We have been together 30 years but only recently I have noticed a fundamental difference between us. My husband likes to write really tiny in pencil. I write big and bold in thick pen. I scoop dollops of luscious raspberry jam onto my toast. He scrapes on a smidgeon so you can barely taste it. He can become absorbed in a jigsaw puzzle for hours. I consider puzzles and games a waste of my precious time. He can immerse himself in minutiae, the fine details of life, poring over receipts and counting pence with intense earnestness. I am a Big Picture gal; gravitating to the broad sweep of grandiose visions, always dreaming and scheming about future adventures.
I am a yeller and screamer. I express my feelings loudly with drama and eloquence (I like to think my diatribes are eloquent!) When I crack, I will stomp through the house, ranting and raving with a strong urge to kick walls, throw things and pound pillows. When not mad, I am at times sad. Not only do I cry big blobs of tears at other people’s tragedies, I can weep and wail and moan and sob when really miserable and grief-stricken. This is good for the soul. My husband, in contrast, tends to repress and bottle up his emotions. Long-gone traumas lie dormant in the recesses of his mind, rendering him frozen in shock with a stockpile of unresolved inner pain. Any psychologist worth their salt, will tell you, this is damaging to the soul.
My husband is conflict-avoidant whereas I am always spoiling for a fight. You might say I lean towards the aggressive, while Andrew leans towards the passive. Andrew can’t stand arguing and becomes defensive and reactive instead of fired up by the prospect of a hearty stoush. This is very annoying! Whereas me, I relish the parry and thrust of a fiery debate. I am confrontational; which I like to call, euphemistically, ‘honest’. I say what I think. I can be blunt as a meat axe.
When it comes to decision-making, I am the dominant one. He would hate to be described as ‘submissive’ but this is the technical term, also called non-assertive. So throughout our marriage I have made demands and forcibly insisted on my own way and Andrew has given in, to keep the peace. I am not boasting. It is not nice to be on the receiving end of a controlling bully. (I am sorry to admit I learnt this from my Dad.)
The tendency to embrace one or the other of the two extremes is expressed in personality traits.
The delicate Pencil Person has immense patience with fiddly things. They can do stuff like crafts and fine drawings and they have the ability to learn complex skills like how to hold a tennis racquet correctly and gracefully place a serve in a precise spot or how to play a musical instrument with dexterity and finesse. They have the disciple to practise every day for years. Me, the Bold Scribbler, I have little patience and I’m easily frustrated. I get bored with repetition. I couldn’t possibly do the same thing over and over, like play scales every day, ever if the worthy reward is to master the piano. I’d love to tickle the ivories, but really, it’s just too hard! What am I good at then, besides arguing? Good question. I’ll get back to you on that one!
And so we have the extremes. The shy introvert/the flamboyant extrovert; the careful and cautious/the adventurous and reckless; the frugal and parsimonious/the generous and excessive; the person who is fearful of change and prefers the security of familiar surroundings and predictable routine/the person who thrives on new experiences, variety and spontaneity.
How do you explain all this? These extremes have a biological basis in the flight and fight mechanism in our brains. When we perceive a threat, humans, like animals, react with the instinct to either flee that crazy scene or stay and brawl. The Automatic Defence System (ADS) activates the adrenal glands in the kidneys to secrete adrenaline and noradrenaline to give us the prowess to run like the wind or fight like a demon.
The choice to flee or fight evokes different emotions; fear or anger. These become our core underlying emotions. Anxiety and fear drive nervous types while frustration and anger drive fiery types like me.
We get wired up with a tendency to one or the other. It starts when we are young when faced with threats: hearing mum and dad argue, being berated or hit by an angry parent, being bullied at school, being the victim of some form of neglect or abuse. We adopt coping strategies as children. These coping strategies and defenses are about survival and are essentially selfish; designed as self-protective tactics or a means to get our needs met.
Then we grow up and it’s not appropriate to be purely selfish. We have to learn to be considerate and care for others. But the well-worn coping strategies kick in. As adults entering a relationship, each partner assumes their position at the start and a booming voice only they can hear issues the command ‘Let The Games Begin!’
You might have two anxious, passive, non-assertive types huddled in one corner who both avoid expressing their emotions and confronting problems, and as a result, both avoid intimacy. Or you have two hot-headed, volatile, abusive partners who slug it out, verbally or even physically, like Liz and Richard in the classic play, Who’s Afraid of What’s Her Name.
More often, you end up with polar opposites, one at each end of the spectrum; the passive, submissive partner and the aggressive, dominant partner. In the beginning, the dominant one will test their partner to see what they can get away with. Secretly bossy types want and need boundaries. When your partner doesn’t set boundaries, your pushiness and selfishness becomes a habit and a pattern.
What to do! What to do! Usually the dynamic goes on for some time and each partner becomes rather comfortable with their role until the arrangement runs into trouble. The submissive person, with the pay-off of being able to blame their partner for all mistakes, starts to feel simmering resentment at constantly being told what to do. The dominant partner grows weary of making all the decisions, like a benevolent dictator, and fed up with being responsible for steering the Relation Ship (sorry, corny pun!) solo.
The goal of any mature relationship should be for both partners to give up their extreme positions and shift to the middle ground. As rational humans, not animals, with our bulging neo-cortexes and free will, we don’t have to be run by our instincts. Intelligence can override our automatic reactions.
With enough determination and practice, it is possible to learn the skills of negotiation and shared decision-making. The anxiety-prone, submissive partner has to muster the courage to become assertive and the easily-angered, aggressive partner has to learn to tone it down and dial it back to find the middle ground of healthy assertiveness without resorting to bullying.
Psychologist Steven Stosny identifies three modes of underlying motivation: avoid, attack or approach. The real challenge in our relationships is to move out of avoid or attack modes into the peaceful space of the approach mode. This is easier said that done; after a lifetime of hard wiring. That’s why Dr Stosny’s Bootcamp re-trains couples in the gentle art of being undefended and approachable and how to develop empathy and compassion for each other.
I yearn for the gentle sanctuary of the middle ground. Developing mutual compassion is the only hope for overcoming our animal instincts and allowing us to become fully human.