Picture it: the parking lot at Starbucks. I’m about to get out of my car for a tall Verona when I catch a glimpse of the car parked next to me. The windows are closed. And the couple in the front seat is arguing, yelling at each other. Mouths are open in tense circles. Words are flying. Eyes are rolling. Hands are gesticulating, violently. Faces are red and contorted.
From the corner of my eye I spot a car seat in the row behind them, on the passenger side. A toddler sits, eyes cast downward, mouth curled down at the corners, as she plays distractedly with a toy.
With every fibre of my being, I want to knock on the window and ask them: “Don’t you see what you’re doing?”
Of course, I don’t. That’s not how these things work.
It’s hard. I get it. I also grew up in a household where there was magnetic engagement with conflict; where the amygdala reigned supreme; and where, when there was a problem or issue at hand, the status quo called for unbridled emotional outburst and a “vomiting of grievances”, rather than walking away at the first hint of tension; cooling off; thinking rationally; and then returning to each other to solve problems.
As human beings, we are built to repeat the most critical dysfunctional childhood relationship dynamic, over and over again, into adulthood. It’s miserable and fruitless, but it’s comforting, on an unconscious level.
The question becomes whether you are aware of the maladaptive dynamic you’re repeating in your relationships with others and the world; if you are driven to free yourself from it; and if you’re open and willing to learn and practise different, more adaptive, and ultimately much more fulfilling, terms of engagement.
It’s hard work, of course. If your “React pathway” is well-worn, and your “Respond pathway” has gotten little play, then, like any muscle, it needs to be exercised in order to strengthen.
The alternative is to “pass the buck” to the next generation. Intergenerational emotional dysfunction is not dissimilar from the cycle of poverty. If a “bridge generation” fails to emerge and do whatever it takes to pull itself out of its unfortunate circumstance (as gargantuan as that task is), chances are the generation that comes after it will adopt the same expectations, values, and habits.
What this couple in the parking lot at Starbucks taught their child is that when we disagree about something or we are angry at one another, the way to handle those feelings is to attempt to annihilate “the enemy”, and to “win” over them by fighting harder, or better, or by being right.
If instead, her parents possessed the capability to breathe and stand down; agree that the situation was getting tense and headed nowhere good, and that in the greater interest of their relationship and teaching their child how to resolve conflict well, it would be best to drop it and return to discuss when they were both calm, the child would have learned that when there is disagreement and anger, the way to handle those feelings is to take responsibility for them and the danger they pose; manage them; and not let them damage the most important thing to both parties: each other. She would have learned how to resolve conflict while keeping mutual respect intact.
We have in front of us an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the emotional buck stop here. We can be the bridge generation; the ones who do the work to bring change – and a new and healthy status quo – to the generations that come after us.
Let’s do it. Let’s raise a next generation that is in control of themselves, that has deep emotional capacity and the right priorities. It starts with us. (Pssst… Cam & Leo can help…)