High Powered Couples
If you think Type A behavior is hard for you, just imagine what
it's doing to your
By Wayne Sotile and Mary Sotile published July 1, 1996 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
If you think type A behavior is bad for you, just imagine what it's doing to your relationship. Chances are your mate is feeling its impact too. Here's how to get yourself -- and your love life -- back on track and keep your romance alive.
In marriage, as in every human endeavor, there are some people who manage to get it right, despite facing the same circumstances that defeat others.
Of course, negotiating the potholes that fill the path of most modern relationships leaves these couples stressed. Still, they find ways to cope with the pressures that accompany their hectic lives.
You might think marriages like these are in the minority. But a large percentage of the couples we've counseled -- collectively, we've spent over 60,000 hours observing thousands of marriages -- are able to keep their romances alive. They do so in a manner that's graceful, flexible, and obviously effective, maintaining high levels of passion and emotional closeness 15, 20, and even 30 years after their walk down the aisle. From the way they whisper to each other, still hold hands, and flirt, it's clear they care deeply. They're living testaments to the benefits of an intimate relationship. And they remind us of an important lesson: Stress is inevitable, struggling is optional.
Stop and analyze these high-passion marriages and you see they go through the same phases all long-term relationships go through: high levels of emotional closeness the first couple of years; an abrupt drop off in intimacy, at least partly due to increased responsibilities, like babies and mortgages, around year five to seven; and finally, a leveling off of tenderness and affection, where people begin to collide with the stresses of everyday life. In this last phase, couples may stay together, but their relationships get stale. They're often less kind to each other. They forget little things, like saying please and thank you, laughing at each other's jokes, making love.
Why is it so many relationships become stagnant, with partners settling into a lifetime of strife, while other couples create alliances that are highly caring, loving, and warm? One reason is our ignorance of the developmental process of intimate relationships. The marital journey begins in a wonderful place we call "bliss city." This is where we see what we need to see and be how we need to be in order to create harmony with this new person we believe to be the fulfillment of all our dreams. Needless to say, there's a lot of selective perception going on here; that's what makes it safe for us to fall in love.
What most of us see in a partner is our unfulfilled potential, characteristics we lack or feel awkward about: I'm shy and you're outgoing; I work too hard, you're nurturing. Two individuals share the hope that they will join together and make one whole person, the bliss will continue, and the relationship will provide an island of refuge lasting a lifetime.
At the core of this early stage of connection is a kind of relationship contracting. As a result of what we perceive and communicate to each other, consciously and unconsciously, we assign to our mate and assume for ourselves a set of roles that create our particular relationship dance. Of course, as time goes on and relationships progress, couples discover that many of the traits they've attributed to partners simply aren't there, and the pas de deux turns into a solo shuffle.
Complicating things further is that we're living during a true stress epidemic. Our lives have exploded into "big" lives with increased pressures and many roles to fill. More than any prior generation of couples, moreover, we need and expect to feel content, spiritually aligned, entertained, etc. So we're constantly seeking to balance four areas: commitment to intimate relationships, commitment to familial relationships, commitment to work, and commitment to ourselves. How's a couple supposed to keep their marriage going when, as individuals, they're also scrambling to keep these commitments under control, all within the constraints of seven 24-hour days?
Type A: The High-Powered Survival Skill
The effect of trying to fit everything we deem important into the time we have is that invariably people begin to exhibit some form of type A behavior. Type A behavior pattern (TYABP) is a unique form of stress adjustment that reflects "hurry sickness," feeling compelled to do more and more in the same brief amount of time. If we didn't devise some sort of high-powered survival skill, we'd collapse when even the least bit strained. Stress-hardy people don't collapse -- that's the key to TYABP -- they go numb and keep on going. The problem is, a type A's tendencies aren't very attractive.
Type As selectively perceive interactions and many people -- particularly other type As -- as challenges, even when they may not be. So they become hard-driving, competitive, time urgent, controlling, and, in some instances, hot-tempered. Because they've got much to do and feel it's important to get everything done, high-powered people easily become frustrated, irritable, and sometimes hostile and cynical. When things don't go type As' ways, they flare up. But when they're upset, they act more type A; it's their ace-in-the-hole coping skill.
Stereotypical high-powered men and women hold down pressure-cooker jobs filled with endless responsibilities. But no matter what your occupation, if you endure and acclimate to ever-increasing levels of stress, you're high-powered.
