Although this is written with dual career couples in mind, it may also apply to any important relationships that you rely on personally and/or professionally. Sustaining positive interpersonal dynamics and relationships requires attention and care.
They were both exhausted. There had been a persistent low-level tension. Then, Ellen texted Aron as she was driving away to a dinner date. She asked him to go out and adjust the lawn sprinkler, it was throwing water on the neighbor’s outdoor social gathering. Aron, having just arrived home, still in his business suit, hadn’t had “even a few moments” to chill out. It was a tough day and he was “fried.”
So, he responded, “Just got home, hell with them!” Ellen saw it and couldn’t believe it. She pulled over and texted back, “But I told them you’d do it.” Aron had turned his phone off. After getting a shower, and having a beer, he went out and adjusted the sprinklers, even politely waved to the neighbors. He felt better now. “It’s nice to be alone,” he thought, no demands.
He went back in the house, crashed on the couch, and tuned into an action movie – total escape. He was deep into it when an hour later Ellen returned. Marching directly in, she turns the TV off and faces him, hands on hips: “What’s with you being such a jerk!” Aron is puzzled, “What are you talking about?”
Ellen reminds him of the terse response he sent to her, “And then you turn your phone off?” She had been steaming about it. She hadn’t wanted to meet her colleague for dinner either, but she went above and beyond and did it, and he couldn’t even take two minutes to adjust the sprinkler?
Neither of them felt understood. Both felt put upon. Neither had any patience for the other.
Stress, Strain, Fatigue, and Reactivity
Ellen and Aron, like many professional couples today, can become casualties of their own work ethic and maladaptive coping strategies. The combustibility of their situation grew insidiously. Identifying deeply with their work roles, trying too hard, and harboring fears and insecurities about their standing drove a pattern of overwork. And that led to losses of perspective and any reasonable sense of proportionality.
It begins as we dismiss signs of stress, strain, and fatigue. We can’t eliminate stressors, but we can notice them and adaptively adjust our ways of responding to them. And when we do that, we are less susceptible to overwork, chronic fatigue, and emotional reactivity. Put more positively, we are freer to deliberate, validate our assumptions and expectations, and make reasonable choices.
And the good news is that we, as intimate partners, can become vital allies in this adaptive approach to work and life. Rather than treating our partner as the villain, we can learn to jointly problem-solve with them.
Smart, Collaborative Coping
Understanding our individual differences is critical. We each have goals, aspirations, assumptions, and perceptions that govern our actions at work and at home. We also have personalities and interpersonal tendencies that condition the way we experience things and interpret our experience. If we take time to explore these differences, we may be able to better help one another.
I’ve seen many couples like Ellen and Aron, who present with chronic patterns of conflict. Their first mistake is that they think they see their situation clearly, when usually they do not. And they usually believe they understand one another well, when very often they are reading into one another’s words and actions something that is neither accurate nor helpful.
It’s time to get to know one another again for the first time. When we are distressed, we lose our ability to “mentalize,” that is, to hear, see, and appreciate the experience, thoughts, and feelings of the other from their subjective point of view. We tend to see reality as an exact mirror image of our own emotional state – “It’s a mess and there’s little hope for change!”
That’s why a third party, a couple’s therapist can be helpful from time to time. In this mediated setting you get to know one another again. You listen to each other, but you do it with another less emotionally entangled person. Thus, you hear something closer to what the other is really experiencing. It quiets the frantic thoughts and emotions that have overwhelmed you.
Habits, Identity, and Mutuality
Our habitual ways of thinking, feeling, and relating stem from our identity and from the beliefs we’ve formed about self, others, and the way things work in the world. These tendencies may usually serve us well, but when strain and fatigue grow, other less adaptive (often fear-based) interpretations can excite our less reasonable and more reactive tendencies.
Our identity as persons evolves. Our surrounding world changes. And stresses can deplete our coping resources, leading to strain and fatigue. This impairs our adaptive abilities to listen (and hear), to enter into dialogue, and to regain a fresh sense of mutual understanding. What this means is that we may periodically need a tune-up as a couple.