Fixing Relationships: Step Up or Step Down

Struggling to calm down or speak up—too bad!

Posted Jan 10, 2014

Tom gets fed up that the litter box isn't cleaned and rants at Ellen. Ellen immediately withdraws—pulling back, shutting down, explaining about the behavior of  cats, etc. Tom gets more furious, Ellen retreats further, becomes silent until there is some emotional explosion. At best Tom backs off but is angry for days; at worst he becomes violent. At best Ellen finally explodes, slashing out only fueling Tom, or collapses and falls into a massive depression.

Whatever happens it ain’t good.

There are a lot of ways of talking about this: Pursuer – distancer; Attack – withdraw, initiate – react. Regardless of the language these concepts all center around the same idea—opposite coping styles, complementary ways of approaching problems, communicating, dealing with stress. And what makes this the core, and often the crisis, of relationships is that more one increases her style—for example, becomes more pursuing or aggressive—the more does the other—withdraws, becomes reactive—usually leading to a rapidly deteriorating cycle with each side fueling the other. These can be destructive, creating both wounds and rewounding. 

While this is the essential negative core of so many struggling relationships, there can be myriad subtleties and triggers to set it all off. But it eventually always boils down to the same thing—one needs to step up and the other needs to step down. The partner who tends to instinctively withdraw—clamming up, pulling away, biting her tongue, accommodating, being nice and reasonable, etc.—needs to push against her grain and step up—speak up when thngs bother her rather than sitting on them, say clearly and firmly what she wants, push back when feelings attacked —literally stepping forward, and being proactive than reactive and afraid. The partner who tends to step up—go on the offensive, speak rather than hold in, get angry—has the same challenge—go against his grain, step down—hold back, wait for the other approach, listen rather than talk, control his emotion rather than letting it out. This doesn't require a personality make-over, a lobotomy, 10 years of therapy but rather a moving against one's grain.

Easier said than done, of course, simple but difficult because our ways of coping and responding are hard-wired from whatever childhood we emerged from, part and parcel of who we are.

Reality check: Too bad.

Your coping style—the attack, the withdrawal—worked well enough when you were a kid, but you're not a kid no more. The complementary of attraction and structure of most close relationships means that you will instinctively set each other off and emotionally (or physically) start beating each other, fueling that destructive cycle even though in you heart and rational brain you want it to be different.

Whatever you think, all this seeming misery is not about this relationship or this particular person. It is basically about you, your learned, automatic-way of responding to stressful problem that no longer work Potentially and probably these snags in your relationships likely inhiltrate most if not all of your close relationships. They will continue to do so unless you do something different.

The wounding stops when you go against your grain and do the opposite. You use your rational brain to shut down your emotional one. You stop feeling like at 10 year old and act like an adult. If your instincts are to step back, step up. If they are to go on the offensive and get emotional, hold back, wait. You begin to heal your relationships rather than constantly creating new wound. Think about increasing your flexbilbity rather than thinking that you are screwed up.

Some guidelines:

  • Realize it is not about the other person but you. Focus on what you struggle with, what you emotionally need to do differently. Forget about the story in your head, if you do what scares you you’re probably doing okay.
  • Take baby steps. If you know what you need to focus upon, start anywhere—speak up to the guy who gives you wrong change, bite your tongue when you friend makes fun of you shirt, call you sister and tell her what upset you the last time you talked to her, listen rather than pummeling your friend with advice when he is upset.

It's all about just going against your instincts. It's not about the situation, the outcome, who's right or whatever else you head is saying. Step up or step down. That's it. Do the best you can do.

You are doing this for you.