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August 12, 2009 > Counseling Corner: How Relationships Are Like Airplane Crashes

Counseling Corner: How Relationships Are Like Airplane Crashes

By Anne Chan, Ph.D., MFT

What do airplane crashes and relationships have in common? Grim jokes aside, there's something invaluable we can learn from airplane crashes that can help us figure out how couples can experience great communication.

I started seeing the parallel between airplane crashes and relationships after reading Malcolm Gladwell's bestselling book, Outliers. (Little, Brown, and Company, 2008). Outliers offers fascinating insights into the topic of geniuses and standouts. The book is engrossing, but the chapter that literally kept me up all night was the one on why airplane crashes occur. Gladwell departs from the usual explanations of mechanical failure and pilot error. Instead he zeroes in on a surprising factor in airplane crashes - lack of effective and complete communication between pilots, copilots, crew, and air traffic controllers.

Gladwell makes the point that an effective airplane crew over-communicate, particularly during crisis situations. They check in with each other and tell each other constantly about what is going on. The cockpit is a place where communication is encouraged between the captain and all staff.

You would expect that all airplane crews would communicate with great urgency and frequency during a crisis. But this is not so in the examples of airplane crashes that Gladwell cites. The black box recordings in these cases are strangely characterized by very little communication. For instance, in the final, awful minutes of one crash, Gladwell notes that the co-pilot appeared to be restrained by cultural codes of communication to be deferential to the captain. He tried increasingly (but unsuccessfully) to warn the captain of his concerns about the bad weather at the landing airport. The captain never appeared to grasp or understand the urgency of the understated message. The result was a horrific airplane crash that killed all passengers and crew on board.

Gladwell provides several heart-stopping examples of incomplete and ineffective communication ending tragically in airplane crashes. The good news is that the airline industry is aware of communication problems that can arise in the cockpit, and has taken steps to train flight staff in overcoming communication barriers.

There is an invaluable lesson here for couples. Like the crew in an airplane cockpit, couples are two-person teams that have to deal with a wide range of ever changing challenges, such as budgeting household finances, handling childrearing challenges and dealing with the in-laws. These can bring about a tremendous amount of never-ending stress, even if it's something as simple as taking out the trash.

Maybe this scenario sounds familiar to you - you and your partner have agreed to take turns taking the garbage out. When it's your turn, you keep to the agreement without being reminded and all is hunky dory. Not so when it's your partner's turn. The kitchen is one big smelly mess when you get home late that night. Your partner has forgotten to take the trash out and didn't even bother to take care of the humungous pile of fruit peelings and leftovers marinating in the sink. Already tired from a long day at work, you hit the roof when you see the mess in the sink and your partner comfortably and obliviously lounging in front of the TV. You try to keep your tone civil when you ask, "Why didn't you take out the trash?" Your partner doesn't even bother looking at you and mutters something about "Later." Your anger ratchets up and you growl, "Why can't you do something right for once?" Before long, you are both off to the races, hurling insults, yelling, and having a full-fledged argument.

Does this scenario sound painfully familiar?

If you're like any other normal person, you are very likely to react in unproductive ways when stressed. This in itself is not surprising - most of us tend to react in anger or shut down when we get into conflicts.

However, here's what we can learn from airplane crashes that we can apply to our relationship struggles. Like the flight crews analyzed by Gladwell, we often communicate in incomplete and ineffective ways when under stress.

Here's what I mean by incomplete communication. You might automatically lash out at your partner when you are upset about the trash piling up. Your anger comes out full force and anger is the one and only thing that your partner experiences from you. But anger is only one facet of what is going on inside you. Maybe you are also feeling disappointed that your partner has let you down. Maybe you had a bad day of work when you were blamed for something that wasn't your fault. Maybe you hate your job and feel like life has let you down. Maybe you feel it is unfair how household chores are divvied up. Maybe you are scared that your partner is not trustworthy. You may be experiencing one or more of these complex feelings, but you only communicate anger to your partner. Your partner likewise might volley anger back at you without communicating everything that is going on inside him or her.

To be able to work smoothly and effectively as a team, you have to be able to give complete information to your partner in the worst situations. This means being able to articulate all of your underlying feelings, not just your anger. Only then can you have a truly productive discussion with your partner that can lead to fuller understanding, compassion, and respect for each other.

If you are not satisfied with the way you and your partner handle conflicts, reflect on the following questions:
* In what ways do I respond ineffectively when I am stressed?
* How can I respond more effectively to my partner's stress?
* How can I give more complete information to my partner?
* How can I invite my partner to give me more complete information when under stress?

Like it or not, a couple is an interdependent team that has to work together effectively in order to function well. The best teams are ones where there is complete information given to each party, particularly in times of crisis. There's an important lesson couples can learn from airplane crashes - when you are under stress, learn to communicate effectively and give complete information to your partner. Only then can you have a smooth landing even when there's turbulence.

Anne Chan, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist and career counselor in Union City. Her specialty is helping people find maximum satisfaction and happiness in their careers and relationships. She can be reached at or (510) 744-1781. Her website is

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