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Helping Families End The Fight

Relationship in a Holding Pattern?

Leader/Follower Dynamic in  Marriage

  Every Marriage has a rhythm or a dynamic that it dances too. This is a way of interacting that best suits each individual needs in the marriage as defined by their ideas of what a marriage is and where they are in their individual development. In a healthy marriage, the dynamic will shift as the individuals develop and become more self-aware. A stagnant marriage, the same dynamic may go on for decades. In an earlier piece, we talked about the highly dangerous pursuer/distancer dynamic. Today we are talking about the Leader/Follower Dynamic.

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The Leader’s Experience

The leader/follower dynamic is usually low conflict, in fact, it is stagnatingly so. In this dynamic, the “leader” always “knows best” and gives directions. They always hold the final vote and orchestrate conversations to lead to the “right” decision. They feel that they not only know better but that they also care more. The evidence is in their partner’s inaction or lack of initiative. 

The leader mindset is one of constant motion. In fact, this is usually a strategy for managing stress through constant movement. At times, the leader may secretly feel or joke that their partner is another child of theirs. They are at times exhausted from all the responsibility they are carrying. They may blame others when they feel this way. Alternately they are mad at themselves for caring more than they should. In the worst moments of overwhelm, they will both be mad at themselves and their spouse

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   In these times of exhaustion and breakdown, they take it out on everyone they are closest too. As a result, alienate the rest of the family compounding their sense of isolation and reinforcing “I’m the only person who cares”  as part of their story for being in the lead and in control.

The Follower’s Experience

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   The “Follower” on the other hand feels pretty good about their contributions. They base this on their own expectations of what is possible. The follower is at a loss when their partner is critical of how much they are doing. When the “leader” spouse is exhausted they are surprised. After all, the leader volunteered to do all that, no one twisted their arm. The truth is they probably feel that their spouse is making things way harder than they need to. The fact is (thinks the follower) their spouse has an unreasonable expectation of the follower, others, and themselves.

  As the follower, it is clear what you can talk about and do that is safe and what might arouse conflict which you are all about avoiding. For example, you won’t go food shopping without checking in on what needs to be bought. God forbid you should schedule something without checking with your spouse first.

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    You learned these lessons because your feeling is you are frequently being scolded for doing something wrong. Very often, something you did not know was wrong. When you get busted for not doing something, it’s not worth explaining leaving you feeling like a reprimanded child. These times are balanced out when your spouse is feeling good. Your relationship is at its best when your spouse is in a good mood. You feel like the balance in your relationship is good when that is the case. This helps make up for the constant instructions from your spouse. You have learned to accept these at the price of keeping your opinions to yourself.

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  When your feeling really frustrated, you will do things your way anyway. You do this by flat out resisting instruction. It is not unusual for you to forget or passively resist as well. Mostly, you push off feeling like a child being scolded. In these moments you get really sick of it and wonder how to shift the dynamic.

Your Dynamic is In Your Face

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Whether you’re the “Leader” or “Follower”, chances are that after 8 plus weeks of internment together, you are both on the dysfunctional end of the scale today. The bad news is this is painful. As you look back on your marriage you see all the missed opportunities to be real partners and that can be super painful. The good news is when we are in pain that is where there is opportunity for change. Most folks won’t face the fear of change until the pain they are in is greater than the potential pain of the change.

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A change like this is difficult enough to navigate under normal circumstances. In a crisis like the Coronal Virus, most folks tuck their heads into their shells until life stabilizes. That means there will be a limited window of opportunity. We want to shift this dynamic before we all slip back into “normal”. Too soon and you have in house conflict while you can’t go anywhere else. Too late and you go back to square one.

Make Sure You Don’t Miss the Window of Opportunity

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Here are some steps you can take while you wait for that window so that you don’t miss it:

  1. Make a decision that you are going to change and have a more collaborative marriage. You don’t have to do anything, just make a decision about where you want the relationship to be.
  2. Imagine what that might look like. If that seems hard, do google searches. Read about partnerships, and what makes them effective, find books that illustrate this principle or movies. Visualize the kind of dynamic you want to have.
  3. Journal and identify all the places where you are either not giving others the opportunity to lead or are allowing yourself to be railroaded. Just notice your own behavior for now.
  4. Look at your parents’ marriage, how much of what you are living did you learn at their feet? How did that work and not work for them?
  5. Begin a mindfulness or meditation or prayer practice in your life daily if possible. Studies show that these practices help us to use and develop our reasoning functions. We become less reactive and can choose how we will act despite what our first reaction might be (fear, anger, numbness).
  6. Think about how you will shift his dynamic. Consider the first conversation you will have about it with your spouse when the time is right. Hint: Saying “You always run the show, your so pushy” or “You never take the lead, you contribute so little” is probably not a positive starting point. Instead, this is where you can talk about where you want to go in the marriage. Talk about what it is about you and your family that contributed to the marriage being stuck in this place. Speak from responsibility and avoid blame!
  7. Be prepared for conflict. Whenever one spouse wants to change the dynamic, it impacts everyone in the family and there is inevitably some resistance. Keep your eyes on the prize.
  8. Be prepared to get outside help from an expert. Coul be for yourself or both of you or even the whole family. Just knowing that you can and that you have those names and numbers is empowering.
  9. Talk to other people as you process this. It helps to bounce ideas off of others.

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