This week I’ve been thinking about all the strategies we use to stabilize tense relationships with other people. Often we avoid, we complain, or we try to control. But in our quest to keep things calm, we can miss out on more fulfilling relationships with family and friends.
Anxiety-managing strategies are kind of like emotional training wheels. When your bike has training wheels, your travel is stable, but limited. You can’t go off the beaten path, and you can’t go very fast or very far. This is the price of avoiding a tumble from a two-wheeler. Anxiety-managing strategies work the same way. They lower the anxiety of having to be around difficult or stressful people. But they prevent the development of a true, person to person relationship.
Nothing can make a person less capable than getting married. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But in many relationships, the opposite is true.
Lately, I’ve been paying attention to how my abilities will weaken or even disappear when my husband is in the house. When he’s away on a work trip, I can take out the trash with ease. But when he’s around, walking the twenty steps to the alley feels like a Herculean task. When I’m driving by myself, I have no trouble navigating to a new destination. Put him in the passenger seat, and I might ask him if I’m making the correct turn. (more…)
I once had a therapy client who couldn’t get her unemployed husband to do anything. She’d beg him to apply to jobs. She’d lecture him about going to therapy. She criticized him for leaving his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor. You can guess how effective this strategy was.
If you’ve ever participated in any communication training, you’ve been taught to use I-statements. You’re told that a feeling statement helps a person understand your point of view. “I feel X when you do Y.” My client had tried this approach. “I feel sad when you don’t take care of yourself.” “I feel hopeless when you avoid looking for jobs.” “I feel angry when you leave your underwear in the bathroom!” All this did was dial up the anxiety in the relationship.
When anxiety hits, we turn on our autopilot. We find the quickest way to calm ourselves and everyone else down. For many of us (*cough* me), the fastest strategy is to become over-responsible for family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
Overfunctioning for others can be effective at managing anxiety or tension, but it can prevent both you and the other person from becoming a more responsible human. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone you love is to step back and let them function for themselves. If you don’t believe me, clearly your spouse has never told you how to load the dishwasher, or your mother has never tried to drive your car from the backseat.
You are having lunch with a good friend. After you order, the conversation begins. What do you talk about? The weather? How impossible it was to find a parking space? That friend who can’t seem to get her life together? The one who won’t return your texts?
Whether we realize it or not, most of our relationships are built on a foundation of superficial chatter, mutual disdain for others, and anxious focus on those we love. It’s only human to maintain a little distance by talking about the weather, or to riff on a third person. We do this because a two-person relationship is fundamentally unstable. When you both hate or like the same person, this twosome suddenly becomes a lot less anxious.
Washington, DC is full of oldest children. This is no surprise, as “oldests” usually value power and responsibility. They are also more independent. In therapy, they tell me stories about younger siblings who just can’t get it together. They resent the time, money, and attention a brother or sister has leeched from their parents. They get tired of playing mediator during family squabbles, or solo caretaker when parents grow old.
You don’t have to be an oldest child to wonder how people who grew up in the same family can be so different from each other. But siblings aren’t born into the same families, nor do they grow up in the same family. You may have lived in the same house for many years, but each of you experienced a very different family.
Humans have a very special skill. In addition to sensing real danger, we can also imagine potential danger. It’s an evolutionary advantage to be able to predict how people will respond to us. I’ve never stood on a table in a restaurant and thrown my food at someone. I’ve never watched anyone else do this. But my anxiety tells me that this would be bad news for Kathleen. So I avoid embarrassing myself in public or getting arrested.
Sometimes, however, we rely too much on this adaptation. By being outside-focused, all of our actions orient towards preventing rejection, failure, or awkwardness. Have you ever stressed yourself out because the house didn’t look perfect for company? Did you not pursue a potential friendship because the other person might not be interested? Have you failed to share a belief because everyone in your friend group will disagree?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the skill of self-regulation. This is because I have a baby, a wide-eyed, mini-scientist, watching me 12 hours a day. Is this new person scary? Is this medicine no big deal? Should I be concerned that I bonked my head with this toy? My body language and voice have a huge influence over my daughter’s reactions.
For a long time, it will be my job to calm her down when she’s distressed. But this comforting will be ineffective if I can’t stay calm when she’s upset. I don’t want her to have a mom with a fear-based relationship with the world. This is challenging when there’s plenty to fear. SIDS! Choking! Sodium! Climate change! Freaking measles.
If you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts about dating anxiety, be sure to listen to my interview on the Bustle Huddle podcast! I talk about how I work with clients who have dating anxiety and how to stay focused on being your best, most mature self rather than making someone like you. You can download it from iTunes or Spotify.
And as always, you can subscribe to my free tiny newsletter to read my weekly thoughts about anxiety, relationships, and mental health.