Rhythm And Relationships

metronomeThere is a rhythm to relationships that is often taken for granted.  Yet, rhythm is such an important ingredient to making healthy conversations work and for helping diagnose problems when something is wrong.

For example, someone who is not rhythmically inclined in music or a coordinated activity will not be able to keep the beat of a simple metronome or marching steps.  In contrast is the person who is highly rhythmic in their perceptions who can clap out a complicated, syncopated accompaniment to the regular tick-tock of a clock’s pendulum.

Butterfly
1974 Harding Yearbook

Swimming is another example.  My memory of swimming the butterfly stroke in High School and College 40 years ago feels very different when I try to duplicate the stroke today at 57 years of age.  Finally working out to build up the muscle strength and stamina to try again I must have gulped half of the pool at first just trying to breathe because my rhythm is off.  Now I’m starting to get the timing back so that I can start working on my endurance again.  Without a sense of timing the stroke is a painful struggle in which muscles get pulled and water goes up my nose.  When the timing comes back the stroke becomes easier, making it possible to swim longer, smoother and more efficiently.  Before long I don’t really think about it anymore.

Our personal rhythm has to do with the day-in/day-out activities we do in an average day as we rise in the morning, greet family members, go through our normal routines to get ready for work, travel to our workplace, engage with other employees, return home, conclude the day and wind down to rest in preparation for the next day.  With the routinized choreography of the day we develop a rhythm that helps us stay emotionally stable, organized and behaviorally predictable.

The baseline or our daily rhythms also allows us to be flexible and adaptable so we we can choose to introduce measured changes that we can evaluate and decide whether or not they will fit into our established routines.   When the daily structure and systems are suddenly challenged by sickness, car accidents, or other uninvited calamity, we can step outside of ourselves, knowing that we will return one day to the regular rhythm of new routines, patterns and structures.

conversationsThere are also rhythms in relationships that contribute to predictability, regularity and security.  Boundaries are clear and normalcy characterizes the ebb and flow of life. Changes are planned and mutually agreed upon so routinely that we often take them for granted.   This is as it should be.  For marriages, families and other close relationships, these regularities provide stability in a world that is often unpredictable and chaotic.

These elements are so important to the day-to-day functioning of relationships to the point that, when people begin to shift their behaviors others begin to ask ‘Why?’ questions, looking for cause and effect explanations.  Divergence from the rhythms of life that have provided the basis for trust and freedom can suddenly become sources of discomfort, fear and anxiety when the answers do not satisfy the one who has started to notice the changes.

The security of sameness is threatened by unexplained changes that introduce dissonance between the way things should be and the way things have become.  The changes can be subtle at first or suddenly dramatic.  Either way, the development is noted by those who have grown accustomed to the sine wave rhythm of their relationships…but they are not ready to talk about it or are afraid of the answers.

So, the questions begin on an innocuous level, probing for logical, simple answers that reassure without being confrontational. Here are some examples of how these unilateral changes can introduce dissonance, addressed indirectly:

THE QUESTION

WHAT IS REALLY MEANT

You didn’t kiss me when you came in the door. Are you upset with me about something I did or said??
You stayed in the basement until after bedtime. Are you surfing porn sites again?
You sounded strange on the phone this evening. Have you been drinking?
Why so sensitive? I’m just trying to have a conversation…. What are you  hiding from me?

One of the faulty beliefs of addicts is that “No one will notice if I keep it under control.”  The reality is that someone has already noticed but they are not sure they want to risk the relationship by confronting.  They want to maintain the rhythm of the relationship.  So they have decided that they, themselves, must avoiding-conversationbe mistaken or over-sensitive.  “It’s probably nothing.”  The key is that the change is noticed but not being addressed until confirmed by repeated behaviors or collaborating evidence.

As the dissonance persists and the answers fail to satisfy one’s partner, real challenges to the relationship can begin to emerge.  Communication patterns begin to shift as questions start leading to suspicions and the breakdown of trust becomes an important issue to address.

When a partner begins to withdraw, conversations begin to escalate into arguments, when partners begin assuming the worst in their partner and when the simplest disagreements become a painful re-hashing of past hurts and perceived offenses, it is time to ask for help before erosion sets in and the sense of hopelessness and helplessness descends into a relational numbness.

Marriage and family therapists are specifically trained to help couples work through the issues and disparities that often lead to relational breakdowns in a mutually respectful way.

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