Most of the time, communicating your concerns is the most effective way to resolve differences in a relationship. But sometimes that doesn’t work because the other person isn’t interested in changing his or her behavior or doesn’t have the skills to do so. When that happens over and over again, it can lead to frustration and resentment, especially in situations where you’re expected to get along with others regardless of their behavior — think co-workers, in-laws, relatives and friends.
For example, have you ever had a friend who rarely returns your phone calls or who suddenly goes AWOL when you’re supposed to meet somewhere? Or maybe it feels like she takes your friendship efforts for granted? And the more you try to do, the worse those feelings get? Or maybe a boss that repeatedly is unappreciative of your efforts and always focuses on criticizing?
If this kind of scenario sounds familiar and you’re feeling increasingly resentful, you might be in need of a neutral effort. A neutral effort is just that: doing nothing. Taking a hiatus from trying in your relationship is not about giving up and getting out — it’s about taking a breather to allow the resentment to subside.
Joannie, for example, came to my office extremely angry at her mother-in-law. No matter what Joannie did, it never seemed good enough for her mother-in-law. When Joannie went out of her way to make a big holiday dinner, her mother-in-law would show up two hours late or not at all, or she would make snide remarks about how the food tasted or the way the house looked.
Because Joannie had always had good relationships, she didn’t understand why her mother-in-law seemingly went out of her way to be so hurtful. So Joannie kept trying, and her mother-in-law kept treating her poorly.
Joannie’s attempts to explain to her mother-in-law how she felt resulted in her mother-in-law acting victimized, holding a grudge, skewing what Joannie had said and so on. And . . . her behavior didn’t change a bit.
Time for a neutral effort. That means:
1. No more dinners (in Joannie’s case) or any other extra effort designed to impress and please.
2. Not expending any energy to nurture, take care of or focus on these people.
3. Stepping back to stop the cycle of victimization and resentment.
4. Shifting your energy to people, places and things that feel good, make you feel appreciated, and nurture your self-esteem and growth.
Neutral effort is not:
1. Directing negative energy toward the person you’re mad at.
2. Making sly comments or hurtful statements, throwing mean looks, or intentionally ignoring the other person.
3. Hurting the other person or trying to get him to see your perspective.
4. Hoping your neutral stance will lead the other person to change her behavior toward you.
In short, you must have no expectations for outcome. A neutral effort simply provides a rest stop for you to get your bearings and take a break.
Neutral effort doesn’tnecessarily mean completing withdrawing — it’s more about not always being the point person or the self-designated overseer. Time for Joannie to just show up at the dinner. She can bring a casserole and be gracious, but she shouldn’t offer to arrange the gift exchange or send out invitations. Joannie needs to focus on expending her energy only where it’s appreciated.
Only put Project Neutral Effort in place when you have done the following:
1. 1. Tried to identify your role in what you were doing to cause difficulties.
2. 2. Tried to respectfully communicate and hear what you may be doing that’s troubling the other person in the relationship.
3. 3. Treated that person with respect.
Neutral effort is a way of healthfully detaching in relationships that are dysfunctional. It is usually not recommended for intimate relationships because of the potentially negative consequences. For example, being neutral to a spouse you live with might be interpreted as ignoring him or her, and that’s not OK. And you can’t be neutral with your kids — it just won’t work. Generally, though, there’s a lot you can do in the way of healthy detachment in the face of ongoing frustration, resentment and seemingly unresolvable issues. What are some ways you’ve tried?
You can change no one but you. Realizing this is powerful. Talk to a counselor or therapist if you would like help with learning how to detach in a loving and healthy way.
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