When Type A Hits a Relationship
It's questionable whether being high-powered is all bad. Many people temper their type A-ness and thrive. Current estimates are that between 50 and 70 percent of people living in urban environments -- and only a slightly smaller percentage living in rural areas -- have at least one type A characteristic. But even if you're not type A when you begin an intimate relationship, chances are you'll become type A in reaction to your partner, because relationships organize around the most constant theme, and few things are as constant as TYABP. In fact, we believe it's mismanaged TYABP that's silently wreaking havoc on contemporary relationships. (While there are some relationships that, for a combination of physiological and lifestyle reasons, revolve around type B behavior -- and are therefore more relaxed and apt to involve less struggle -- they are rare.)
What's the number one stressor for type As? Difficulty tolerating what goes on in relationships. Relationship issues are the one area high-powered people aren't fully in control of, nor expert in resolving, in part because their coping style generates tension in relationships. They're also accustomed to juggling exceptional amounts of stuff, in effect normalizing abnormal situations, and expect their partners to do the same. But type As' propensity for doing and thinking many things simultaneously consistently disconnects them from people.
In addition, as type As' relationships develop and evolve, they start to feel as if they're being negatively evaluated. Amidst the stress of being "judged," they're likely to use their fail-safe survival strategy, TYABP, so a circular pattern develops: The more they feel evaluated, the more anxious and type A they become, alienating people and not getting what they want. In long-term relationships, this severs intimate connections.
Intimacy is generally an awkward area for hard-driving, competitive, time-urgent people, as they tend not to delve into realms in which they don't feel competent. But avoiding intimate situations makes them less likely to have experiences that promote confidence and mastery. Consequently, high-powered people who otherwise take control and generate successful outcomes frequently feel and act inept in their personal lives.
In their struggle to gain or maintain control, they organize and dictate, losing awareness of their reactions and the effect they're having on others. Eventually, they may kill the comfortableness and closeness of their relationships and drift into "vital exhaustion," a strange form of passivity that's accompanied by feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. They become semi-functional, operating separately from spouses and families. This is why so many relationships flounder between years three and five, and why many couples settle for living semi-miserably ever after. Rather than developing new skills or learning to monitor how their TYABP affects others, high-powered people withdraw.
Other consequences of TYABP on relationships are obvious. If you're stuck being in a hurry, you're not likely to slow down enough to connect with others. If you always feel you have to be in control to make things most efficient, you're apt to be a person in whom loved ones stop disclosing, because you give lectures rather than a listening ear. If your haste makes you competitive -- you respond to people telling you things by one-upping them -- people may stop confiding because they're afraid of being put down. If you do more than one thing at a time, you're not going to have good communication. If you're always impatient, you increase others' stress levels. If you're a perfectionist, you may criticize rather than nurture.
The way high-powered people survive fuels a second barrier to long-term intimacy in marriage, "relationship narcissism." The majority of people living complex lives become "mature narcissists," that is, preoccupied with their own anxieties, stresses, needs, and wants. But the things they do to cope -- work excessively, grapple with intimate relationships, disregard their health, become susceptible to substance abuse and depression -- produce a fragile sense of self. Such self-focused coping leads to relationship narcissism. A frequent failure to see the repercussions on their partner, or a lack of time to deal with them, results in a relationship that can easily shatter.
Flavors of High-Powered Relationships
Over the years, we've heard hundreds of descriptions of type A behavior from the true authorities on the subject: the spouses of high-powered people. One man said, "My wife is the most confident-acting insecure person I have ever known." A secret of many high-powered people is that they're driven by insecurity. They may appear powerful, but they are uncertain whether their worth is based on what they do or who they are.
While every couple is unique in their coping styles, strengths, and weaknesses, we've noted seven distinct relationship patterns that revolve around TYABP. They differ in the way TYABP is expressed and whether it's present in both partners. The following aren't mutually exclusive, nor do they encompass every possibility. However, we've found these patterns useful for those looking to better understand what's going on in their relationship.
The Good Mother/Bad Boy Type A
An ambitious, career-oriented type A man and a nurturing type B "good mother" find each other. The wife is supposed to nurture her husband's type A-ness away; she becomes the couple's stress absorber. He goes to work, she creates a life. What happens, however, is the couple ends up feeling separated from each other. Eventually, she starts to fear her nurturing and absorbing may be promoting the very thing that hurts their intimacy -- his TYABP.
A pitfall of this relationship is the husband becomes bored with his "unexciting" wife. He sees her as having a limited capacity. Of course, this is usually just a perception; he's not seeing her clearly. The wife, in turn, doesn't feel understood by her husband. Both partners are at risk for extramarital affairs.
