Why Couples Argue… An All-Too-Real Parable!

By Susan Ford Collins

Some relationships are easy while others seem to constantly run into roadblocks, lurch and stall, and take inordinate amounts of energy. I decided to find out why. Here’s what I learned…

Ecstatically happy moments, as well as grueling upsets, are sourced in something few of us have ever been told about until now… the three Gears of Relationship!

Like driving, relating has gear-like phases. To move ahead smoothly together, we will need to learn to sense when each gear is needed. If we fail to do so, our relationship will stall or, worse yet, come to a screeching halt which, sadly, can devastate our lives and careers. And our children’s lives as well.

Let’s take a closer look at the beginning of a romance

Relationships start in 1st Gear: We begin slowly getting to know each other; spending leisurely hours to learn what we each like and don’t like; what we each want and don’t want so that hopefully we can become good friends, or even mates. 

Like learning how to use a computer, starting a job, or taking up scuba diving, the beginning of a romance can be scary. When we first meet, we don’t know each other’s “rules”… rights and wrongs, goods and bads, have tos and musts, always and nevers, possibles and impossibles, plans and dreams. We’re eager to spend time together, to experience things together and dream about future possibilities. If things move forward smoothly, we gradually become “a couple” in our own eyes and start introducing ourselves as “a couple” to family and friends who start including us in their events and gatherings. 

For months we’ve been so obsessed with each other that “the regulars” in our lives, the people we usually socialize with, have called and left messages to see if they did something to upset us, if we’ve moved out of town or fallen off the planet. Where exactly have we been? Well, here’s the truth: We’ve been in the preoccupying, all-absorbing, all-time-consuming 1st Gear of Relationship! (Thankfully relationships don’t stay in 1st Gear all the time. We’d never get anything else done.) P.S. Years later, happy couples look back to 1st Gear nostalgically. “Honey, do you remember when we first met, when we talked half the night and spent all our free time together.” We keep pictures of our precious start-up days in our wallets, on our desks and on our computer screens. And regularly tell our kids and friends about “the good ole days.” 

Once committed, we shift into 2nd Gear, de-focus on each other and re-focus on the rest of our lives… projects, deadlines, promotions, appraisals, bonuses. We make time to straighten our homes, reconnect with friends, finish our now-dusty sales proposal or mid-year review, and catch up on the rest of our workload. We do more-better-faster and more-better-faster still. Productive and competitive again, we work long and hard to plan our wedding and pay for it, to rent an apartment or buy a home and furnish it, to move in together, to plan for children, fund IRAs or 401Ks, buy stocks and put away money for our life together.

Months later we’re delighted to discover we’re pregnant! Nine months after that we’re parents! And it’s time to shift to 1st Gear again… unfamiliar territory, new rules, new fears and anxieties! Now we reach out to our parents and friends who’ve been through this, survived it and learned from it. We read books and seek reassurance. Little sleep, missed showers, our daily routines are barely recognizable, away from familiar people, routines, gratifications and rewards. Our relationship has changed drastically and so have our bodies (men usually gain weight too!) and the freedom we have! 

We’re accomplishing so much together! Or are we? No, now we’re accomplishing more and more apart… taking care of our much larger new home, raising our family, taking on greater responsibilities at work and in our communities, dropping kids off and picking them up from daycare and school, babysitting for each other so we can attend meetings or take clients out to dinner separately, developing new friends in new circles at the gym, in professional organizations, Mommy and Me, daycare and book clubs. We’re doing more and more separately so we have less and less in common. Division of labor is what we call it but loneliness is what it feels like from time to time. And what about our plans and dreams, the unique contributions we want to make? There’s no time or energy left for them now. Increasing pressure, longer hours, arguments, disappointments, heartache and blame… until we reach a choice point… the choice to shift to 3rd Gear creativity and renewal together! Or not.

Do we still love each other? Should we stay together? Or should we part ways and find someone we’ll have more in common with now? (Ironic, isn’t it… all relationships shift up and down through the same three gears. So if we start in 1st Gear again with someone new, sooner or later we’ll end up in high 2nd Gear in that relationship too. At the same choice point.)

Here are the questions we need to ask ourselves: Do we begrudgingly stay together and move into anger and disappointment? Do we divorce and start over again with someone new? Or do we shift into 3rd Gear together and find solutions?

Honey, we love each other dearly. What can we do to re-create our relationship? To make time to talk for hours again like “the good ole days”, to get to know each other again, to plan and dream again. Can we find a regular sitter and set up a date night? Or take a class or start a project we can enjoy and share?

This story is oversimplified, but nevertheless true. Let’s review the gears so we have them clearly in our minds and hearts:

1st Gear is for starting to learn about each other.

2nd Gear is for getting things done, for making money and being productive.

3rd Gear is for dreaming, for creating and innovating, for renewing, redreaming and recreating.

Yes, from time to time we’ll be in the same gear at the same time… learning together, producing together, or creating together. But sometimes we won’t and there will be Mis-Gear-Matches, or Upsets. Like when you’ve just gotten your child to sleep and slowed your energy to a stop. And your husband or wife rushes in (still in high 2nd Gear from work or a workout) and wakes your child.

Gearing down and slowing down is harder than it used to be. It requires high intention and tremendous caring in the face of the pressure the workplace puts on us to push longer and harder, to produce more quantity and quality. To reeve up and stay revved up at work and at home, thanks to cell phones, laptops and texts.

Painful upsets occur when our spouse is waiting for us to teach him or her how to use a new app or DVR setting and we’re in too much of a hurry to slow down and help. Screeching, metal grinding… there’s an upset and potentially hurtful actions and words. 

No, we can’t always match gears. But to avoid disappointments, it’s important to sensitively acknowledge that we can’t and to arrange a time later when we can. “Honey, I know you want me to slow down now and teach you. I know you asked me yesterday and I was busy then too. But I promise I’ll make time to show you how when I get home.” Then be sure to slow down, gear down and teach it step-by-step! Keep your promise… or that upset will get worse. Much worse.

It’s essential for us to not only recognize which gear we’re in, but which gear people we’re working with are in too. Here’s an example: you’re rushing to close a sale but fail to build rapport and explain your product in detail so you lose the sale. Or you hire a new employee but don’t make time up front to teach him or her your “rules”… the way you want it done. So you’re dissatisfied.

Upsets between our spouse and kids frequently occur when we’re in 2nd Gear and our kids are in 1st. When we need to slow down and listen to the upset six-year-old Sally had with a friend who snubbed her on the playground. Or to three-year-old Tom’s frustration over not being able to get his puzzle pieces to fit together.

Heads up, don’t wait for your kids to change gears. The responsibility for shifting up, or down, is always on us, on the adults. That’s what makes parenting even more challenging than marriage. At least, in marriage we both have the ability to communicate and change our approach.

Ok, now that we know more about the Three Gears of Relationship and when each is needed, it’s time for us to begin shifting up and down, at the right time, so we can have more fun and romance! So life will move ahead in the direction we want to go… more smoothly, easily and enjoyably.

(c) Susan Ford Collins. For permission to use this article, email susanfordcollins@msn.com

* For more on Shifting Gears, go to Success Skill 2 in The Joy of Success or Our Children Are Watching. And Success Has Gears.

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Your Working Life: Caroline Dowd-Higgins interviews Susan Ford Collins