Turning the Relational Battleship


— by Daniel Jenkins, Ph.D.

Jenkins is a licensed clinical psychologist at The Center for Enriching Relationships in Mission Valley. He is also a professor at Point Loma Nazarene University. Learn more at www.enrichingrelationships.org.

Turning a battleship 180 degrees while moving ahead at 30 knots is no easy endeavor. The “turning circle” is the shortest distance that a warship can turn around without keeling over.

Some battleships are very maneuverable with an 800-yard turning circle, while larger ships take well over 1,000 yards to do an about face. The size of the ship and the speed it is moving forward must be taken into consideration in making the turning circle calculation.

Momentum carries objects forward in the direction that they have been going, and it takes a lot of force to make them change, according to Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion. For example, to stop a really large vessel, such as an oil supertanker, it takes 5.5 miles and the turning circle is over 2 miles.

Apparently this First Law of Motion applies to nonphysical things as well, such as trust levels in a relationship, reputations in a group or even our perspectives of reality.

For example, I once counseled a married couple who believed they knew each other very well, and yet how they saw each other was 180 degrees different from their own self-perceptions. Getting the couple back into alignment was like trying to turn a battleship—it took a lot of force.

According to the wife, her husband was a liar, and every word out of his mouth had to be questioned and closely examined. She knew that he had cheated on a previous spouse, and she knew that he had lied to her before, so everything he now said had to be questioned with skepticism.

The husband adopted a passive role in the relationship. He did not want to face conflict, so he rarely revealed his true motivations or intentions to his wife. However, the more he hid, the more she felt alienated, and so the problems only escalated.

To make matters even worse, the husband was passive-aggressive. The repressed anger he felt for his wife’s controlling and condescending behaviors seeped out in subtle and manipulative ways that were designed to infuriate her further. Like most passive-aggressive individuals, he was not fully conscious of how his actions provoked her anger.

But, once they started therapy and were instructed to focus more upon their own feelings and behaviors, things started to slowly change. He became more expressive of his anger in direct and appropriate ways. She began to feel like she was seeing the real person in her husband, rather than a factitious façade. There were many setbacks along the way, but like a turning battleship, trust slowly returned.

Changing one’s behavior to promote trust is hard work, but changing one’s mind about our partner is much more difficult. Even if a husband stops lying to his wife, there may be months or even years before she changes her mind about his integrity.

“He will never change.”

“She’s always been this way.”

These kinds of statements make the battleship of our mind move full steam ahead rather than turn in the direction of trust. If you refuse to see the good, even if it is an incremental change in the right direction, then you are the one who is subverting positive change.

Emotional pain creates a powerful momentum that slows down the process of forgiveness and the rebuilding of trust. By talking about the pain, in a safe and controlled environment, we can shorten that turning circle significantly. Conversely, if hurts and resentments are ignored or denied, then changing your perception of your partner will be very difficult.

It is so much easier to keep the status quo in our most important relationships. Trusting again means being vulnerable again, and probably suffering again. But what are the alternatives? They aren’t nearly as pleasant as repairing the relationship.

Changing the reality of your relationship is partly up to you. Change can and does happen, but you can only change yourself. Try disputing the negative beliefs you have about your partner and see if your feelings turn the corner in a more positive direction.