“Defensive Driving” as a Cure for Troubled Relationships

Several winters ago while driving through Sardine Canyon just south of Logan, Utah I was passed by a twenty-something year-old man, who, my wife informed me, was giving me The One-Finger Gesture.  Sure enough, as I glanced to my left, I saw him saluting me with all the honor he felt I deserved.

In retrospect, I figure I must’ve done something to get him fuming . . . perhaps I had inadvertently “slushed” him when I passed him a few miles back, or maybe I stayed in the left lane too long while he was waiting to pass me.  Let’s face it, though: at the time I was not in much of an “in retrospect” mood . . . I had his finger on my mind.

My initial shock quickly morphed into anger, which in turn triggered my modus operandi for these types of situations.  My first impulse was to mock the man by waving or honking, but I refrained, glaring at him instead.  As I began to compliment myself on having taken this “higher road of self-restraint”, I slowly sense a familiar pattern of self-righteousness settling in.

Time and distance gave me a chance to sort through the incident, and I finally came to what I felt was a more honest conclusion: I surely did something (and therefore bore some responsibility) to provoke his angry response.  Such accidental behavior, though, was nothing more than a mistake.  Far more indefensible was my choice to join with him in his hostility and glare at him.  The road of life is littered with plenty of drivers who crowd out other drivers without me adding to the mayhem.  My offensive “driving” only provoked more animosity and only served to highlight

The “meat” of life is relationships, be it with a stranger on the road or with more intimate acquaintances.  In the latter case, fingers are commonly used in equally accusatory ways: to point blame at others.  Hostile words exchanged between parent and child . . . chronic discord with a spouse . . . feeling offended by a neighbor . . . a bitter grudge held towards a supervisor . . . all involve an attitude of finger-pointing.

While troubled relationships are fairly easy to come by, lasting solutions to them are harder to apply, let alone find.  Daily life provides us with many opportunities to take offense (showcase weaknesses in our character) and work ourselves into a lather, to the point where we get all turned around and forget that lasting solutions begin with me.

Could it be that part of the solution to a troubled teenager’s problems is found in how his parents view him?  Stephen Covey shares just such a story concerning him and one of his sons.  Could it be that my attitude towards a concern my wife expresses to me triggers the frustration I’m seeing?  This has often been my experience, at least the times when I’ve been willing to be honest with myself.

The primary problem I see in relationships is that you and I spend far too much time and energy rationalizing, justifying, accusing others, and making excuses for our behavior and attitudes.  Our actions suggest that we are prone to getting caught up in “the thick of thin things.”

In biblical terms, I’m referring to the mote-beam analogy.  In modern terms, the same idea is captured in this phrase: Seeing Others as the Problem IS the Problem.  Our field of vision of possible solutions becomes blocked by our insistence that it is others, not us, who need to change.  As long as we insist on seeing others as the problem, any solution we choose will be, at best, a temporary fix.  Worse, we’re likely to remain stuck, consigned to repeating the same abrasive behavior over and over again.

If the way we others is the problem, then the solution must involve changing our perspective.  We can begin by searching within ourselves and being open to making changes.  This attitude requires that we give up all the fussing and fretting about what others need to do to shape up.  I’m not saying others don’t need to change . . . they very well may.  I’m just saying that they’ll have to make that decision for themselves, and that regardless of their decision we will be better off if we choose to live by principles of personal decency, responsibility, and openness.  Besides, consider the alternative: How will being hostile benefit you with others?  Turn it around:  How successful have others been in motivating you to change by accusing, demeaning, and otherwise maltreating you?

This “alternative” is, of course, a well-traveled highway that many of us are all too familiar with.  The futility seen in our refusal to take responsibility for our own feelings and behavior is surpassed only by our illusion that our continued bitterness or complaining or self=righteousness will somehow inspire others to treat us better.  Someone put it more simply: “Bitterness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person dies.”

Put simply, we cannot force change; we can merely invite and encourage, persuading others by driving responsibility.  We must be courteous in remembering others don’t have as much confidence in our driving as we do, be willing to let our fellow drivers pass us or enter our lane of traffic instead of speeding up to cut them off (did I hit a nerve there?), and be less critical of others weaknesses and mistakes (“We should be lenient in our judgment, for often the mistakes of others would have been ours to make given the same opportunity.”).

I view this change in attitude as a radical “paradigm shift” from many popular theories advanced by contemporary society, and it’s a shift involving more than mere lip service.  Phrasing things in just the “right” way or changing behavior alone won’t produce the change I’m speaking of.

It’s a change of heart that’s needed.

Having a single middle finger raised in my honor is not an experience I would wish for anyone.  Still, the feedback has made me more aware of how my driving affects others.  More importantly, it has served as yet another reminder that I must continually practice defensive driving . . . of the heart.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah