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The Moment It All Starts to Unravel

Relationships are difficult things to “get right.”  They require work, attention, and reevaluation.  Done right, they can be incredibly rewarding.  Done wrong, they bring pain and suffering to both parties.  Everyone has been in relationships gone wrong.  It’s easy in these cases to blame or vilify the other party, but if we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, we’ve got to look past our selection criteria for new relationships and consider how we may be unintentionally contributing to relationship downfalls.

It sounds easy, but it’s not.  Which eyeroll or harsh word begins the unraveling process?  Where do we draw the line between normal and dysfunctional?  How do we decide which comment that normally wouldn’t have started the ball rolling was the start of an avalanche of heartache and pain?  Perhaps that’s the wrong question.  The key may not be the start of the unraveling but the factors that led to those starts and resulted in an escalation of hurt feelings and mutual pain instead of being shut down and forgiven or ignored altogether.

Starve the Dog

It’s an awful analogy – particularly if you’re a dog lover – but it’s one that begins to expose the underbelly of the problem.  It helps us to see that even though one party finally lashes out, it may not be completely their fault.

If you want to make a dog mean and aggressive, you starve it.  The natural instinct to protect its life will make it compete to get food and resources so that it can live.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  You can’t just deprive the dog of food all at once.  Doing so won’t allow for the dog’s core personality to be rewritten.  What you must do is to intermittently and irregularly provide it with enough food for survival, but never enough to create comfort or safety.  You must create a hunger that threatens the dog’s survival.  Over time, the dog will develop a character of meanness and aggression.

In humans, we see similar circumstances.  People withhold from their relationships the things the other person needs.  Whether it’s words of affirmation, attention, concern, or something else, they constantly have the other party on edge, and ultimately that results in a person who is irritable – at least in that relationship, if not more broadly.  Sometimes the strategy is conscious, but often it’s just the way that they behave.  It’s a pattern they caught from their parents or from someone in their life who treated them the same way.

This dynamic creates a challenge.  The person who has been starved of their needs in the relationship are the ones who eventually lash out – but are they really the start of the problem, or were they just no longer able to contain the pain they were feeling?

Relational Flywheels and Sick Cycles

Counselors who work with couples often speak of sick cycles.  In these cycles, the husband says something that is upsetting to the wife, who in turn says something upsetting to the husband, and the process continues with each being more harmed by the comments at each cycle.  These cycles often erode the trust at the foundation of the relationship and create a wake of damage that neither party intended.

Inherent to the sick cycle is the nature of amplification of negative energy.  Each cycle adds more negative energy to the interaction and this process continues until one party walks away or there’s nothing left of the relationship.

The opposite effect is seen in some relationships and at times even in challenging relationships.  We support, compliment, or engage with each other in ways that contribute more positive energy to the relationship.  This is the foundation for lifelong relationships that get better with time as more interactions create more positive interactions.

When thought of as a flywheel, once things get going either in a positive or a negative direction, they tend to continue in that direction until something changes.  That means we’ll have to make a conscious change to interrupt a negative cycle before it gets out of hand or identify when a positive cycle is breaking down.

Predicting Failure

John Gottman is famous for his 93.6% accuracy rate for predicting divorce in married couples – after three minutes of arguing.  What he and his colleagues did was place people in a room with cameras rolling and asked them to start talking about their largest argument.  The result was four behaviors that he called the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse: criticism, stonewalling, contempt, and defensiveness.  These markers – particularly contempt – predicted relationships that wouldn’t make it.

When we see these show up in a conversation, we know we’re headed down the path of a sick cycle and not a flywheel of flourishing friendships.  Certainly, the arrival of one of these is a good candidate for where it all started to unravel – though often there are still previous behaviors that led someone to bring it to the conversation.


Beyond Gottman’s big four, there are other ways to predict failure of a relationship.  When either party starts to deal in absolutes, you know there’s trouble coming.  When someone says the other person “always” or “never” does something, there are bound to be exceptions and frustrations.  After all, if someone says that you never do the dishes, and you have specific instances where you have, doesn’t this invalidate the comment on its face?

Yes – but too often, the speaker doesn’t mean literally always or never.  Instead, they’re communicating that the frequency is wrong.  They expect more or less than what they’re perceiving – regardless of whether the perception is accurate or the expectation is reasonable.  The choice of words and attitudes does matter even when the other person’s behavior seems unimaginable.

