of new stuff to learn too. There was a general feeling of frustration and failure in the room.
In the third class, something fascinating happened. For a few moments at a time I stopped counting my steps, I stopped thinking so hard about doing it right, and suddenly I said to my partner “This feels like… dancing!”
If you’ve ever wanted a better relationship, but had difficulty applying new tools and insights, please read on…
Learning to dance is like learning better ways of relating
Teaching salsa dance must be really hard. Dance is visceral, organic, poetic. It comes naturally from somewhere inside. And yet, if we want to learn a particular dance style there are formal structures to learn, and an initial lack of capability and skill to confront. Before we learn to dance salsa in a way that actually feels like dancing, we have to learn the steps in a non-dancing way, and this feels painfully clumsy.
As I considered the problems of teaching and learning dance I had a sudden insight into my own work as a couples counsellor: My experience of trying to learn salsa dance is similar to my clients’ experience of trying to apply new tools and insights.
“This isn’t what I came for”
I took salsa lessons because I wanted to learn how to dance salsa, but by the second lesson I felt the impulse to quit. Why? Because it didn’t feel like dancing. I came for dancing, but this wasn’t dancing (just like couples come for relief from relationship difficulty only to discover that they are tasked with doing something that feels like the opposite of relief)!
By the third class it started to feel like dancing, but I had to push through some very awkward steps to get there, steps I hadn’t anticipated and that tested my strength of perseverance. I had to use new muscles and new parts of my brain (just like the couples who call me for help).
I think my client couples often struggle for the same basic reason. They come to me to make their relationship better. I give them something to work with, but at first it’s frustrating. They’re quickly confronted with a disappointing realization: “This is hard. This isn’t what I had in mind. I’m frustrated. I don’t get it!”
For instance, if someone comes to couples therapy because they are desperate to get their partner’s validation or approval, they might have to first confront their own lack of self-respect.
A relationship is a lot like dancing, in fact the metaphor is so close that it almost dissolves into literal truth: it’s not too much of a stretch to say that a relationship IS dancing. When a relationship flows it feels organic, natural, sublime; we move together effortlessly with a tremendous sense of grace and presence. But to learn new ways of doing relationship is like learning salsa dancing; at first it feels like the opposite of what we came for. We want to dance, and instead we’re stuck in a sack-race in the dark.
Get ready to be challenged
After that third salsa class I thought that if I were teaching salsa I would try to prepare my students for the frustration, the awkwardness, the disappointment that they were sure to encounter. I would explain to them that before they had the experience that they came for, the experience of actually dancing salsa, they would have to struggle through a difficult stage of doing some awkward non-dancing. I would explain that it might feel embarrassing and stilted, that they might want to quit, but also that if they stick it out, they will eventually get some satisfaction. In simple terms – it takes work, it’s difficult, and it might get worse before it gets better. But if you can tolerate the discomfort there’s a reward.
Couples in therapy need the same kind of attitude. If you want to learn to relate more gracefully, more beautifully, more naturally, you will necessarily be confronted with a period of agonizing awkwardness. This is perfectly natural and unavoidable.
Many people erroneously assume that the trouble and pain they experience in their relationship is due to something being broken or “wrong.” Actually, the trouble is inevitable and the pain has a purpose. It motivates us to push ourselves into a new level of relationship maturity. It’s called growing up.
It would sound crazy to say that someone who’s never learned salsa dancing is a bad salsa dancer, and yet that’s exactly how we judge ourselves (or our partner) when it comes to our own relationships. But if we approach our relationship difficulties as motivating forces that task us with learning new steps, then our troubles gain purpose and we make progress.
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