Catching the undertow
Updated: Sep 30, 2022
Q: Call me Nora. When Sam (also a pseudonym) and I get started on something we disagree about, it starts ok, seems to end with a win, the end is in sight, we seem to agree, and then we can’t stop. It turns endless. Why is this, and should I send a recording? It would be easy. Thanks!
A: How many of our favorite interactional tactics actually align with our agreement to make life easier for each other wherever possible? (You have made this agreement right?). Couples’ agreements must show up at the surface of the interaction. There are lots of interactional habits that don’t obviously connect to larger pro-relational goals. Rolling your eyes, ostentatious sighing or leading with accusation are obvious examples, unless you’ve agreed to piss each other off. But interlocking bad habits, one riding on the other, drawing out the next one, are bigger trouble.
I think I hear in your question, Nora, an interlocking bad habit I call the double or nothing. For illustration I’ll imagine you two sitting at breakfast, talking over what to do today, Saturday, your day off.
You arrive at something that works for both of you, though not without some stress. In fact, along the way, let’s say Sam, in a difficult moment, has called last weekend a fiasco, a weekend that Nora had planned and enjoyed. This is a bad move by Sam—after all, you’re talking about this weekend, not last— but Nora seems able to ignore it at the moment—a good move! So they are able to agree on a plan for today. Success! However, that done, barely pausing a single beat, here’s Nora: “so why did you call last weekend a fiasco?” Sam now defends fiasco, again at Nora’s expense, which Nora will take issue with. And in the process, more damaging things will be said. This unnecessary fight over last week is the interaction they’ll remember, instead of the success they had had just before it. They tried the double-or-nothing and both lost.
Yet neither seemed to be able to stop, as if they’re caught in an undertow. Which they are. The undertow Sam & Nora are caught in is an expectation built up over much experience, that they need to vigilantly guard against criticism or blame, because their partner won't. Nora feels a bit of discomfort at "fiasco", and sees relieving it as both their jobs, so she tries to recruit Sam to do it with her. Of course it's true that as you and Sam do better, Nora, you will both be willing to own the things you say that cause discomfort. And right away! But right now, you two need the win and the best thing is to focus on keeping it.
To stop falling into the double-and-nothing, and thus start to free yourself from the undertow, first agree that making things easier for each other is important to you both. Then agree to:
• Focus on one thing at a time, and stop as soon as you are successful. Stop!
• Mark the success somehow—fist-bumps are good markers, for instance.
• Talk about something else. Do not revisit minor slights here and now. If it still bothers you later, feel free to pick it up then Nora, e.g. " you know, I'm nursing some hurt feelings about last weekend being a fiasco, was it really?" might be a way in.
Be vigilant here, for a while, eyes on the prize, relax once the first success is in the bag. This vigilance is not walking on eggshells, it’s training yourselves to be more sensitive to what feeds the undertow, because you’ve agreed to amplify what makes life easy and reduce what makes life hard. A joint effort here will pay off. The agreement you've made to make life easier makes you wonder, rightly, how to pursue it? It turns out you can pursue it by replacing interactional bad habits with better ones. This advice isfor couples like Sam & Nora who are experiencing the massive undertow Nora describes above. Couples with less of an undertow, and Nora and Sam in the future, should be able to address minor slights right away, simply and easily.