The Unimaginable

In a civil, enlightened society, is there ever a reason to change your tone of voice or yell?  The immediate answer is a quick “no” – but not so fast.  Would you yell “stop” if someone was about to step in front of a bus?  What are the other exceptions to the rule that you shouldn’t raise your voice?

What happens when one party steadfastly refuses to listen?  They talk over you.  They interrupt.  They show no signs that they’ve listened, heard, or understood.  What then?  Should you not raise your voice to keep them from running over you?  Isn’t this a better answer as an initial strategy before exiting the conversation?  Frequently, in the discussions that devolve, we find that one or both parties doesn’t feel heard and understood.  Isn’t it natural to make one last ditch effort to be heard?

Off Limits

Many people believe that some behaviors are off-limits.  They aren’t acceptable.  It’s not until you press them that you can get them to realize there are conditions that the behaviors are not only acceptable but might be the best answer.  Consider murder.  Many people believe they’d never murder another person.  Killing is wrong, they say.  They’re right.  What if you knew that you were going to be killed by someone?  Would you kill them first?  What about your spouse or your child?  Would you protect them even if it meant murder?  It’s at these times that the waters get murkier.

Even Buddhists – who are, like most of us, rather universally against violence – can kill.  In a parable, a killer and a monk are on the boat in the middle of a lake.  The killer confesses (and the monk believes them) that they’ll kill two people when they get back to shore.  What is the monk to do if he can’t convince the other on another course of action?  The answer is to kill the killer – despite the monk’s non-violent nature.

When we encounter a “never” event, our first reaction should be whether the event is something that should never happen – or should only happen rarely based on an extenuating set of circumstances.  If it’s the latter, we should become curious about what the circumstances are.

Judgement and Anger

Anger is a frequent villain when it comes to the amplification of a sick cycle.  We become angry and lash out.  However, what is anger?  Anger, in Eastern psychology, is disappointment directed.  We’re disappointed about something or someone.  We feel the sting of the missed expectation.  It feels like a betrayal of trust.  We predicted their behavior, we got something different, and we don’t like it.  In the Western world, we’re rarely taught what anger is or how we might be able to process it.

While anger is disappointment directed, our disappointments come from our violated expectations, expectations we generated based on our prediction of what the other person would or should do.  We systematically underestimate the impact of the environment on behavior.  Kurt Lewin described behavior as a function of both person and environment.  The point of describing it as an opaque function is that you can’t know how the person and environment will interact to produce behaviors.

Despite this, Shaun Nichols and Steven Stich argue in Mindreading that the fundamental purpose of consciousness is prediction.  We accept the errors in our prediction and even, as Matthew Hurley, Daniel Dennett, and Reginald Adams explain in Inside Jokes, have error correction routines built in to allow us to adapt to our prediction errors.  However, in anger, we perceive that our prediction failure – that our disappointment – somehow impacts us in a potentially negative way either by changing our perceptions or by our perception of material threat.

Our disappointments are based on our predictions of the other person’s behavior and our judgement of what is – and is not – right.  We are often the angriest when we feel like our judgements of what is right and wrong are violated.  However, where do our judgements come from?  How do we decide what is and is not right?

Foundations of Judgement and Morality

Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind explains that we all have the same foundations of morality, but we each have them in different degrees.  They are:

  • Care/Harm – The need to care for others and minimize harm.
  • Fairness/Cheating – The need to ensure that there’s a fairness, and no one is cheating the system.
  • Loyalty/Betrayal – The need to ensure that we’re loyal to others and minimize our betrayals.
  • Authority/Subversion – The need to accept authority and avoid subversion of that authority.
  • Sanctity/Degradation – The need for cleanliness, respect for those things of deity, and avoidance for those things that are figuratively unclean.
  • Liberty/Oppression – The need for freedom and the prevention of oppression of others.

Our judgements are what we believe to be “right” or “wrong” based on these foundations and what motivates us.  Steven Reiss in Who Am I? outlines his motivational profile, which contains 16 factors that he believes motivate us all.  These motivators shape the way we think about life and, ultimately, what we believe is right or wrong.

One of the key ways that we develop our beliefs and therefore judgements is our values, but that’s not the only source.

Experience Based Decisions

Gary Klein explains in Sources of Power how his study of fire captains initially led to baffling conclusions.  These fire captains claimed that they just “knew” what was happening in the fire and what the firefighters needed to do to battle them.  For the most part, they were right.  The more experienced captains did just seem to have a sixth sense about how the fire was going to play out.  But why?

