THE "FIRE TRUCK MOMENT":
MAINTAINING CONNECTION FOR A LASTING PARTNERSHIP
Written By: Kiffany Gibbs, LCSW & Scott Gibbs, MFTI
“His text message only said, ‘Fire truck.’ I read it and burst out laughing in the middle of the library. After the rough morning we’d had with the kids, I felt a sense of connection with my husband. I felt that relief that comes from knowing that although things can be really hard at home, my husband and I are partners. We’re in it together.”
For those of you who haven’t had the good fortune to watch the children’s show “Max and Ruby,” during each episode, Ruby, the 7-year-old big sister rabbit, is typically engaged in some undertaking, such as decorating for the holidays, learning to play the piano, and so forth. Meanwhile, her 3-year-old bunny brother, Max, has his own simple agenda—an agenda that often has some whimsical impact on his big sister. Max typically communicates his agenda through one word or phrase that he repeats throughout the show. In one episode, Max is searching for a lost toy and interrupting Ruby’s every endeavor; his perseverance is inspiring. But more to the point, his blunt, one-word comment and single-minded focus makes you chuckle when juxtaposed against the almost absurd frustration of life as witnessed in his little bunny existential struggle. At every turn, he simply says: “Fire truck!”
There is a couple who uses that term now in times of turmoil and conflict. When used, for instance, in a text message like the one referenced above, they laugh in a moment of soothing connection. Sometimes it’s a statement of “Help! I need you. Life is crazy.” Sometimes it means, “Let’s stop. It’s not me against you. It’s me and you against the world.” In all cases, it’s a statement of bond, a call for or expression of connection. Small devices like this are no silver bullet for relational struggles, but the connection implied in a “fire truck moment” is at the foundation of a successful and fulfilling partnership. The challenge is in being able to stay in connection with our partner despite life’s practical and existential struggles. In an attempt to share the hope we have for all couples to be helped in maintaining healthy partnerships, we’d like to shed some light on recent advances in research on relationship conflict and relationship connection. After several decades of couple’s research, we now have a good sense for the roots of a lasting partnership and a fair understanding of the dynamics that foster disconnection.
The stress of parenting and its related costs and demands make a partnership vulnerable to destructive interactions because stress compromises our ability to cope with difficult emotions and maintain self-control. When stressed, we get hurt, sad, anxious, and therefore angry, much more easily than normal, and in response, we attack or withdraw. These dynamics are at play for both partners; the names change, but the impact is the same. Under high stress and without adequate self-awareness and understanding of the dynamics in our relationship, we fail to do or simply can’t do what is most important for the maintenance of a fulfilling relationship—namely, to be responsive to the well-being of our partner.
The wonderful news is that recent research in the field of couples counseling has led to the discovery that being able to identify and change those destructive dynamics or patterns can lead to lasting improvements. Knowing the destructive patterns we encounter in our relationships is key to being able to interrupt the vicious cycle that leads to emotional disconnection. What we know is that couples tend to have conflict over consistent, tangible and quantifiable issues such as money, sex, division of labor, time together, etc., and that these repetitive conflicts are typically marked by a predictable pattern of interacting. Destructive interactions tend to fall into several distinct, nameable patterns that the renowned couple’s counselor, Dr. Sue Johnson (2008), calls “The Demon Dialogues.”
The first pattern, “Find the Bad Guy” or the dance of “attack-attack,” occurs when each partner blames and criticizes the other and is defensive in the face of criticism or blame. The second pattern, the “Protest Polka” or the dance of “attack-avoid,” occurs when one partner makes demands through criticism, blame, or contemptuous acts and in response to this, the other partner withdraws in some way. And in the third pattern, “Freeze and Flee” or the dynamic of “avoid-avoid,” each partner in the relationship withdraws in the face of conflict, leading to isolation and/or apathy.
What we also know is that these patterns of destructive interaction are also marked by patterns of destructive communication. John Gottman (1999) has identified a group of common communication problems he calls the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. One, we criticize our partner. Instead of stating the problem as a matter of fact, we make it about his or her character (e.g., “he’s lazy,” “she doesn’t care about money,” “she’s frigid,” “he’s selfish”). Two, we devalue our partner in contempt. In this case, we degrade our partner, using things like sarcasm, mimicking or name-calling. Three, we are defensive. We fight back instead of taking responsibility for or at the very least, curiously exploring our part in any problem. Four, often as a response to the beating we have taken from the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, we stonewall or withdraw and become unresponsive and unavailable to our partner.
