Making Micro-Adjustments, One Puddle at a Time

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We’ve been getting a whole lot of rain here in Portland this week. A whole lot. Record-setting amounts, which is saying something for these parts. Basements of homes are collecting water, rooftops of buildings have collapsed, streets are flooding, highways have been closed, sections of asphalt are caving to form sinkholes, mud and debris have cascaded onto major thoroughfares, and cars left parked in low-lying downtown streets and garages have become water-logged casualties for insurance companies. It’s been ugly!

Thankfully, I’ve been personally spared any undue hardship as a result of the weather. My home remains intact, my travels have been reasonably safe, and my car interior is still dry. As a runner who now prefers forest trails for my aging knees, though, I’ve confronted some unbelievably soggy pathways and sopping wet attire, soaked through and through. No amount of protective gear functions optimally when exposed to daily precipitation rates of 2-3 inches a day! I’ve yet to find a running shoe that has one iota of waterproofing. But as the rain was saturating my running tights and pouring over the brim of my hat this week, I noticed how much my focus on the trail became honed step by step.

In contrast to running on the sidewalk or street, trail-running always requires more concentrated attention. On concrete or asphalt, you can pretty much count on your repeated foot plants to be even, more or less, so long as you make extra effort at curbs and storm drains. On the trail, though, even in ideal conditions, to spare yourself the hazard of a twisted ankle from landing on an uneven portion of the path and to keep yourself from nosediving into a face-plant after tripping over a fallen tree branch or an extra large rock, it’s essential to monitor where your foot is going to alight. I have often found there to be a meditative quality to this added degree of scrutiny – so long as you’re looking for a safe foot plant, your mind focuses less on how much further you still have to go, the work project you’re worried about completing on time, or any other mental preoccupation you got out on the trail to forget about in the first place.

In the midst of a torrential downpour, with miniature lakes cropping up all along the trail, my eyes made an additional rapid scan for standing water. While one can question the relative gain made in such conditions by stepping around or leaping over a gigantic puddle, the desire to avoid additional discomfort is compelling. Moreover, being in constant motion over wet ground makes it nearly impossible to avoid all mishaps. I made some mistakes along the way, perhaps owing to lapsed attention or fatigue, landing in deep puddles that left my feet sloshing in saturated shoes (shoes that are still wet 3 days later!). In certain places, there was simply no portion of trail without standing water. I had no choice but to plod through. Still, with my heightened degree of attention accompanying my journey, the majority of my foot plants kept me on relatively dry ground.

Micro-adjustments along the way, sometimes even in mid-air, enabled me to chart a new course step by step. This meant a much more meandering course than usual: traversing sections of trail diagonally; jogging off segments of the path to its leafy, grassy perimeter; and in a few instances, coming to a complete stop to step as gently through the water as possible. Certainly a more painstaking run than usual (with perhaps no discernible gain in actual dryness)! Although the comparison may not seem apt at outset, there is a similar adjustment process at play when we endeavor to make change for the better in a close relationship, and it is integral to fostering any notable improvements.

One of the essential ingredients in the quality of close relationships is the synchrony of individual interactions. That is, although we may tend to talk or hear about the overall quality of a relationship, say, as “harmonious” or “distressed”, in truth the relationship itself and these very appraisals are built on an inestimable number of individual interactive exchanges over time. From the moment two relationship partners begin interacting, the relative mutuality, acrimony, or misalignment in their social bids and responses with each other determine the overall health and well-being of their connection. Importantly, the presence or absence of this attunement between social partners comes to be imbued within their expectations of one another and, as a result, in their behavior.

If a child routinely receives a parental response that is intrusive, for example, he or she may respond by shutting down or distancing from that parent. From a developmental perspective, this is the child’s attempt to adaptively accommodate input that is unhelpful, reducing the amount of social stimulation s/he receives. In early childhood, this may look like a preference for independent play or a failure to seek the parent out for comfort when distressed. If this pattern continues, the child may become an adolescent who doesn’t share important life experiences with a parent or who becomes resistant to parental involvement.

In turn, the parent in this dyad may increase the intrusive behavior in an effort to provoke engagement, or he or she may likewise become more detached, imagining the child or teen as preternaturally self-sufficient and lacking need for support. Ironically, the responses on both sides of the relational partnership only serve to maintain the disconnected pattern, as the interactive cycle between the two social partners moves from occasional exchanges to a well-worn pattern – neither sees the other as responsive to their needs or effort. This is not to say either the child or parent prefers such a dynamic, however; the inherent inclination in all humans is for connection. Rather, because there is no awareness of the possibility of improvement, each continues with their respective familiar behavioral strategy. Returning to my earlier running scenario, such outlook would have kept me jogging up and down the middle of the trail, landing in all the biggest puddles along the way! The potential for such disharmony exists in all close relationships, as reflection upon intimate partnerships, collegial relationships, or other familial ties may readily attest. 

An alternate approach is to notice when interactions do not appear or feel synchronous and to look for ways to make the necessary micro-adjustments that move the partnership towards greater harmony. Just like my effort on the sodden trail, the first step towards improvement is increased attention. We must become keen to signals that indicate trouble is present, often in microseconds of exchange. Clues may be present in a partner’s disengagement or withdrawal, hostility or anger, acting out behavior, or distress that cannot be soothed. Of course, these indicators look different in a toddler or teen child, or in an adult partner or parent, but the underlying sentiment remains the same – there is discord in our mutual exchange and the inharmonious behavior is our clue that something is awry.

As awareness develops and we get curious about making change, we are empowered to elect an alternate path of response, perhaps rather inartfully at first, but with greater success as we obtain more practice. Seeing and enacting alternatives may require outside assistance; we may be limited in our capacity to tailor our engrained responses. But as we do, adapting our responses to better match the need of our social partner, we find enhanced mutuality in our dynamic: the child who would not snuggle may reach for our hand; the partner who rarely confides may share a disappointment; the older parent who always offers advice may listen first. Where once we assigned a character trait to the social partner – “he just likes to argue” or “she’s always been quiet ” – we may come to see another’s behavior in terms of the relationship quality and its unique history of exchange. As we do, we can open to the prospect of finding ways to be better in step with a close other, allowing us both firmer footing on the future path we tread together.

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