Jim and Susan came to see me for therapy when their children were young. Susan told me she was fed up with Jim's anger and was going to divorce him unless he learned to control his temper.
“I have asked him to address this problem for years before our kids were born," she said. "Now our oldest is five and Jim STILL yells and calls me names. It’s only a matter of time before he’s going to yell at the kids or worse, the kids will start to imitate him.”
Jim admitted his anger was a problem. They came for marital therapy and Jim worked hard in separate individual sessions. He learned to catch his anger before it escalated, take breaks and agreed to never call his wife names again. When they ended therapy, they were quite content with their marriage.
But years later, Jim and Susan returned to my office. Their kids were now young teens. Once again they were coming in at Susan’s insistence, Susan said Jim was slipping into “old behavior.” But now instead of calling her names, he’d get angry and “brood” for days at a time.
Susan said she was worn out by Jim making her feel lousy for a few days out of every month.
Digging deeper, we discovered that Susan was also angry because she felt she was always responsible for rebuilding the bridge between them following these arguments.
During his brooding periods, she’d leave him a voicemail at work, telling him how much she loved him and inviting him out for a date that weekend. This seemed to free Jim from his emotional funk, and the relationship would start to feel better again.
Jim never initiated these re-connections, and Susan was tired of doing all the turn-around work.
So let’s return to our metaphor of the couple on the handcar on the tracks. Jim and Susan were a long way ahead of where they used to be. Jim was no longer having angry outbursts, but his brooding continued to take them down the negative track. At some point, Susan would feel compelled to do all the hard work applying the brakes.
In most relationships, one partner takes on the brake-person role. Not only is it hard work stepping out from behind your defenses, but the initiator is in the more vulnerable position. The other person has the power to decide if and when they are ready to accept the peace offering. Not surprisingly, over time the brake person will become resentful about this state of affairs.
But changing this pattern can be difficult. An interesting thing happened when we tried to get Jim to initiate the reconnection. At first he was resistant, he felt like he couldn’t get himself to try some of the ideas we had agreed on for him to initiate. He realized how hard this was and now he understood how hard it must have been for Susan to always have to be the one sticking her neck out.
However, when he was finally able to make efforts to be the first one to reconnect Susan actually rejected his efforts. So when Jim actually tried to put the brakes on during the course of an argument Susan was resistant to his efforts. She would insist that while he was trying to reconnect she was still angry about the argument.
Jim and Susan eventually realized with a sense of humor something important about human behavior. Sometimes it’s just crazy how we cling to what we are used to. Susan was very good at putting on the brakes in an ongoing argument and Jim was good at letting go and reconnecting once she did. Both of these roles are critical to getting the handcar moving along the tracks in a positive direction again.
A couple of questions you might ask about your relationship:
*Who puts on the brakes when you are moving in a negative direction and how do they do it?
*Does the other feel compelled to “pay the brake person back” for their deed by putting their own effort into the relationship?
In relationships we're always heading in a direction, either forwards or backwards. Understanding how to efficiently operate the vehicle that carries the relationship helps you go where you want to go.