Have you ever had another driver tailgate you?
This happened to us just the other day. Driving down from the mountains after skiing, an overly caffeinated guy in a Lexus followed ten feet behind us as we drove 50 mph down a 45 mph speed limit mountain road.
Lexus-dude's intention? To get us to go faster.
Our reaction? To do anything but that. We slowed down. Took it easy. And watched in the rear view as he started to lose his mind.
And that's when it hit us. This dynamic isn't unique to driving. It's one of the central forces pulling couples apart in relationships.
We call it relationship tailgating.
Here's what it looks like. Say you want your partner to contribute more around the house. To achieve your noble goal, you compulsively point out all the dishes they forgot to clear, the dirty socks they left stranded, or the to-dos they missed. In short, you relationship tailgate them.
What's your partner's response to being tailgated? That's right. The exact opposite of what you want. They just stop trying altogether.
Or say you want your partner to give up that bad habit, texting too much, not exercising, or late night Ben & Jerry's binging. To achieve your goal, you watch them with resentment during their moments of indulgence. Then, you subtly pull away from them in a passive aggressive act of retaliation.
How does your partner respond to being relationship tailgated? Yet again, they do the exact opposite of what you want. They text more. They cancel the outing to the gym. Or they take down the whole pint of Chunky Monkey this time.
This is the paradox of relationship tailgating: the more you tailgate your partner in the hopes of imposing your will, the more they will do the exact opposite of what you want.
So how can you stop relationship tailgating your partner?
The first step is always awareness. If you can't see your own control strategies arising in real time, then you can't interrupt them.
So it's worth taking a step back and reflecting on the following question:
Where am I trying to control my partner?
What are the things they do that I find myself trying to change in subtle or underhanded ways?
Where, in other words, am I relationship tailgating?
Now for the fun/terrifying part.
The next time you catch yourself in the act of subtly manipulating your partner, let go.
Let them text at the dinner table.
Let them leave the dirty dish in the sink.
Let them indulge in "lunch dessert."
See what happens when you drop all effort to control or manipulate them.
All of our clever control strategies are usually just a way of avoiding expressing some deeper truth.
We nag our partner about cleanliness so we don't have to have the hard conversation about the frustration and sadness we feel upon entering a messy house.
We use passive aggressive tactics when our partner indulges in that bad habit to avoid having the vulnerable conversation about our deeper fear that they're not taking care of themselves.
True, relationship tailgating is one way to communicate this message. But, as we've seen, it usually results in us getting the opposite of what we most want.
So here's a better way. Reveal. Have a conversation where you express what's really going on, where you express your fear, your sadness, or your frustration in a clean way. See Chapter 7 of The 80/80 Marriage for a full description of this tool.
And if the issue is too sensitive to talk through, consider enlisting the help of a third-party -- a coach, a therapist, or a counselor -- who can help the two of you talk through these concerns in a loving way.
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