Once I have heard both versions of the story that brought the couple in to see me, I often suggest that they are on a boat.
It has dawned on me that I have been hearing narratives from couples that parallel my experience of sailboats. My theory is that when you met and fell in love and it was juicy and sexy and charged, you didn’t know you were building a boat. You see, my father loved sailboats and, after twenty-five years trapped in a stifling corporate job, he and a friend decided to start a business building beautiful ocean-racing yachts. Because I was about twelve years old, I just figured this was what fathers did, and it seemed perfectly ordinary to walk around the huge construction space and find all of these people just loving their jobs. I assumed everyone loved their jobs. What did I know? It turns out these workers were like couples falling in love: full of energy, joy, and hope—perhaps high on the fumes from the varnish or the new sails—certain that this would be a special boat, better than any boat anyone had sailed on before.
As couples, I think we usually start out on this kind of high. We believe we have the right partner and that we know how to do a great job of being married and parenting. We’ll do it better than our parents, right? But nobody tells us we are building a boat. Most of us wouldn’t choose to build a boat! Instead, we imagine we’re building a cozy, safe nest, where we will listen to each other and adore each other and it will be quiet and protected and everything will feel under control—the kind of climate couples seek when they visit my office. We need to believe this. We need this expectation, and, yes, we might need to be a little bit high. It helps us build the boat, and it drives us to jump onboard.
I remember the launchings of the boats my dad’s company built. There was champagne and dancing and everyone made promises about winning races and making more boats and being successful and happy. It was somehow sacred, just like a wedding where we make promises about success, having fun, staying on the boat, staying safe, supporting each other, and being faithful to the dream. Usually, even couples who haven’t had a formal launching have made this kind of promise when making a commitment to be together.
But, think for a minute. Wouldn’t your mind work differently on a boat? If you knew that—instead of a cozy little nest—you had built a boat, invested in a boat, jumped on the boat, and were sailing the boat yourselves, while promising that you would make the journey memorable and safe, would you still be as intoxicated as you were while building the boat, or would other kinds of thoughts take over? If you knew you were going to be going on a voyage, wouldn’t you instead ask “Where are we going? What’s the weather like? Do we have enough supplies? What if the boat gets tippy? Who’s in charge? Will it leak? Are we safe?” This is a very different mental and emotional experience from the more exciting building of the boat.
Couples often describe and share this unexpected shift when they tell me their story. They don’t know how or why their experience changed so dramatically, but when we start discussing boats they do find it easy to describe the way they would start to think if they were on a boat and responsible for its success and safety. When I tell them that they are sailing the boat, not just having a fun ride in the sun, there’s a pause, and then a less playful, more measured, weighty response about safety or direction, responsibility, or accountability that illustrates how much more seriously they are thinking.
Maybe it is important to imagine what it is like on a boat, and to accept that you build them and leap onto them— planning to keep your promise that nothing will go wrong. Maybe your minds just shift into a different gear once you are on a boat. We all have this gear, just waiting to kick in when we act on a serious decision and start an important journey.
I remember my father’s pretty ordinary sailboat. It wasn’t an ocean-racing yacht. I now realize that I didn’t invite my friends or enjoy the day when I was a young teenager and still went sailing most summer weekends with my parents. I see now that I was tuned out, not really there. We would sail to an island for a picnic, but I don’t remember the island at all. I know it was an island on a lake full of sailboats, but I have no real picture of it in my head. I was switched off, like many of the people who visit me with their partners.
To me, boating was complicated and overwhelming and since I couldn’t get out of my obligation to be on the boat, I just put myself in neutral. Actually, I do vividly remember the unusual damp smell of the fiberglass boat, and the rhythmic tapping sound of the water hitting the front of the boat. But that’s all. I was functioning on a pretty primitive level. Most importantly, I also remember that I suddenly became very present when the boat felt tippy. When the boat was tipping, I really was there. I took immediate action, and moved to balance the boat. At that tipping point, I responded to the same feelings of vulnerability and danger that also motivate our behavior in our relationships.
What if you and your partner each brought half of the boat with you? Each of you carries with you your gender, your family, your personal history, your career, your sexuality, and your expectations, and somehow you have created a supposedly leak-proof craft with another person with all of their qualities. It’s pretty exciting to see all the different pieces come together when you are building the boat. Once you are on the boat, though, the same differences make the boat feel tippy, like your partner is having it their way.
It feels like the boat is tipping away from you when your partner behaves in a surprising, unwanted, or unfamiliar way, compared to what you expected or felt you needed. When this happens, it doesn’t feel familiar, and it may not feel safe or controlled enough. If that is the way it feels, you could easily keep the promise you made at the launching, and move away from the middle of the boat, toward your own side, to keep it from tipping over. It’s as if the thought of both of you behaving the same way seems so extreme, that you exaggerate your opposite response. We react and respond for the sake of the boat. In fact, you promised that you would at your launching. Remember assuring your partner that the boat won’t tip over? But, your movement toward your side of the boat feels uncomfortable to your partner, for they feel as though the boat is now tipping away from them, and they move away, too, toward their edge of the boat, in order to rebalance it. They promised, too. Moving to my own side to balance things out is what I did on my dad’s boat, and that’s what I hear couples indicate they are doing with their actions.
When the boat gets tippier and tippier, the somewhat different person you couldn’t resist becomes someone who surprises and confuses you. They seem to be a danger to your comfort and don’t seem to be the person you chose, who seemed so safe and delightful. Now this person seems like a caricature of the person you fell in love with. You become disillusioned. Those poetic silences you used to love seem different, more negative. Those clever asides seem personal and pointed. Those kindnesses seem less sincere and less frequent.
If we are honest with ourselves, we realize that we, too, are becoming a caricature of the person our partner fell in love with. Both of us are exaggerating our differences, in order to keep the boat balanced. We do this with our behavior. We behave in opposite ways—for the boat.
Ebenezer and Florence, who you will meet again, often experience the most common, and most puzzling, play of opposites. For instance, Eb will have something important to say to Flo, but she’ll feel interrupted or that her space is being invaded, and she will withdraw instead of talking to Eb. Eb will respond by trying harder to get Flo’s attention, and Flo will withdraw even more because she is feeling pressured. Eb will eventually be afraid that Flo is mad at him, and pursue her even harder for an explanation or reassurance. Flo will eventually be afraid of being crushed by Eb’s pressure and withdraw even more. Pursuing and withdrawing are opposite behaviors and Eb and Flo are exaggerating them, hoping to keep the boat from tipping over.
Maybe you are a couple who do another version of this dance, with one of you getting louder while the other grows more silent, or one of you doing more tasks while the other does fewer. There are many ways to try to keep the boat from capsizing. Consider the ways you may act for the boat: one of you may be expansive and the other shrinking, one may begin to do things faster and the other to do things more and more slowly, or one may get tighter (more rigid) and the other looser (easy going) as things get tippy. Have you considered what your particular opposites are?
How Many Captains on this Boat?