Relationship Tests: The Tandem Bike


Want a fun way to put your relationship to the test, and to see the interplay between primary and secondary emotions in real time? TRY RIDING A TANDEM BIKE TOGETHER!

If you’re not familiar with the concept of primary and secondary emotions, allow me to provide you with the CliffsNotes version. 

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Primary Emotions are the deeper, more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, hurt, fear, shame, and loneliness. Secondary Emotions are the more reactive emotions such as anger, jealousy, resentment, and frustration. They occur as a reaction to the primary emotion. I’ve heard it explained that secondary emotions are the coping mechanism for the primary emotion. For example, it’s often a lot easier to become angry (critical and blaming), than it is to acknowledge that you’re really feeling sad and lonely. We tend to have trouble sitting with, and feeling the primary emotions, so the secondary emotion comes over the top to help us deal with the experience. Although, in those reactive spaces we usually aren’t communicating our needs in healthy and effective ways. 

Primary emotions generally draw partners closer. Secondary emotions tend to push partners away. 

So, back to the tandem bike… this morning we gave it a go!

Jay Wick, LMFT, tandem bike

I had been talking recently with some friends that, not coincidentally, have a blog and Instagram dedicated to inspiring couples toward creating their best relationships (AND, are putting together a retreat that will no doubt include a tandem bike component). In this discussion Liberty and Ryan shared that they had bought a tandem bike awhile back, and after their first ride immediately began brainstorming about how it could be used as an exercise in communication for couples. Needless to say, they found it was a steep learning curve that included some scrapes and falls. Ever been in any relationships like this?

Turns out, they wanted some guinea pigs (suckers) for their evil experiment, and invited my partner and me along for a spin on the new toy. Not being ones to back down from a challenge, we graciously accepted the invitation… and planned to dominate!

I’m kidding. They were super excited to see someone else have some fun on their bike, and we were equally enthused to try it out. Although, I think we were both pretty nervous and scared. We had been prepped a bit about some of the challenges of the bike, which sort of heightened the experience a little more. For instance, with this particular model the pedals have to operate in unison. Meaning that when one person is pedaling, the other also HAS to be. You can coast, but both have to coast at the same time.  And, if one of you begins pedaling too fast, the other can lose control and your feet actually fly off the pedals making it hard to get back in sync. Not to mention we were about to do all of this riding down a big hill on one of the busier streets in our city. 

Enter primary and secondary emotions. 

Fear (primary) levels were pretty up there. There was actual fear of injury, mixed with the possibility to completely embarrass (primary) ourselves. It would be safe to say that we were already primed for a situation in which a lot of criticism (secondary response) or defensiveness (secondary response) could have occurred. And, it was definitely there right about to bubble over. 

In our first attempt to get going, we had some trouble getting the initial pedal movement in sync, which threw our balance off, which threw us into a head on collision with some trashcans. We were able to laugh it off and try again, but the fear increased. On our first attempt to turn around, we almost ate it again. Primary emotions rising. Honestly, at this point it would have been easy for either of us to start blaming the other for the mistakes, but it was nice to see that our own relationship work was paying off, and we were able to tackle the task as a team. Eventually we got the hang of it… and then we were informed we would be leaving the safety of the neighborhood on to the busy ass street. Yikes!

Jay Wick, LMFT, tandem bike

To save you from the longwinded play-by-play, I’ll wrap it up with this: We did pretty amazing!

We had some moments that could have easily hit raw spots and been fuel for an argument. Like when my legs were turning to Jell-O going uphill, and I yelled back, “Babe! Are you even pedaling!?” But overall we communicated well and were attuned to one another’s needs. When I needed a break going up that hill, my partner allowed me to rest. When my partner was fearful of merging in with the cars to cross the street, I walked the bike to the cross walk with her so she felt safe. 

And when we both felt like we couldn’t go any further, we were both there to encourage and support each other along the journey.