Steve and Elaine used to get along really well. They had occasional arguments over small things, but nothing major.
But then COVID-19 came along, and Steve was furloughed. Elaine encouraged Steve to find another job. Steve did not want to look because he expected the furlough to last a month, maybe two at most.
But one month came and went and then two. The furlough continued. Elaine turned up the pressure. Although she worked, she did not make enough money to support herself, Steve, and three children.
They were now dipping into their savings and they did not have a lot of savings. They were getting some money from the government, but for them to get enough government assistance to make a difference, Elaine would have to give up her job and then they both would be, in a word, unemployed.
Steve was also beginning to have doubts about whether he would be rehired after the furlough, but he had gone this far and if he gave up the job now, he would feel that all the time in furlough was for nothing.
Moreover, he probably could not get a job as good as the one he had right now, even though he was furloughed.
Elaine was getting more and more upset, and so Steve started to do some looking, but the pandemic had left open only jobs that seemed to him either dangerous—dealing directly with COVID-19 patients—or dead-ends—doing work at the level of digging ditches.
The household now had pretty much erupted into open warfare. Elaine felt that Steve had let go of his responsibility to provide for the family whereas Steve felt that Elaine wanted to do nothing more than harass him.
Steve was reaching the point where he couldn’t stand it anymore. He had a little money to his own name and was seriously considering walking out. He could make ends meet by taking odd jobs.
But at least he would not be screamed at every day. Another week of this and he would have to be gone. He couldn’t take it anymore.
He even told Elaine he couldn’t take it anymore, at which point she told him he didn’t have to take it; he only had to get himself a job.
In dissolution cascades, the only way is down
Dissolution cascades are downward paths toward the end of a relationship. They are like a waterfall. They go down, usually, in steps, but always down.
Like waterfalls, once they start, they are difficult to stop.
If you and your partner are on a raft to the bottom, it’s hard to get out of the cascade.
As couples reach further toward the bottom, gravity seems to pull the metaphorical raft harder and harder, and the downward path of the raft becomes harder and harder to stop.
Eventually, the metaphorical raft comes crashing toward the bottom of the cascade.
At that point, the relationship bottoms out and the boat may overturn, leaving the relationship shattered.
Elaine and Steve entered a dissolution cascade in, at best, a leaky raft. The fall of the water was gentle at first, but the cascade built on itself, as water cascades do, and the pressure increased.
What started out as a minor disagreement became a major conflict until it reached the point where Steve was considering leaving. He couldn’t take the conflict anymore.
It's easy to see the other person's faults
As in most conflicts, each side sees it as the other’s fault. Elaine felt, reasonably enough, that Steve’s job had not come back and showed no sign that it was coming back any time soon. They needed the money. Like so many others, they were not prepared for him to lose his job, even to a furlough.
Steve felt, reasonably enough, that the furlough was only temporary, and that if he took another job, it would be far worse than the job he was forced to suspend working at for what he hoped would only be a limited amount of time.
Sometimes, in dissolution cascades, it is clear who is at fault. But more often, there is plenty of blame to go around.
In this case, Elaine was probably pushing Steve too hard—he was already in severe distress over the furlough.
But Steve was not doing very much to try to earn income while he was on furlough.
You can get through hard times together
What is sad is that Elaine and Steve were falling prey to situational pressures confronting so many couples. Most get through it; Steve and Elaine may not.
Over the long term, there are always situational challenges to any intimate relationship. Some couples will make it, and some won’t.
How could Steve and Elaine have handled the situational pressure better? How can any couple handle situational pressure better?
How can you handle stressful situations so that your relationship does not enter a downward spiral?
There are 5 things Elaine and Steve or any couple can do.
1. Recognize that the pressure is situational and that the real hard work of all relationships is to get through trying, sometimes crushing, situational pressures.
When you get together, you know things won’t be easy. Will you fold when things get hard? Or will you prove to each other and yourself that you are made of tougher stuff than that—that when you made the commitment, you meant it.
2. Recognize when your raft has entered a dissolution cascade.
Elaine and Steve entered a dissolution cascade but never recognized it as such. They did not see that they were starting to fall down a waterfall, and that their raft was leaky.
Had they seen that, they might have gotten out of the plunging cascade before they reached so near the bottom.
3. Solve the problem together—talk to each other, not past each other.
Elaine and Steve were no longer talking to each other. Day after day, they talked past each other.
And as their communication failed, so did their relationship. They were not steering the raft together, but rather, in separate ways that did not work together.
4. Find a win-win solution.
Elaine and Steve let themselves enter a situation where their interests began to seem to them like a zero-sum game—one would win, and one would lose.
You cannot build an intimate relationship on zero-sum games. You have to find a win-win game.
For example, maybe Steve could have kept the job from which he was furloughed but sought part-time work or temporary work, perhaps on an hourly basis, that would not have forced him to give up the job from which he had been furloughed.
In that way, he would have brought in some money but stayed in his job. He might or might not have found such work, but certainly Elaine would have appreciated his effort in trying.
5. Redefine the problem.
Sometimes, a couple cannot solve a given problem but the couple can work together to redefine the problem—to see it in a new way.
For example, perhaps Steve could have started his own business so that he would not be receiving wages or making any long-term commitment.
Rather, he would be entrepreneurial, creating a start-up, perhaps on the Internet, so that even if he was taken off furlough, he potentially could keep the entrepreneurial business he started. Thus, he would be doing something in addition to his regular job, not something instead of his job.
There is a reasonable chance that, at some point in your relationship, you will enter a raft rushing down a dissolution cascade.
Recognize it as soon as it happens, and if you value your relationship, use one or more of the five techniques described above to get yourself out of the cascade!
Don’t wait until you come crashing at the bottom!