A Model For Thinking About Stable Relationships
In life, it’s not where you go, it’s who you travel with. (Charles M. Schulz)
Life is a rickety bridge. When it is a sunny, calm day the bridge is easy and pleasant to walk across. You might stumble occasionally (it is rickety after all) but you are unlikely to fall down. Some days are less sunny. On a windy, rainy day, crossing the bridge is pretty difficult. You might struggle to make any progress at all. If you do manage to walk you will be in constant danger of being knocked down by the wind. If the conditions get really rough you might fall off the bridge into the white water rapids below. Life is always complicated, but some days are harder than others. Usually, we try and make progress, but sometimes things are so hard we can do well to just sit in the same place and focus on not falling into the river.
With a close relationship, you have an opportunity to walk the bridge together. This might be a romantic partner, but it could equally be a close friend or family member. The opportunity to walk together provides a number of advantages. First of all, you’ve got someone to talk to. Secondly, you have someone to catch you if you fall. I want to talk through the various combinations of things that can happen when you navigate the bridge together because I think it illuminates how your relationships can build you up instead of pulling you down.
Some days are light and easy. You can both walk the bridge together with relatively little difficulty. This is enjoyable and fun. Think about the initial courting phase of a romantic relationship.
Some days are harder. When it is more difficult to walk the bridge, you are more likely to fall. On these days it is important for your partner to be vigilant and there to support you when you fall.. If you are feeling emotionally fragile, your partner can be something stable for you to hang onto. Maybe you feel extremely worried about an exam, and they remind you that you are going to be okay, that you have prepared well.
The above is the ideal relationship we all desire. Our partner is always there for us, to make us feel better, to make us feel safe and warm when we most need it. This isn’t always possible:
- Mutual burn-out. Sometimes both people stumble on the bridge at the same time. It is hard to hold your partner up when you are struggling yourself. In this situation, you both need to prioritise taking a break!
Example: Think about a couple who are both really stressed at work and have no time or energy to support each other properly.
2. Avoidance. Sometimes it is only one person who is having trouble, but because they don’t ask for help, their partner doesn’t understand why they are making such slow progress across the bridge. This makes them frustrated. The emotions eventually bubble up to the surface, and in the meantime, there is a confusing tension in the air. In this situation, communicating your vulnerability honestly is the best thing to do.
Example: Think about someone who is pretending to be okay, but actually feels really upset about something the other said.
3. Defensiveness (I). Sometimes we don’t ask for help properly and instead of letting our partner help us up, we pull them down with us. We’d rather have them on the ground with us because moving feels too difficult right now and we resent their progress. In this situation, it’s much better to just tell our partner we are in trouble than pulling them down against their will.
Example: Think about someone who is struggling with their career and responds by belittling their partner’s job.
4. Defensiveness (II). Another version of this is when we think that our partner’s cries for help are implicit attacks on us. We feel like they are pulling us down, when in fact they are simply asking for a hand getting up. We can be really helpful by recognising a call for assistance, even if we initially perceive it as an attack. Offer someone a hand instead of instinctively lashing out.
Example: Think about someone complaining they aren’t getting enough attention from their partner, which their partner takes as a criticism, instead of an opportunity to provide reassurance.
5. Criticism. Sometimes one person feels angry and will push the other person off the bridge without any warning at all. This is not productive behaviour for obvious reasons, your partner is in the water and you have no one there to support you either. In this situation, it’s best to phrase criticism productively and empathetically rather than destructively.
Example: Maybe you want to change your partner’s habits towards clearing up. Can you phrase this request in a way that doesn’t accuse your partner of having bad intentions?
6. Contempt. Sometimes our partner asks for help and we laugh at their weakness. We let them fall and flounder while mocking their suffering. We might do this if we are feeling particular hurt by the other. We might also do it if we are secretly angry at ourselves and are externalising that bullying internal dialogue. If we recognise these emotions and then instead respond to our partner’s call for help, we win by being kind to them, but also open up the possibility of kindness towards ourself as well. Allowing people to stay close to us creates a mutually beneficial cycle of forward momentum.
Example: Instead of mocking someone’s struggle to keep fit, encourage the small changes they are able to make to their lifestyle. If you have a separate grievance with them, address that separately, don’t create a new problem!
7. Stonewalling. Another form of avoidance is to simply ignore our partners’ calls for help. They fall but we pretend we are too busy or that we haven’t even noticed. Once again this comes from emotions of pain and of anger. And once again, recognising these emotions and owning them allows us a path forward. A path to help the other person and a path to be helped. You can walk forward together again.
Example: This could occur in the previous example of a partner wanting more attention. We may not feel they deserve it and so shut them out, but we’d be so much better off communicating why we feel that way.
In each of these situations, you can break the negative pattern of behaviour by helping your partner, and crucially by telling them how they can help you.
Stop thinking about the ‘I’ and start thinking about the ‘we’. Suddenly you are a team and you are crossing the bridge together, helping each other every time one of you stumbles. If you both fall, then you can work together to help each other up. Anytime you find yourself in a negative relationship situation the best thing you can do is to take on a team mentality. Instead of thinking only of yourself, think of your shared goal of crossing the bridge together. As you will know from your good days with the other person, relationships can be hugely beneficial and rewarding things. You can get back to those benefits so much more quickly by asking yourself the question, “how can I fight for us as a team right now?”
Some phrases that are useful include: “I am here to help you”. “Let me know how you are struggling and I will support you.” If that feels too difficult, then a good starting point is “I am struggling with this thing right now, which is preventing me from supporting you.” By owning your personal vulnerability you can help your partner help you. Stop seeing them as an opponent, start seeing them as a team member.
Supporting someone is hard work. If you are always the person doing the supporting then you might want to consider whether the relationship is one you want to be in. You don’t want to be the only one fighting for the team. Look for and encourage balance in your relationships and don’t be afraid to walk away from people who refuse to do the same. Choosing someone to walk the rickety bridge with you should be a careful and consequential decision, so pick wisely.