Editor’s Note: This is part of an occasional series titled, The 24/7 Relationship: Lessons on Life, Love, and Laughter. If you have a relationship topic you’d like us to write about, email us. And if you want a bigger sneak peek into how our habits create the life we live, be sure to sign up for our weekly Sunday email.
I was writing at my desk in the alcove off our bedroom when I heard yelling…in English. Normally I can hear drifts of Spanish conversation and music in the breezy desert air, but never English in this quiet Mexican town.
Something was up.
When I walked into the shared courtyard, I found the landlord with bulging, bloodshot eyes and a bright red face yelling at Warren while his tiny wife threw herself in front of him to calm him down. Warren turned to me and said, “he just choked me!” He was a curious blend of shocked and furious, holding his throat and trying to understand why someone would come unleashed over a request to borrow 2 lawn chairs.
Now, we don’t travel with a suitcase full of drama. We prefer to get our excitement from great experiences, not manufactured suspense. We’ve taken great pains to surround ourselves with positive people and cull the negative influences in our lives, so when one sneaks in under the radar it’s a little shocking. Okay, a lot shocking.
But this is where one of the key strengths of our relationship comes into play. Instead of being drawn into the drama and mayhem like gut instinct would propel us to do, we made an almost instant decision to distance ourselves from nonsense.
To do that, we had to fall back on what our friends Kent and Caanan call “being the hero.”
Take Turns Freaking Out
In any relationship, there are going to be outside stressors that mainly affect one party. This can be through work, in family situations, with social obligations, or even while undergoing health crises or personal struggles. It’s not that it doesn’t affect you both, but it doesn’t affect you both to the same degree.
One of you sees it, but the other one is in it.
In a healthy relationship, you balance out your freak outs. We like to joke that we still freak out occasionally, but it works because we don’t do it at the same time.
The key to managing these events and not getting drawn into your partner’s breakdown is to realize that it’s not your turn. The person who freaks out first has “called it” and you don’t get to join them on the freak out. They are dealing with the drama at capacity and have the most emotional investment, and it’s your job to buffer for them.
Because if you both take a ride to freaky town, it’s a long road back to normal.
Be the Hero
When your mate is freaking out, stressed to the brink, or just walks into someone else’s bad day, it’s time to step up and be the hero. This doesn’t mean a flashy move in a superhero costume. What it means is quietly and effectively working to defuse the situation for your mate and getting them back to normal as soon as possible.
Your first priority is always your partner.
As all this was going down in Mexico, our houseguest Tara came home from her Spanish class and walked into this little telenovela. She was confused at first, but then she quickly rallied and began packing her things. (Again, this is why it pays to surround yourself with great people.) We told our landlord we’d be vacating immediately and collecting our deposit.
Warren began packing our things while I went online to find us a new place to live. In every interaction with Warren I spoke in a calm but straightforward tone and told him I would take care of securing a new rental and getting our deposit back. He didn’t need me to amp up the stress, even if I was agreeing with him. He also didn’t need me to talk him out of his anger. We focused on logistics and facts, not emotions.
Remember, the focus is just on getting through the crazy situation.
As you would expect from his earlier behavior, my interaction with the landlord to get the deposit back was not smooth sailing. He tried a variety of tactics to delay me and keep our money and extend the drama. Instead of getting mad or taking the bait, I kept repeating the phrase, “I’d like to settle our business as we agreed” and “I’m interested in resolving this, not rehashing it.” It was my job as the hero not to get drawn into the drama and instead work as the fixer to get us back to normal.
When he finally gave up on baiting me and counted out the money he owed us, he looked up, sighed, and said, “I’m empty.” It was unexpected, and probably the realization at the end of his freak out that he’d made a bad move. After all, he just lost $1800 in guaranteed rent at the start of the slow season. But it’s hard to work up any sympathy for someone who uses violence and intimidation as communication tools.
Money in hand, I walked away from the drama and back into normal life. The whole thing was over in just over an hour.
Coming to the Rescue
When crazy things happen, it’s easy to focus on how it got that way, what could have been done to prevent it, or any number of “what ifs.” But in the moment, this is the most destructive thing you can do for your relationship. The overriding goal is to simply get your partner through it and find a way back to normal as quickly as possible.
You can Monday-morning quarterback this later and figure out how to prevent it or make it easier next time. But in the thick of it, the only goal is getting through unscathed.
By the time Tara and I drove up to our new rental, Warren had already met our new landlord, toured the lovely new home, and rented it. He knew I’d be drained after dealing with the situation at our old house, and he was calmed down enough to be the hero for the rest of the evening.
He brought in all our things, poured us glasses of wine, and began cooking dinner in the new kitchen.
We toasted normalcy.
While I don’t advocate testing your skills in this way on purpose, having a plan for freak outs (both expected stressful situations and unexpected ones like this), can strengthen your relationship instead of weaken it.
To the person in freak out mode:
Your job is to make it back to normal in the fastest and best way you can.
In the instance of a situation like this, it means focusing on just one action to make it through (deep breathing, walking away, chopping wood, going for a run). In the instance of a more long-term stress, like a tough family visit or difficult work situation, it’s your job to find your zen and use it to make it through each day. Don’t take on anything else. Use all your energy to simply make it through.
To the hero:
Your job is to keep your partner safe and sound til it is over.
You are constantly scanning the horizon for triggers and alleviating them as quickly as possible. You run interference and block oncoming assaults to your partner. You are not in judgement mode, and you are above being drawn into the fray no matter how much you want to. This is not your freak out, but it is your partner’s so you must protect.
You may not ever run into a situation as outlandish as this (in 95 destinations we’ve not run into it either), but you will find yourself in work, family, personal, and social situations that can cause an incredible amount of stress on your relationship. When you realize that it’s the two of you against the outside obstacle, it’s a lot easier to win than if you each fight alone (or worse, turn against each other in frustration).
Know your job:
- Get through the freakout if it’s yours
- Be the hero if it’s not
And then both of you can get back to normal as fast as possible
If you struggle with being the hero for yourself or your mate, learn how to uncover the confidence you’ve got hiding inside. It’s in there, and we can show you how to find it.