I’m always amused by watching IKEA ads featuring couples assembling furniture. Observing this process provides cues for how well they work together as a team. It’s also one of the few times I can feel smug, since assembling furniture is one of the things my husband and I do well together—my tolerance for reading instructions combined with his patience and ability to focus usually combine for construction success. There are other times, however, when we can’t seem to align our actions for effective teamwork and end up disconnected.
When we had two very young children, we went on a Caribbean cruise. After locating our cabin, we reviewed the schedule of activities and decided we would enter a doubles ping pong tournament, since we both liked to play and were sort of okay at it.
When it was time to play, we noticed that we were the only husband/wife team that signed up together. The other teams were represented exclusively by the husbands from the other couples. All the wives were in the cheering section. I felt intimidated and suggested that we drop out if no other wives were going to play. I wasn’t excited to play against all males.
My husband insisted that we were just there to have fun and told me to stop worrying about it and that I didn’t need brute strength to play against men. Surprisingly, after several games, we found ourselves in the final round for the chance to be tournament champions. I was worried that I wouldn’t play up to par and my husband would be disappointed, because when it comes to sports he can be a little competitive. The last thing I wanted was to lose the tournament for us.
A few minutes into the game, we were ahead by 8 points and within only a few points of winning the entire tournament. I was confident that if I just played the same way I had been playing, we would win. The other team served and I returned the ball. When it came back to my husband, he slammed it so hard it hit the wall behind the other team, missing the table, awarding the point to our competitors. I looked at him like, “What just happened?”
We were still ahead by 7, so I wasn’t too worried. However, as the ball went into play, we repeated the exact same playing sequence and lost the point again. This happened four times in a row when I whispered to my husband, “OK Hulk, we’re ahead. All we have to do is return the ball consistently every time until they mess up. You don’t need to hit that hard to finish them off! Can Bruce Banner come back for the rest of the game?”
Apparently, my husband was under some kind of alpha-male posturing spell, and just couldn’t help himself. He continued his aggressive display until the score was tied. For several minutes, we alternated points until the other team beat us by two after my clearly possessed spouse once again slammed the ball off the table.
My husband is a far better ping pong player than I am on any day of the week. I can hold my own against him, but ultimately he always wins. In this case, however, he admitted (shockingly) that he lost the tournament for us that day.
I was annoyed with him, but I let it go because it was just a ping pong match. However, I felt some distress that we had devolved from a team working together to two separate individuals with different agendas. He had gone rogue on me and I couldn’t get him back. He was unreachable.
A silly ping pong tournament is trivial, but for many couples, this pattern develops over time in marriage. A couple may start out together with unified goals but after having children and facing other life transitions and external stressors which threaten to divide them, they may find themselves living like roommates without a common cause. Rather than using the potential energy from a marital team, they resort to individual strategies which can sabotage the team’s unity, and they stop consulting with one another entirely.
A marital relationship is greater than the sum of its parts. If a couple works together, they can accomplish more than they could individually. Couples who have a strong sense of “we-ness,” identify themselves in relationship to their partners and display higher marital commitment. In short, these marital systems are generally more efficient and feel safer and more predictable for the children in the family.
If you have lost your sense of “we-ness,” here are some tips for getting back on track; I’ll use the acronym GO TEAM US just for fun:
- G – is for Goal-setting. What specific things do you want to accomplish together this year? In 5 years? In 20 years? Dream together.
- O – is for Optimism. I purposely chose this word because couples lose optimism so quickly if they feel negative emotion. Negative emotion is absorbing! It can take great intentionality to step out of it. How would an optimist think about your situation?
- T – is for Traits. What traits do each of you bring to the team that can complement each other? I can be impatient but efficient, and my husband is generally more patient and process-oriented. Our differences can drive us crazy or work to our benefit, depending on how we use them.
- E – is for Encouragement. Good teammates encourage each other. I know if I’m ever worried about something my husband will be my best cheerleader.
- A – is for Adaptation. As a couple moves toward conjoint goals in life, perhaps the most important skill is adaptation, or being flexible in problem-solving. Unfortunately, couples in distress tend to get discouraged and more rigid, limiting rather than expanding their options. Rigidity suffocates creativity.
- M – is for Maintenance. Couples can drift from cooperation because they aren’t maintaining or managing their joint relationship goals. Intentionally create check-ins for where you’re at and where you want to be in your co-created journey through life.
- U – is for Understanding. Perhaps the most underutilized of couple strategies for teamwork. Ask your partner what he/she thinks you may not understand about him/her or his/her desires. Repeat it back in your own words to make sure you’re really on track.
- S – is for Sacrifice. Being part of a team means making some individual sacrifices. Think of small sacrifices you can make right now to help you achieve your team goals.
While this seems overly simplistic, regrouping as a team really can be that simple.
One thing I love hearing as a therapist when I am meeting a couple is when they tell me that they “work well together as a team,” because I know their odds for therapy success are higher if that’s their perception.
Marriage is absolutely the original team sport….but you have to decide to get in the game.
Copyright: violin / 123RF Stock Photo