So what is driving all of this conflict? Why is being in a relationship fraught with so much emotion and angst? This is where being a parent gives you an inside edge: every parent knows intuitively and experientially that humans come into the world with profound “attachment needs” to feel safe and loved (Bowlby, 1982). These needs are evolutionarily hard-wired into us for physical and emotional survival, and we carry these needs from our childhood into our adult relationships. These “attachment needs” and their corresponding fears of abandonment and isolation are at the core of the vast majority of relationship struggles (Johnson, 2008). Without even being conscious of it, we enter into a panic-driven state of “fight or flight” wherein we make desperate attempts to ensure that our partner sees us, loves, us, needs us, will be there for us. Most times, we consciously experience this fear of abandonment as anger. We become enraged that we feel unloved or unsafe (read unappreciated, unimportant, unseen, unfair, unheard, unsure, uncertain, and so on).
In the face of these emotions and any perceived threat to our attachment needs, our natural instincts take over: we fight, freeze, or flee. If our innate response to panic is to fight, we become angry and we grab one of the Four Horsemen—we criticize; we devalue in disgust; we defensively turn the tables and blame. If our natural response to panic is to flee, then we withdraw—into our work, our bed, our friends, our children, our wine. Or we withdraw by freezing and giving our partner a cold shoulder. We come by these counterproductive responses very naturally, as they are often the responses we learned or used in our own families growing up. But here’s the rub: the behaviors we employ to protect ourselves and use to try to get our needs met often just push our partner further away from us.
Being freed from these destructive patterns requires gaining self-awareness about how we intuitively and unconsciously try to protect ourselves from a fear of abandonment and isolation. What dynamic pattern characterizes conflicts in your relationship? Which of the Four Horsemen come into play when you attempt to communicate with each other? What is your tendency when feeling vulnerable…do you fight, flee or freeze? Successful and harmonious partnerships happen when we can be responsive to our partners needs and not just defensive of our own. When we stay in our anger, it is impossible to be open and responsive and to communicate constructively. We have to be aware of and experience our own vulnerable feelings (hurt, fear, sadness, loneliness) in order to communicate these needs to our partner. For instance, instead of criticism, we need to choose to state a complaint as a matter of fact and not as a judgment of our partner’s character. Instead of defensively turning the tables, we need to be open and curious and respect our partner’s needs and feelings. Instead of withdrawing, we need to stay present.
Much of the popular couples counseling and self-help available focuses on the quick fix, such as more communication, more date nights, more sex, etc. Those remedies serve a purpose, but they do not change underlying patterns that drive disconnection. Instead, our first task on the path to greater connection and more fulfilling relationships is to achieve greater awareness. Awareness of self and of the dynamics of our relationship enables us to blame the destructive forces at play and not blame each other. We can then have a shared enemy that is not either partner, but rather the habitual dance that we get pulled into when one or both of us feels vulnerable.
Awareness then offers us an opportunity to pause and to choose differently. We are no longer victims to the habitual reactions we have to our vulnerable feelings. We can search for a “fire truck moment,” a moment when we stop and choose connection, partnership, and our relationship over a knee-jerk attempt to gain a false victory or a compulsive urge to run. We can stop our occasional fight or if the situation is worse, break the pattern that is leaving both partners feeling hopeless and helpless. And we can repair more easily with a “fire truck moment,” communicating compassion, apology, care, and so on. Through awareness and the pause between threat and the instinct to fight, freeze or flee, the opportunity exists for the healing power of connection. In the end, it’s not easy to overcome our instincts—it takes work, courage, time, and sometimes, it takes professions help. But ultimately, awareness and a choice toward connection is the foundation of a loving, lasting relationship.
Kiffany Gibbs is a licensed therapist in private practice in Marin County. She has been counseling individuals and families for nearly twenty years. She received her B.A. with honors in psychology from Harvard University and her M.A. at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kiffany has been a therapist to a broad spectrum of clients in a variety of clinical settings, most recently as a family therapist in a renowned private treatment center in Marin. You can learn more about her at or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Gibbs is a marriage and family therapist intern in private practice in San Francisco. He received his B.A. in history from Princeton University and has a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. He has spent the last decade researching and writing about the psychological and emotional underpinnings of relational conflict. His work on conflict has been published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Scott is likewise a periodic online contributor and the editor of a book that addresses the subject. You can learn more about him at www.mscottgibbs.com or contact him at email@example.com.