Working Together to Tackle Tough Challenges

How solving problems together strengthens your relationship.

Posted Mar 12, 2020

In my last blog post, I talked about some of the barriers that were blocking Tom’s ability to drive – barriers presented by his anxiety and the cognitive demands of driving. Tom’s fear of driving was so uncomfortable he avoided driving as much as possible. And he felt so overwhelmed by highway signs and complicated intersections, he just didn’t see how he could ever feel confident behind the wheel. But Tom knew he had to figure something out.

Tom now drives more often. He is still uncomfortable, but he is going places. Tom and his girlfriend, Sue, worked together to solve this problem. I was very moved by the way they handled it, so I asked if I could share their story with you.

To start the process, Tom and I decided to meet with Sue to discuss the driving. Tom explained to Sue how difficult and upsetting the driving is for him. And Sue empathized. She clearly acknowledged how challenging and upsetting driving is for him. But Sue also pointed out, “Look, we want to go to the beach, and we want to go on vacations. If we want to travel, we need to share the driving. It’s just too tiring for me to do all by myself.”

Tom recognized the truth of Sue’s words. He knew their life would be much more limited if they couldn’t travel. And he respected Sue’s desire to go out, explore new places, and have fun. He knew she needed him to share the burden of driving.

Tom could hear Sue’s needs clearly because Sue expressed them as her needs. She didn't judge or criticize. She didn’t tell him he should be able to drive. She didn’t accuse him of not caring about her. She just pointed out that they wanted to go out and have some fun, and they needed to share the work.

Tom knew driving more would be tough. He is very aware of the limits to his ability to tolerate stress. And he doesn’t enjoy everything they do for fun. He is so anxious, he can’t always relax and get into the swing of things.

But Sue can enjoy things, and Tom loves her and wants her to be happy. Her clear communication of her own needs changed his motivation. Now Tom was now more willing to try to figure out how to make driving easier and more tolerable. 

Tom couldn’t just jump up and go drive. Instead, Tom and Sue decided to invest more time and energy into problem-solving ways to make the driving easier.

The first step was to get more comfortable driving. Tom knew it was important to be able to drive places they go frequently, including to the house where Sue's mom lives. Tom forced himself to practice that drive repeatedly on his own. The drive required getting on and off a highway, a very uncomfortable task. But he did it, again and again. Each time, he texted and told me about his progress.

Then Tom decided he wanted to be able to pick up his parents at the airport when they came to visit. The airport is the most confusing and anxiety-producing place for Tom. There are so many different signs pointing in so many different directions!

Tom knew his bipolar disorder and OCD may have affected his ability to process complex visual information quickly. Both Tom and Sue understood that it would be difficult for Tom to figure out how to get to the airport safely. But they didn’t give up! They worked together to understand the signs at the nearby airport and spent time figuring out how to navigate the routes.  They even took pictures of those signs and other helpful visual cues around the airport and studied them at home.

Now things are better. Tom drives more often. He doesn’t feel safe or comfortable driving on highways or navigating complicated intersections, but he is driving most places. Sue may do more of the trips to the airport, but Tom can do it on his own. And Tom does feel good about making sure Sue enjoys her weekends.

Why did the situation improve? First, Sue was very direct and specific about what she needed. She was asking him to work with her to find a way he could drive more. She wasn’t asking him not to be afraid or anxious. And she didn’t get angry that Tom struggles with the cognitive challenges of the driving. She didn’t blame him or shame him for his difficulties.

Tom wishes he didn’t feel the way he does. But his commitment to Sue helped him realize he was willing to tolerate some shame and fear, and he was willing to put in the extra effort to figure out how to make the driving easier. As they worked together, his relationship with Sue and the goals they shared started to be more relevant than his dread about feeling frightened or confused. Tom could take on the challenge.

There has been a lot written about how difficult it is to have romantic relationships with people with bipolar disorder. There are certainly challenges. But many couples make it work. What these couples share is a willingness to accept that there will be challenges. And they are creative and flexible in meeting these challenges. Working together builds the bond between them.