Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Math of Relationships: Theory vs. Practice

People are notoriously bad at objective and rational thinking. We all fall into the trap of overly trusting our feelings, believing that just because we feel something it must be true, of not thinking ahead. And nowhere is it as pronounced as in close relationships. In this post we'll talk about a few of these common and dangerous pitfalls.

Just Because It Hurts Doesn't Mean It's Bad
Perhaps the most common mistake is this "logical" flow:
Your partner did X -> You are in pain -> They shouldn't have done that!
(And the bonus level:) -> They're a horrible person!!

The logical fallacy is the presumption that if something hurts - it must be bad. There are many examples to the contrary - like vaccinations (and I really hate needles so it's extra painful for me), working out ("no pain no gain") and many more - but we often fail to apply the same understanding when there are emotions involved.
My partner is currently participating in an extremely intense software engineering course. She's in the classroom for 10, 11, 12 hours a day and still codes in the evening and weekends. If I call or message her during the day she's often unavailable and doesn't answer. That sucks - I often miss her or feel less connected/supported by her due to the lack of connectivity. But let's agree that she obviously did nothing wrong. In fact by focusing on her studies and ignoring the surrounding world she's actually doing the right thing - both for her career and for our future. It hurts me, but it's still the right thing to do.
In many cases our disappointment is actually caused by our own faulty expectations. We all do it quite often - creating a "story" in our head based on partial data and our own preconceptions and desires. 
It starts with simple things: if my boss tells me to "finish that report" and I say "sure, will do" - my boss might be thinking "he's working on it right now, it's his top priority", and I might be thinking "OK, I'll get to it soon (like next week)" - which might get me fired...

Romantic relationships are notorious for these micro-miscommunications/omissions. If she says "I'll pick you up", meaning "I'll just finish these emails and go", I might hear "she's coming right now" - and then get mad at her for "disappearing" or "standing me up". She failed to meet my expectations - expectations she didn't know I had because I created them entirely in my head. The burden of making sure all sides are aligned is on both of us - but I am the one getting angry/disappointed in an unclear situation, so I am in the wrong. It is my fault that I'm in pain, and shouldn't take it out on anyone else.

If you feel that someone isn't living up to your expectations - first try to stop and think "Are these expectations in my head? Did I talk about them clearly? Did the other side agree to them?". Maybe the issue is just communication. And even if there is clear communication and mutual agreement - are these obligations realistic? Are you setting the other person up for failure?

A Straight Line Isn't Always The Shortest Path To The Goal
Another common misconception is the belief that showing our dissatisfaction with something that the other person did will change that person's behavior in the direction we prefer.
Let's say you have a friend who often changes/cancels your mutual scheduled plans. It might be because they are irresponsible or don't plan ahead well enough (at least in your perception), it might be due to strong mood swings/depression, forgetfulness, stressful or chaotic job - or any number of other reasons. Your intentions are probably good - maybe you wish to make your friend a better person ("Keeping your word is the moral thing to do!") or help them with their life choices ("You can't let your boss drag you to work on Friday night!"), but is the result actually what you intended?
From their point of view your pressure might create a different emotional response. Perhaps you come off as disrespectful of their choices ("Why are you telling me to take my career less seriously?!?"), egotistical ("You just want what's good for you, regardless of my feelings at the moment"), or simply uptight ("Any tiny schedule change is such a big deal for you").
This feedback effect might make your friend reluctant to schedule anything with you (so as not to become "prisoners of the schedule") or worse - drive them away.
Note - this is often a subconscious effect. Your friend doesn't actually think you're a selfish asshole (hopefully :)) - but on an emotional level a strong scheduling=pain correlation is formed. They might not even know why they feel reluctant or agitated when discussing the topic - which makes the predicament even harder to resolve.

The scheduling example is simplistic and might sound "overblown", but this interpersonal dynamics pattern is more common than you might think.
A decade ago I had a close friend who was going through some turbulence in her personal life. I cared a lot about her and honestly wanted to help her make the right decisions, break the negative patterns etc. In my zeal to point her in the right direction I became increasingly pushy and judgmental of her choices. She would call me for comfort and advice but would hear "stop making the same mistakes all the time!" instead. Needless to say, that drove her away - and before long she was reluctant to open up to me in the way she did before. It took a few years to rebuild that trust - all because I was trying too hard to force her down the path I saw as correct. And it doesn't matter in the slightest whether my advice was actually correct or not - the way I communicated it ruined any chance of creating the change I hoped for.

