It Takes Two to Kayak

for couples Jan 12, 2024

By Angela Aiello, Ph.D. LMFT
PACT Level 2 Therapist

It’s cliché, but it was really turning into the vacation from hell:

“Oh, for f***’s sake, you’re not maneuvering in the right direction.”
“Me? It’s you! You’re the one who steered us into the muck! Try to move the oars like this!”
“I’m trying, but you’re not letting me….”

We were literally stuck in the mud, batting back and forth harsh and unfriendly tones and escalating stage-whispers that would rival any Greek tragedy. My husband and I ran aground — and we were barely out of the boat slip. This normally would be a fun embarrassment, but this was about the tenth thing to go wrong on our much-anticipated and needed trip to Hawaii.

“Oh jeez, the kayaks are lining up behind us. This is horrible! This—
“But you don’t know what you’re doing!”
“Look at the sky!!! It’s gonna start pouring again!”
“Of course it is, ‘cause somebody never checked the forecast.”

And so it went, each of us focused on each other rather than on the problem at hand. We were more preoccupied with poking holes in the other’s efforts, critiquing each other’s character, and finding a way to sabotage our we by digging our oars deeper and deeper into the mud, each demanding a submission to our own individual needs above what was most needed: collaboration conducted with kindness and a sense of fairness. In those uncomfortable moments, the only thing we could agree on was our mounting anger, frustration, and embarrassment — not at the river or the boat or even our ineptitude with the kayak but with each other.

Those fights — maladaptive patterns learned in childhood and practiced over and over as adults — are hard to break. For folks like us, slipping into snide or unfriendly tones or words was as easy as breathing. But it becomes too painful to stay in those patterns. The only choice was to grow together, grow apart, or remain in misery.

Full disclosure: I’m a therapist and a PACT Level 2 psychotherapist. I know better! I’ve counseled challenging couples on the brink of blowing up their relationship and guided them to a more secure-functioning union. I admit my failures and give them a lot of thought in order to see how I can do better. Oh, here’s the other thing, my husband and I have also participated in PACT couples therapy enough to know better.

So there we were, two self-appointed kayak rookies with almost zero combined experience with the problem at hand, ignoring a core PACT principle of governance to rely on, refusing to see the solutions that were available. In the moment, our amygdales were flooded, and we became paralyzed to do anything but raise our voices and do what we do best: fight. If only we could have reminded ourselves to do a few simple things to bring us back to more mature and collaborative reasoning and a secure(ish)-functioning partnership. We were failing on one of our core principles, our we statements.

We will always work together in times of frustration to bring us toward any shared goal.

The line of colorful kayaks stacking up behind us were filled with increasingly anxious folks who weren’t finding their delay as amusing as they might under normal circumstances. For every vacationer on that river (and island, for that matter), time was running out before the sun surrendered to the next deluge over the island.

These storms were not the gentle, cooling drizzles that broke the heat and rewarded the island with double rainbows accompanied by the thick scent of crushed plumeria. Instead we were held captive to menacing cloudbursts that felt like shards of warm glass piercing our pale sun-starved skin. Even if we weren’t stranded in a kayak or on the road to Hanelei, the storm surges made it impossible to drive our way out of it.

This tropical jaunt would be our first trip together since the pandemic. I was fantasizing about warm nuts on the flight over the Pacific, catching up on my favorite crime novels at Tunnels Beach, and savoring that first bite of Hamachi from our favorite outdoor sushi place. We’d sit on the warm sand, seeking the sun like lazy lounge lizards.

Out of all the months and weeks in a year, I took it upon myself to book a ten-day trip with the abandon only the child-free can appreciate. T agreed to that plan along with the bed and breakfast (B&B) choice and vehicle. We assumed the flight would be like others, uneventful and pleasant.

And so began our fantasy vacation…with the twenty-four other Kauai-bound families on spring break. It seemed as if the entire world of young families were on that plane. I deliberately ignored the look of irritation on my husband’s face before he adjusted his earphones and tuned out. I opened the first of many See’s caramel lollipops and mused aloud to no one, “Boy, am I really looking forward to that little bowl of warm first-class nuts!” The warm nuts never came. 

Even worse in our desperate desire to have a temporary reprieve from the stressors of life (among them, a big fire scare here in our beloved canyon and some difficult marital challenges), we never bothered to check the best dates for the nicer B&Bs. And, we forgot one other detail: the weather. As we both wrestled with the oars, the sky began to match my darkening grey mood.

“Holy s***  – stop! Don’t do that!

I thought I was helping by pulling my oar out of the left side of the kayak and jamming it back into the mud to stabilize the kayak. Instead of pushing the kayak out toward the river, I inadvertently turned the thing around, getting it stuck all over again, but this time we were perpendicular to the river.

“Stop it! Look what you did!”
“I thought that is what you meant!”
“I said pull…not….”