A common example of this pattern is the traditional relationship often established between doctors and work-at-home wives. The husband is a dedicated practitioner whose extra-familial involvements -- work, community activities, avocational interests -- bring prestige to the family. During the couple's early child-rearing years, this situation works -- despite high levels of stress -- because there's an appreciation for each partner's contribution. For a while, the wife takes pride in her caretaking role.
The husband tends to bask in his position of respect and power, at least initially, and the marriage revolves around his professional demands, emotional needs, fatigue, preferences, and priorities. He hopes that his wife's infinite love will provide him with peace and contentment and counterbalance his drive. The implicit understanding is that once he reaches his goals, he'll relax and join his wife in a more nurturing lifestyle.
But the husband doesn't change, and eventually the couple ends up leading separate lives. When the wife's not attending to her kids' needs, she's pursuing interests that don't involve her husband. Meanwhile, he continues to build a life outside the home, his self-focused style leaving him feeling disconnected from his spouse. Depleted, the wife winds up feeling angry and hurt that her husband no longer values her contribution. And he wonders where his all-nurturing wife went.
Pleasing Others, Even If It Kills Me/Them
This relationship revolves around a type A caretaker who wants to be all things to all people. In addition to her career or leadership role in the community, she's a hands-on parent. Her underlying hope is that her spouse will validate and nurture her. Often her husband -- if he's type A -- gets lost in his own "big" life; he tends to "forget" how high-powered she is. Often, she forgets, too. The way this couple lives results in fatigue.
We counseled one 40-year-old woman who was depressed and complained that her husband pretended she couldn't think very well. When her husband commented that she seemed to have lost herself in some way, she began remembering how years earlier, when they first met, she'd been named Teacher of the Year for two years running. In those days, she said, she knew who she was and what she was doing, and it was her husband who was floundering. "I'm the one who got him to shape up and encouraged him to finish his education. Along the way, he developed a solid sense of self but forgot who I was. I put my career aside to focus on home and hearth. And now, he's forgotten about the parts of me that don't have to do with being a mother or homemaker."
A variation of this is Pleasing Others, Even If It Kills Them. In this scenario, relationship and family life are driven by a type A woman's excessive need for validation: perfect children, recognition of her work, and a thriving social life.
A woman who came to see us several months after having become a stay-at-home mom couldn't understand why she was always exhausted. It turned out that the woman, a former marketing director, was approaching her new roles with the same fervor she had her career. She wanted her kids to be perfect, she was consumed by volunteer work, and she was pushing her husband, a lawyer, to be more ambitious. As a result, the intimacy and affection she'd had with her husband and kids was dissipating. Her husband began avoiding her, and her kids were subtly sending a message that said, "I don't want to grow up to be like you. You don't enjoy life."
The pitfalls for couples stuck in this pattern are exhaustion, lack of validation, and loss of interpersonal connection.
Ready, Set, Go!
Two exceptionally competitive, hard-driving type As marry with the hope that they will stimulate each other and have it all. Their underlying wish, however, is that one will teach the other to calm down. They create high-stress lives, then resent the complexity. Eventually their relationship becomes a suffering and enduring contest. They become competitive about everything: who can be the most nurturing parent, who can make the most money, whose headache is worse. But as their lives go on, they don't want to struggle anymore.
These are the kind of people who say they want to chuck everything and move to the mountains and buy a country store. The trouble is that given their high-poweredness the store will undoubtedly be a success and, a year later, one or both of them will be trying to figure out how to franchise it!
These marriages revolve around the chaos that comes from a hot-reacting (temper tantrum) type A. The spouse believes he or she can love the anger away and hopes his or her partner will outgrow their outbursts. The spouse is a lifeline of nurturance and calmness that keeps the wild person from self-destructing. The underlying hope of hot reactors is that they will be loved despite themselves. They want to believe they've finally found a place of unconditional love, something with which most hot-reacting type As have little experience.
Unfortunately, these couples end up living in a process that doesn't work. The spouse constantly runs interference trying to keep the hot reactor from being frustrated, but fails. So the hot reactor gets frustrated and targets anger onto the spouse.
Recently a 55-year-old man who'd had a heart attack and taken a leave from his job came to see us. He lamented that although he wasn't under much pressure anymore, he still wasn't happy. He was so used to being pissed off that his anger was coming out, especially when he spoke to his wife. She wanted to know why he was taking things out on her when he was upset at someone or something else. This man's situation points up how our style of reacting becomes a worldview that drives our behavior. Anger is necessary and inevitable, but we need to regulate it. Fortunately, this man realized he was using bazookas when a fly swatter would do.