Better To Be Smart Than To Be Right
Back in highschool I participated in physics competitions and olympiads. My physics teacher told me once before a standard national exam "don't be right, be smart" - hinting that I should do my best to give the answers and methods that the national committee expects to see, even if I have a more elegant or complete solution. He was an excellent and experienced teacher and knew that my olympiad-style problem solving could get me in trouble on a test that's expected to be solved via dry techniques. My solution could be perfectly correct but I might still lose points. I took his advice to heart and got the 100% mark.

I wish it would be as simple for me to apply this advice to interpersonal communication. During fights/arguments/discussions in a romantic relationship I often feel blamed and attacked for misdeeds I did not commit. Sometimes the problem is exaggerated, sometimes the "facts" are just wrong, sometimes the pattern that I am being accused of ("you're always doing X!") is based on a very small sample size ("actually it only happened once") etc. This is quite natural and common - it's easy to get carried away in the rising emotions and exaggerate to make the point hit harder, accept feelings as if they were facts or just forget stuff. 
That really pisses me off. "Not only does she say hurtful things about me, they are objectively incorrect!". I often get mad in response and try to defend myself, attacking the inconsistencies and fallacies in the arguments.
Unfortunately, this is a very VERY big mistake.

First and foremost, becoming defensive during an argument rarely leads to a better or faster resolution - no matter what the cause is.
Second, I am human as well, hence occasionally guilty of the same mistakes. Sometimes I was the one who forgot, who didn't understand, who underplayed certain events in the heat of the argument. It's a really crappy feeling when 3 minutes into my "crusade for restoring truth and justice" I realize that maybe she had a few details wrong but her claim is fundamentally correct. I was just nitpicking to avoid taking blame - and now I made things even worse.
Third, and perhaps the most counterintuitive for me, is that even when I am correct, and the facts are being skewed or falsified against me, "defending myself" by attacking the arguments is a bad idea. Assuming the other party is a reasonable person who cares about you (doesn't use you as a punching bag because they had a bad week, don't become intentionally cold/distant to "show you how much you hurt them", no "shit tests" etc.) - the accusations or anger that is directed at you is coming from a genuine pain. No matter how poorly it is communicated, how wrong the accusations, this pain must be respected. 

The "optimal" flow is usually:
1) Let the other person talk (and sometimes scream and cry) about what's bothering them. Try to give them the feeling that you are listening, that you acknowledge their pain, that you are trying to understand their point of view, that you are with them.
2) Truly listen, and honestly try to understand their point of view and the source of said pain. This is often the hardest part. You must simultaneously suspend your own opinion and feelings about the situation, ignoring your own needs and emotions, and understand the root cause of the discomfort - which sometimes can only be found between the lines.
3) Together reach some conclusion or change to be implemented going forward. Often it will include a specific change of behavior or communication patterns. Occasionally the issue was caused by unrealistic expectations - requiring an internal adaptation rather than a behavior change. This part should be done in a calm but serious mood.
4) Defusing the atmosphere. Some people hug, some people laugh, some people engage in the famous "makeup sex". Whatever helps releasing the built up stress and fear. Most people find it obvious that the "hurt" party needs the positive feeling to "compensate" for the pain they were feeling. If you do this process correctly - and you actually care about the other person and the discussion is serious - you will have the same level of stress and emotional charge built up inside from keeping yourself calm and controlled - perhaps even more.

If only it was as easy in practice...

To conclude, thinking pain is always bad, looking at your intention instead of the effect on your actions, and overvaluing truth/accuracy are some of the most common relationship mistakes. There are many more - it’s part of the price we pay for having feelings - so when you feel like you’re “not getting through” to someone, try to stop and look at the situation from an outside point of view - maybe some cool common sense and logic will save the day.

Until next time, may you be a little less Klingon and a little more Vulcan. 


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