In a recent session with “Steve" and “Kara” (not their real names), I asked a very common question: "what do you do to manage stress"? Kara said she runs, and loves the contemplative state she experiences while on a straight and level path. Steve enthusiastically described his love of biking, and especially the challenge of steep hills, followed by a long, coasting rest. When they said this, we all experienced an immediate “aha” moment about an impasse they often face when there is conflict.
Couples come to therapy hoping to solve problems — improve communication, rekindle intimacy, stop fighting, and so on. So how does this happen? Partly, it involves learning and engaging skills: slowing down interactions to avoid escalation; using active listening to clarify meaning, and so on. Beyond skills, there are deeper layers of self-awareness that need to be accessed for solutions to make sense and really take root.
There are many hidden factors beneath the impulse to react automatically when we feel slighted, blamed, or misunderstood. These factors may come from our families of origin, culture, gender, how we’re “wired,” how we believe life “should” be, and so on, existing beneath our conscious awareness. Do we really understand how we are “showing up” in our relationship? And how do we make sense of how our partner shows up? Digging deeper can help reduce blame and increase empathy.
Steve and Kara face challenges that are compounded by their jobs: Steve is in a competitive business and hopes to begin his own start-up soon. Kara has a dream job with a company in another state, so she commutes and is home only about 50% of the time. They found themselves fighting over “nothing,” and eventually fighting over how they were fighting.
Kara, the runner, values order and routine, and her current job situation amplifies her need for predictability. She is an even-keel type of person who dislikes being startled. Steve, who bikes, is spontaneous and energetic, even silly at times, an “adrenaline junkie.” These traits have clear roots in the families that raised them, among other influences. When they clash, these basic personality traits have at times made things worse for them. When Kara feels disconnected from Steve, and wants their marital even keel restored, her distress can cause her to come across as critical and attacking. She once abruptly told Steve to “put away the iPad” when what she really meant (but didn’t say) was “I wish you would talk with me.”
Her approach triggered Steve's automatic, angry defensiveness: “What is your problem?” For Steve, “even keel” is like an alien planet. He believes with all his heart that “climbing a hill” by confronting an issue immediately makes sense, and he exerts great energy to do so. At times, he comes across as haughty, talking down to Kara. And Kara, in an effort to pace herself, withdraws and broods. In turn, Steve may try a different tactic: “coasting” by playing a silly trick on Kara, such as lobbing a pillow at her from a loft in their home. Which startles her and leads to more annoyance.
In this way, an interactional cycle begins to play out, and becomes increasingly scripted and repetitive. This happens for many couples, and can lead to great despair as both partners arrive at the conclusion that they are simply incompatible or that the other is “out to get” them.
It doesn’t have to be like this. When our “aha” moment occurred, both Steve and Kara recognized in the flash of an instant that she wasn’t trying to attack him, and he wasn’t meaning to aggravate her further. They were acting on impulses woven into their DNA just like eye color, and taking things personally made no sense. Instead, understanding their own automatic ways of reacting allowed them to begin to modulate those impulses and adapt to the reality of their partner. And increasing understanding of the partner's ways of reacting has begun leading to empathy and even appreciation.
Steve thinks twice now before lobbing pillows over the upstairs railing. And Kara recognizes that staying present in order to talk through an issue means a lot to Steve, even if it makes her temporarily uncomfortable. They are exploring common ground, and learning that it can include both the straight path and the hills and valleys. Their shared journey is off to a great start, with plenty of adventure ahead.