Chapter excerpt from HeartWise: Deepening and Evolving Love Relationships
It was a beautiful bluebird day. My husband and I took a day off mid-week to kayak our favorite whitewater area at the headwaters of the Colorado River offering views of nesting Eagles and pristine clear water.
As we climbed upwards from Denver on Interstate 70, car traffic began to slow. From experience, I predicted that my husband would not react well. He began to get tense as he drove west, using the left two lanes to try and maintain speed. His frustration at traffic, trucks and cars was not new to me. It was something that contained tension for both of us, but for different reasons.
I felt unsafe and wanted him to slow down and drive less aggressively. He was frustrated about the increasing population on the Front Range of Colorado where he has lived for over 40 years. He’s seen dirt roads paved and towns popping up overnight – a sprawling takeover of open-space land.
Some of the tension between us also existed before the traffic began to compromise our rate of travel. Historically, whenever we embark on a river trip, whether it’s for one-day or a week, we often have an increase of tension as we pack the car with needed items.
I can be intense and vocalize my preferences in a manner that provokes him, snapping quickly if things don’t go my way. I actively work to adjust my tone because I know it causes my husband strain and frustration. It also can instantly burst our couple bubble.
When we work together however, completing the to-do list by making each other aware of what we are doing individually (so we don’t step on each other’s toes), we are much better at getting on the road feeling connected and peaceful with each other.
This is something I don’t remember my parents doing: Completing tasks with a sense of togetherness and ease. Instead, I recall an air of tension and someone upset at the other. The cycle I witnessed, angry outbursts or the ‘quiet treatment’ and few moments of repair, was likely part of what my parents saw their parents do as well.
Instead of blaming our caregivers, my husband and I choose to improve and evolve. We work together to play for the same team and unlearn our single-minded independence. Being on the same team means we take care of our emotional needs together and apart. This is something we stand for and makes the couple bubble work for us.
So when my husband showed signs of upset and aggressive driving, I noticed my first response: I wanted to criticize him. As he became more agitated, so did I. In my mind, I was thinking, and building a case for my rightness, Why are you messing up our day off? You’re such a pain in the ass!
The good news is, I’ve learned to keep those inside thoughts private to myself and instead reach to my owner’s manual for him. I also know that no one can hear another’s perspective when they are emotionally activated. In my mind I wondered,
What can I do to help this situation? What is going on for him right now?
Together for 10 years by then, I already knew that traffic is a trigger for him. I knew as well that if I complained about his upset, we’d have more upset. Though not feeling safe was very real from my perspective, if I started there, it would only flame his emotional upset higher. I was the one still able to be resourceful.
I began to breathe deeply into my belly. Soothing myself, I searched privately for something I could do that would help him pop out of the tension he was feeling. I put myself in his shoes, knowing that traffic is a trigger. Strategically, I chose to JOIN his frustration and get mad with him at all the other cars. This would make him feel my alignment and empathy while also effectively bypassing my own inner judgment.
With a bit of playful agitation in my voice I said, “Don’t these people know this is YOUR highway!?”
Immediately he shouted, “Yeah! Get off my road!”
Poof! Suddenly the tension burst. We were having a shared moment. I had another inspiration, encouraging him, “Yell it out that window, and tell them to get off your road!”
And he did!
We laughed. There was a further decrease of tension in the car. We still had to work together to ‘stay close’ that day (and we did). I took up the opportunity to not escalate the tension but diffuse it instead. And my husband played along and let me help him.
I chose not to add more fuel to the fire. Many arguments in the past became bigger arguments because one of us added more fuel to the little fire and it became a raging fire. Tolerating our differences is key to staying connected and creates compassion for each other’s triggering material.
This experience helped me write a new skill in my owner’s manual for my husband. To practice holding a strong and safe couple bubble, we can ask, What Can I Do That Would Help My Partner?
To decrease upset or frustration is the ultimate goal of writing each other’s handbook. Only when tension is decreased and when both people are able to talk without snapping at each other, should you try and have a dialogue or discussion about the frustrating material.
If I had tried to talk with my husband (or insert my frustrations) about increased cars and traffic, we would have been in a further complicated place. It wasn’t the time for that. Instead, I took the following steps:
1. If judging or critiquing mind occurs, notice if your mind is asking a WHY question:
Why do they do this? Why is this a big deal? Why are they so annoying?
2. Turn it around to a WHAT question so you can help decrease the tension:
What can I do to help my partner? What could make this moment less tense? What do I know about their pain or perspective? What are they feeling right now?
3. Attempt to JOIN the frustration or intentionally agree with their feelings:
You are really upset! This is so frustrating!
Sometimes it’s hard to be around me when I’m cranky or hangry!
Wow, we’re really upset with each other.