On a recent road trip we let our 15 year old son, who recently got his learner’s permit, do some of the driving. With both my wife and me in the car, it was an interesting experience.
My son is not yet a perfect driver. He is still learning to navigate turns at a proper speed and practicing how to slow down in a controlled and consistent manner. While he has not yet mastered the art of driving, his practice seems to be paying off.
My wife and I have two different methods of teaching. When he approaches a corner or stop sign a bit fast, my wife is much more likely to yell “Stop” before I am. She is also much more likely to watch his speed and encourage him to slow down sooner than I do. While I certainly don’t want to see him crash, I feel a bit more comfortable with a fast approach than my wife does.
As I was thinking about our different approaches I was reminded how couples approach conflict, and their tendency to say “stop,” at different rates, too. And it was something that I saw multiple times, even today, at work with the couples I counseled.
Some individuals put on the brakes way too fast during conflict. By doing so they completely avoid discussing any conflictual topics. Known as “stonewalling” this defensive technique makes it hard for the couple to ever resolve anything as the discussion never even really gets started.
Other individuals have no brake pedal at all. These individuals often bulldoze over their partner and their opinions and ideas. Thinking their way is best, they see no need to share power with the other person and can often come off rude in their approach.
Just like learning to drive requires learning how to apply the brakes at the right time with the right amount of pressure, so does learning how to apply the brakes during conflict conversations.
The right amount of pressure on the brakes during conflict can help us express our concerns in an appropriate way so the message gets through, but in a non-offensive way. As one client recently said, “You can make your point known without being mean about it.”
Individuals have different preferences for applying the brakes. Just like my wife is more likely to say “stop” before I am when my son is driving, one spouse is more likely to say “stop” when they feel the conversation is getting off track.
In conflict, traditionally, men are more likely to try to put on the brakes first. Compared to women, most men are not comfortable with conflict conversations and therefore want them to end sooner. Biologically, men get overwhelmed faster during conflict, thus leading them to be more likely to say “stop” first. While this isn’t always the case, more times than not it is.
Women, on the other hand, more often than not could use a stronger brake pedal. Not as overwhelmed by conflict as men, more often than not they feel more comfortable approaching conflictual topics at a high rate of speed and with more intensity.
While they usually don’t want a wreck to happen, because they’re not as overwhelmed they don’t find such conversations as scary or intimidating as their male counterparts. “We’re just having a conversation” is a phrase more likely to be said by a woman than a man.
There were many times when my son was driving that he didn’t have to use the brake pedal at all. Cruising down the freeway at 75 MPH, he went for long stretches without the need to slow down.
Yet other times the use of the brake pedal was crucial and literally prevented a wreck from happening. I’m grateful he’s learning how to apply the brakes, especially because my health and safety are in his hands.
Managing our relationships isn’t all that different from driving. There will be many enjoyable periods where all is well and no conflict arises. With such greatness abounding, it’s much better to push on the gas and enjoy the journey rather than the brakes and ruin all the fun.
Yet other times, when conflict must be used to manage differences, the ability to apply the right amount of brake pedal can certainly make the difference between happiness and despair and between resolution and avoidance or disaster.
Learning to drive. Whether that’s in a car or in your relationship, both take practice and skill in learning how to apply the brakes. Just remember, in both it’s better to go slow and safe rather than fast and reckless.
Enjoy the journey of keepin’ love alive.
For more tips on effective communication, visit www.panhandlecouples.com.
Remember, couple relationships are easier than you think, but harder than you act.
Mark Andersonis a mental health therapist specializing in couples therapy at Oregon Trail Mental Health in Scottsbluff. To contact him call 635-2800 or visit online at www.panhandlecouples.com