Drop the Rope

John Williams, LMHC on Jan 26, 2023 in Relationship and Family

“Did you see that the exit is in the left lane?” my wife Cathy cautioned as we drove to the beach last weekend. 

“Yes, I saw that,” I replied, my voice getting defensive. Such is our familiar dance.

During our marriage, she has repeatedly watched me miss exits and lose time getting to our destination when driving. She then became vigilant as a “front-seat driver,” not only navigating our way but checking to make sure I follow directions. 

I, on the other hand, have always tended to get more distractible and lazy at the wheel when we ride together because she is so intensely focused on the road — why should both of us be doing the same job when I’d rather notice the scenery or invest in conversation? However, I can bristle at her direction and retort angrily about her being so “controlling.” And she can readily conclude, “I can’t win,” since she gets attacked if she monitors me or we get lost if she doesn’t.

This is our tug of war. I yank on my end of the rope, saying, “I wouldn’t get defensive if you would just mind your own business and let me drive!” She yanks on her end and says, “I wouldn’t need to tell you what to do if you would only pay attention while you drive!”

Who’s at fault? Everyone has an opinion. Cathy could readily complain to her friends, and they’d all lament, “Oh, you poor thing, married to a space case.” And I could whip up sympathy among my listeners by playing the victim of my “control freak wife.”

Of course, the reality is that both of us are actually causing the problem. Without realizing it, we are each encouraging the other to take the very stance we protest against.

In close relationships, both sides are continuously influencing each other. There is no shift in posture, no lifting of eyebrows, no change of voice that goes unnoticed, even if it is only subconscious. This subtle, non-stop mutual influence means we are always adjusting to one another and nudging one another in a particular direction to create a certain balance.

For that reason, no problem could ever be entirely one-sided. For instance, I have trained Cathy to be vigilant about my driving by going mentally MIA behind the wheel. And she would admit she has aggravated my distractibility by taking over too much of my job as driver. (I do admit my contribution is greater.)

In a tug of war, the contest polarizes each side to take the most extreme opposing position they can. Each side digs in their heels and leans back to offset the other side as much as possible. (The position they take is typically so extreme that it is unrealistic and unsustainable — if the rope breaks, the two sides fall over!)

So it is with most marital and family problems. When we think someone is wrong, we tend to try to compensate for the problem by leaning away from what we see as the wrong stance to the opposite extreme. Your spouse is a spender? You always argue for thrift. Your mate is too strict with the kids? You are the voice for leniency. Your partner is too gloomy? You are Mr. or Mrs. Cheerful. Your spouse is not as physical? You always lobby for more sex. Your partner never wants to talk? You always push for conversation.

What we don’t see is how we are actually inviting — even pushing — our mate to take the approach they do. They are reacting to us, even as we are reacting to them. And our entrenched position tends to make them just as entrenched. "Why does he spend so much?" Because he thinks you are so stingy! "Why is she so strict?" Because she says you “let the kids get away with murder!” "Why is he always gloomy?" Because he thinks you never seem to take life seriously! "Why is she so disinterested in sex?" Because she sees you as always angry and pushy about it! "Why does he never like to talk?" Because he says you never leave him alone!

And yet, neither reaction is really what either of you completely believe in or want. For example, no one believes in being strict with kids or cheap or serious all the time. There is a voice of moderation within all of us. (Granted, your spouse may tolerate much more mess or debt or lack of conversation than you, but they have limits, and theirs may be a lot closer to yours than you suspect.) But when trying to balance the perceived excesses of our mate, we can sound pretty excessive ourselves and take on a one-track mind.

The truth is: The real problem is how we are relating to each other about the issue. The way we are interacting is bringing out the worst in us.

So what do we do? Don’t keep trying to change your spouse; that has never worked. Instead, make sure you stop your contribution to the problem. Take a leap of faith, and trust that your partner is not crazy or bad-intentioned, just partly reacting to you.

Stop your side of the tug of war. Drop the rope. Voluntarily move towards the middle, closer to their position, and see what happens.

What does that mean? If your partner says you are too stingy, admit to them that some of their purchases that you initially protested turned out to be wise. If they say you are too lenient with the children, bite your tongue when they discipline them in a way you don’t like, and ask them for their opinion when an issue comes up with the kids. If they say you want to talk too much, thank them for the conversations you have had, and offer to sit together quietly without talking. If you are pushy about something, back off for a long while. If you are always withdrawing from dealing with a certain topic, bring it up yourself.

"Oh, no," you may be thinking. "I need to hold my ground. I can’t give in an inch or they’ll take a mile! They’ll think I agree with them! They’ll think I approve of their viewpoint!"

No, they won’t. Do you think they don’t thoroughly know what you think and can even repeat it back to you word for word? Believe me, they know you don’t agree or approve or want something. But you can still acknowledge some validity in their viewpoint. And meet them halfway.

Give it a try. You may be surprised. When you drop the rope, your spouse cannot keep yanking, or they will fall over. If you stop pulling, they must eventually stop resisting in the same way as well. And you invite them to respond differently too, just as you are.

You have nothing to lose. Your current reaction has not really improved things — or at least not enough. Experiment with a new approach for a while and see what happens. (You can always return to your usual response if you like, and in the meantime, you will have learned something more about your spouse.)

When I was driving and I started to get defensive, I remembered to “drop the rope.” I moved towards Cathy’s position. I started announcing my driving intentions in advance to reassure her that I was aware of coming changes in direction and she did not have to worry. She, for her part, returned to her knitting, which she had learned to adopt to help her avoid looking at the road and trying to direct me too often, thus meeting me in the middle, too. Tension dissolved, and we had a pleasant ride.

John Williams is a Counselor in New York, NY.

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