The Follower is Almost Always Wrong

When there are problems in how a couple resolves conflicts in their relationship, a common feature of the argument is that one partner follows the other when the “followee” is trying to get away. Room to room, outside to back inside, after a (too) brief intermission, the follower stays after his or her partner, refusing to let go, drop it or disengage – often despite pleas, threats, or false capitulation. And the follower is almost always wrong. Stop it! Learn how to do a structured separation, or Time Out, but find a way not to follow.

Couples therapy is rarely about pronouncing and judging how half the couple should act, as the above paragraph might imply. There are strong and valid motivations for following and it can be its own problematic pattern to simply leave an argument when things get heated. But following is an ineffective way to get ones needs met, and is risky when used over time as a tactic in conflict.

So why do we follow? There are many different reasons and several can be in play at once, like a chord on a piano or different blues in a Blue Period. We might think we can fix things or that this is a simple misunderstanding rather than a significant rupture. Or we might want control of the situation, thinking that some combination of our verbal and physical effort can get our partner to “act right.” It may feel like a reenactment of an abandonment vignette from childhood, being left alone regularly on a Saturday night or waking up one morning and a parent is gone. Underlying most of these reasons are the desire for connection. However, it would be remiss not to mention that instrumental anger aimed at gaining control of the partner is not a part of this discussion; treating these behaviors the same is like comparing apples and sharks.

Some benefits of breaking this pattern are that you give both you and your partner time to cool down. Usually someone leaves after the conversation has become unproductive; taking some time apart to gather your thoughts and check your emotions, as well as trying to see your partner’s point of view, can get the argument back to a conversation. Following someone who wants to get away from you can lead to bad outcomes, as my work in domestic violence treatment has shown many times over in the past 7 years.

The solution for following is to take a Time Out. If following is a problem for you or your partner (or both), take a look at it, it’s a very helpful tool for the toolbox. Counseling can help you get better at this skill, or get to the next step: staying engaged and calm enough to work out problems together without following, or needing a Time Out (or a trip to the pokey).