Like the spitballs of yesteryear, a few ominous plops of rain landed on the back of my head.

“Why didn’t you bother to check the weather?!”
“Again with the weather! Who the f*** checks the weather in Hawaii?!”

We knew how to fix this — not the kayak but the actionable steps that we learned in our own PACT therapy that I study, that I teach, that I use to counsel and advise my own clients!

The real challenge for us was re-recognizing that our combined efforts would free us. Along with our oars and the bottom of the kayak, we were bogged down in individual critiques and sarcasm. We needed to set aside our personal differences, preferences, and grand I-know-better solutions to work together on the problem.

In these tense moments we were forgetting each other’s triggers born of two very different but not unusual attachment styles. Of course, I know how he likes to be spoken to in such tense moments, and I believe he knows what I need to feel safe. While it is human nature to fight, most of us have the capacity to set aside our individual need to dominate and flip on the executive-function switch to work as a team. But first one has to slow down. We had no calming words. Even our talent to make each other laugh was forgotten. In those moments, we became belligerent strangers.

The shared principle we forgot?

When there is any strife in the relationship, we will drop what we are doing to give the other a felt sense of being seen and heard especially in disagreement. 

We had to give up the independence of the my-way-or-the-highway attitude. Of course, this is difficult when you’ve been used to making your own decisions without concern for another. Watching ourselves in hindsight slip into that one-person psychology mindset…? It takes humility to wave a flag of surrender and admit it’s better to do things together.

We had to settle down. As PACT teaches, when a Wave (who has been known to go from calming ripples to full blown tsunamis in record time), and an Island (who can drift into the horizon without a word) begin to work together, they begin to function as Anchors do; they hold each other firmly, even during the biggest storms. Even the young surfer dude on the riverbank, clearly amused by the idiot howlies in their chaotic river dance, knew we weren’t going to drown.

Rather than thinking my way out of it (top-down processing), it was important for me (and T) to feel something different. And to feel something different, we had to do something different. We needed a guardrail. Honestly, the most effective way for us to navigate the arguments that led to a meltdown of dysregulation was to find the humor. Humor. We forgot to laugh. We forgot to play.

“Ya gotta admit, this is pretty funny in a really awful way, isn’t it? C’mon, right? Funny ha-ha, not funny weird.”
“It’s not that funny, but it’s not like we’re gonna die in knee-deep mud.”
“Unless of course we get hit by lightning. Now that would be a drag. No more fun trips like this one. Ha!”

Finally he laughed. Not some big guffaw (that’s my terrain) but enough of a chuckle to lighten up and look at me with kind eyes.

Laughter is our guardrail. A laugh and a change in tone. Although a part of me was still irritated by the whole mess, couldn’t I be irritated about the circumstances rather than with him? Even within our limitations as humans, we must take care of each other above all else.

“I’m all in for a new idea, Pooky.”
“Good. Do you care that your pants will get wet?”

Of course I cared. They were linen! (Although who goes kayaking in linen pants?) But in that moment, it had to be.

“They’ll dry. What’s next?”
“Good, then let’s get out.”

We are not a graceful couple, but our coordinated efforts of using the oars properly, not working with or against our weight and really listening to each other, we loosened up the kayak from the banks.

“Okay, Ange…one, two, three...push!”

All those years of weight training and boxing paid off. Drenched to the waist, we got back into the kayak and maneuvered the oars as a team. Two people, one kayak, coordinated efforts. 

This is how you get unstuck. And not just from the mud. Isn’t it amazing the things we can do when we set down our egos and make space for each other and a solution? But how do we uphold this principle and others in the future? For us, although we had to be reminded of the principle, we still didn’t have an important element that would uphold and make reality out of a shared idea. We needed better guardrails. Guardrails enforce the principle by allowing us to remind each other of when we fall short of that principle.

In the case of our Wailea adventure, a guardrail that would have eliminated the arguing and embarrassment would have been for us to go over the rules of kayaking before setting one linen leg onboard. Or, being kinder to each other so we could find the humor in this very wet, very expensive vacation.

While we continued to have zero control over the weather, the lousy accommodations, and the neighbor playing a particular news channel on high volume all day and night, we did have better control over ourselves. That’s not to say we didn’t have additional moments like the one on the Wailea River, but we shared in the frustration as a couple. 

We also equally shared in the consequences of booking a trip without checking anything firsthand. It wasn’t my fault or his fault. It was our fault. We both participated in our mutual misery. It took getting stuck in the mud over an endless torrentially rainy week to force us to stay in the muck until we changed our attitude and worked toward the mutual goal of getting unstuck. We had a principle but no guardrail to enforce that principle. But with guardrails in place to protect both him and myself, we find we don’t work on each other. We work on the problem.  

We never did get our warm nuts on the flight over. That’s okay. We got something better. We finally warmed up to each other.


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