“Defensive Driving” in Relationships

Long Road

As I thought about this article on relationships, my thoughts drifted to my children.

My oldest son just completed driver’s education, where he learned the rules of the road, accident prevention, and how to stay safe. After one class, he explained that he had learned about “defensive driving.”

“What’s involved in that?” I asked. I was interested to learn his perspective.

“It’s where you watch the other drivers carefully, and don’t assume that they will do the right thing,” he said. “That way you avoid accidents or damage.” Also, as part of this assignment, his instructor had the students monitor the number of cars who made errors at a typical intersection (of his choosing). So, we sat there for an hour, and counted. There were a lot of mistakes.

“I can see why they talk about defensive driving being important now, “he said.

“Me too,” I replied, “I hope you take that advice to heart, son.”

Later that evening, I reflected on my son and other ways that I wish I could teach him “defense”

I thought about the life lessons that I learned in adolescence and college, and some that I am still learning (and wished that I had learned sooner in life). My spouse and I talked about it a bit too. As we talked about college, life-long friends, and jobs, we both wished we had learned more about defensive practices for other things, especially relationships.

Relationships can be hard. They change with us over time, as we change. Some are long, some are short. Others are romantic or emotionally involved. Others are platonic. Some are with co-workers, some are with people we supervise. But, all have signs of healthy and unhealthy patterns. And like avoiding accidents, some relationships are best watched with caution, and require careful monitoring. In some instances, it’s best to just get off the road.

Here are some examples of relationships with which I would recommend using “defensive driving” principles

People who resort to threats to get their own way

Whether it is the kid on the bus, threatening to tell everyone if you don’t follow through on a dare, or the roommate who threatens to move out if they don’t get the bedroom they want, domination and threats are not a healthy sign. These are people best to give a “wide berth” on the roadway of life. They don’t have others’ best interest at heart, and are focused on themselves. They have difficulty seeing things from another’s perspective and want what they want no matter what – even if it hurts you.

People who give you nicknames that you don’t like, call you names, or demean you

Whether it is to your face, or behind your back, anyone who calls you names is not a good friend. Similarly, if people use sarcasm in a cutting way, I would also include them in this category. They may even make fun of you in front of others, and then say something like, “lighten up, we were just kidding.”

This type of behavior is never funny. It will erode your self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-worth. Once someone calls you a name, like the “b-word,” “the worst,” or even worse, you will never be able to see them the same way again. Name-calling is disrespectful and immature, and also reflects that person’s character. Take a quick left-hand turn and “drive away” to safer ground.

If this is an employee or a co-worker, you may need a new arrangement. Many companies have no-tolerance policies about such harassment.

People who become upset when they don’t get their way

These people may make unreasonable demands, like, “my boyfriend is going to stay in our room for the next three days because he is off school.” When you politely tell them that it doesn’t work for you, they may become angry, not listen, or pout. When they are denied a raise, they may complain to other people about the boss, rather than consider how they could do a better job. If you tell them that you’d rather do something else instead of what they have planned, they may denounce the legitimacy of your needs, or put you down.

It’s ok to ask – politely – for something from someone. However, if the other person isn’t willing to compromise or problem-solve, they aren’t being fair to the relationship or to you.

Relationships with people who are unpredictable

Just like unpredictable drivers, the person with unpredictable responses is also best to be avoided – at least until they are more sure on the road. They may respond with drastic mood changes or emotional outbursts one day, and then tears and remorse the next. For example, they may yell at you one day about what a horrible person you are, and then the next day want your sympathy about a loss. They may accuse you of not being trustworthy one day, and then try to make you laugh the next. Relationships with these people can be extremely anxiety provoking. You may feel frightened, on edge, or or balance around them. If these behaviors are out of the ordinary, they may need the shoulder of a good friend or extra space. However, if these patterns become chronic, they will not be reliable or trustworthy people in your life.

Relationships with people who are careening out of control

Many adults can relate to a person they knew on this path as a young adult or teen. They may be using alcohol or drugs, or struggle with other addictions, like outlandish spending or gambling. These people may be shoplifting or breaking laws. Many times, well-meaning peers may think that the person just needs a good friend, or a good support, and they will be ok. But honestly, if the person is careening down this path without a seat-belt, they need more than that. Their problems are bigger than friendship, and you can’t solve them for the other person. Most likely, they will need professional help or services before they get back on track. If you are friends with someone like this, you will need to be careful that you do not careen out of control with them.

In many of these situations, stay kind, use empathy, and communicate in caring ways. However, many of the concerns described here are bigger than friendships, and may reflect concerns regarding the health of the other person. Regardless, stay watchful, keep your eye on the road, and take good care of yourself.

“Peace be the journey.”

Cool Runnings


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