The Island Man/Women
This is a variation on the Chaotic Desperation marriage. It revolves around an emotionally distant type A who hasn't received much nurturance and doesn't feel comfortable with intimate connection. Such a person often attracts a caring mate who'll be the relationship anchor during the storms of depression that are inevitably part of living cut off from emotional underlying hope is that their loving mate will be there for them -- from a distance. Because if a spouse gets too close, high-powered people get uncomfortable. Yet if a mate goes too far away, the Island Men/Women are also uncomfortable. The spouses' hope is that by loving their partner enough, eventually he or she will come off that island and comfortably participate in love.
Too Mellow To Admit It
These couples abhor type A behavior. So they keep theirs a secret by trying not to appear type A. They fill their lives with type B stuff, like the symphony and the opera -- but secretly they want to leave at intermission.
Though their contract is to aspire to be mellow and type B, they're still living "big" lives. Their underlying hope is that each partner will change enough to calm down the other one. But they have the narcissistic expectation that in relationships they're supposed to have it all without having to work too strenuously to get it. Rather than hanging in and doing the hard work of getting past the impasse, these couples tend to bail out of their relationships far too soon.
Using Our Good Stuff To Make It Better
These high-powered couples create healing relationships. They work together to renegotiate the contract that organizes how they act and how they perceive each other, and they clarify their boundaries. They define their sense of self as it relates both to them individually and to their relationship. This serves as a constant reminder that the two of them together don't make one whole person and that they can work cooperatively to accomplish what we call Effective Emotional Management (EEM).
EEMers don't acclimate to ever-increasing levels of stress. Instead, they use their skills to create a nurturing and affirming life territory. That's the key to EEM: lovingly cooperating with your partner to create a fenced-in territory within which you live. This territory is defined by three factors: situations (jobs, community), processes (how you deal with yourself, how you deal with each other), and relationships. Within this territory, EEMers fill their lives, as much as possible, with what stress researcher Suzanne Kobasa calls the three Cs of stress hardiness: involvements that challenge, to which we are committed, and over which we have some sense of control. This can mean raising a family, working at a career, maintaining community involvement.
Stress-hardy people manage their lives by managing themselves. They deal with stress from the inside out, controlling their own attitudes, coping tendencies, and relationship dynamics in order to maintain their emotional well-being. Thus their marriages are energized by healthy type A patterns.
In using relationships to help us manage our "big" lives, it's important to remember that few things feel as stressful as struggling with someone you love. We have to remember that long-term relationships are a journey and that the destination is a place called "good enough." That doesn't mean settling for something less than passionate. It means understanding and accepting that the intoxication couples feel early on is a neuro-chemical, psychological thing that doesn't last. People who thrive renegotiate and update their contracts: I chose you then and I still choose you now.
CREATING A HEALTHY HIGH-POWERED MARRIAGE
Start a dialogue with your mate that's not a litany of how he or she frustrates you but that is an honest disclosure of how you operate and the effect it's having on your life. It takes courage to stop surrounding yourself with toxic situations and people and to behave in ways that meet your inner needs and satisfy your desire for commitment, challenge, and control.
Be specific with your partner about what kinds of behavioral and lifestyle changes will be helpful to you, while also taking responsibility for your part. Saying that you want to feel better is meaningless. How would it look and sound and be if things were better?
Also, you need to practice pleasure. The more stress goes up, the more tense you get, the less pleasure you experience. Remember what feels good, and diversify rather than constrict your involvements. As life goes on, we tend to get more narrowly focused and we stop having recess. Recess is when playfulness happens, and a by-product of playfulness is intimacy, the glue of relationships.
Finally, don't normalize excessive type A reactions. Work cooperatively to lower your levels of stress and tension. Try to become a more effective controller of your physiology: master relaxation responses, learn to monitor and change the effect you have on others. The fuel for TYABP, and therefore for so much of the painful interaction in relationships that revolve around TYABP, is hurriedness. If you allow yourself to slow down, you'll see that often it doesn't matter if you let stuff slide. In short, don't turn everything into an interpersonal struggle. But remember, no one can create and maintain a perfectly nurturing life. For most of us, remaining stress-hardy is difficult work. We must constantly adjust our reactions to the people and places that constitute our territory and insure that we don't settle for the toxic and unhealthy.