Ultimately, Klein realized that the captains had developed mental models for the fires and were testing each bit of information with the models they had created.  They’d make decisions based on how what they learned did – or did not – fit their model.  They’d pull back when the fire wasn’t developing like they thought it should or they couldn’t explain new information.  They’d identify the probable sources well before they could know.  Klein called them recognition-primed decisions (RPD).

What’s important about Klein’s discovery is that the fire captains were doing these mental simulations unconsciously.  They weren’t running a checklist or doing anything they could articulate.  They had internalized their experiences and formed their judgements – which were largely right.

When we’re angry, someone has violated our expectations of what “should” happen based not just on our values but on the mental models that we’ve created of the world.  Sometimes the judgements we make are based on a combination of the two.

Young adult (college-age) children accompany parents on a tropical island holiday.  When they’re supposed to return, challenges force flight cancellations, and the parents catch the first flight home, leaving the children in the foreign country with meager but sufficient resources as they wait for an available seat on a flight home.  For some, this is perfectly acceptable – they were, in fact, adults – and for others it’s wrong.  Parents are supposed to support and protect their children above themselves.

Those who are high on the motivator of family bristle at the story.  Those who themselves backpacked across a foreign continent think nothing of the story.  Their experience says that their young adults will be fine.  After all, they were in much less hospitable circumstances, and they survived.  Even if they’re high on family, their experience mediates their beliefs – and judgement.

The Influence of Environment on Experiences and Beliefs

At a table in the Midwest, a Chinese exchange student gets up from the table and offers to help clear dishes as they were taught was polite in the US culture.  However, there’s a problem.  The student left a small amount of food on their plate uneaten.  The host hides her offense.  She tried so hard to create a meal that the student would enjoy, and she believes she’s been unsuccessful.

Beliefs are socially constructed.  In East Asia, a guest would never finish all their food for fear of insulting their host.  Finishing all your food is a sign that your host hasn’t provided enough for you to eat.  In the Midwest, not finishing what the host provided is a sign that the food wasn’t very good.  It’s the same behavior – leaving a bit of food on your plate – with two radically different perceptions of the meaning.

So, while we make experience-based decisions, those experiences are shaped by our societies.

The Need to Be Understood

Our greatest – or at least most pressing – biological need is air and the oxygen that it provides.  This is followed closely by water and food.  There’s little argument about these biological needs and their relative importance.  However, when it comes to psychological needs, there’s a lot of discussion.  One of the candidates for the most important and pressing psychological need is the need to be understood.  It’s a reflection of our mind-reading skills: we want people to read our minds – at least a little.

Have you ever wondered about the kind, elderly people who come into the stores while you’re there?  Some seem to go on and on speaking about nothing.  It makes no sense that they’d share so much unless you realize that there’s no one at home to listen to them – and to understand their lives.  We see this at work in meetings, with some of our coworkers who seem intent on filling any pauses with the sound of their voice.

When someone restates their case, or their perspective and thoughts, louder the second time around, is it any wonder why?  With an innate need to be understood, any perception that you’re not being understood would automatically result in a harder – and perhaps more forceful – attempt.  That’s where the opportunity exists to stop the unraveling and reverse it.

Mitigating Negative Energy

What if you could side-step your emotional response to the greater energy in the other person’s words as they tried to get their point across?  What would happen if you were able to react to the fact that they didn’t feel heard and understood rather than the words or the tone?  The answer is that you might be able to stop the negative spiral and turn it around.  That takes two important pieces – which aren’t always easy.

Sidestepping Emotions

Whether the other person is yelling or simply becoming more direct and staccato with their words, it can be triggering for those who grew up in unstable homes or who have experienced explosive anger.  While there may be no real threat, that doesn’t stop you from feeling one.  You can react to the energy and directness of the words and become defensive – or you can recognize that the response isn’t going to lead to your harm and is instead a signal that the other person doesn’t feel heard.

While this logically makes sense, and most could agree that it’s a better plan, in the moment, it’s often hard to prevent the amygdala from hijacking the brain and putting all that logic stuff to the side.  To prevent this, we create greater degrees of feeling safe.  Even if we do get triggered, we hold on to the fact that we’re in no real danger from a logical point of view.

If we can sidestep emotion, we can begin to focus on discovering what about the other person’s world they don’t believe you heard.

Communicating Understanding

Communicating understanding seems simple.  “I think I heard you say…” is a good start.  More than that, “I think that you mean…” shows more than that you heard the literal words they were saying.  It shows that you were trying to make sense of what you were hearing – and that means you were trying to understand.  The key is not that every interaction results in understanding but rather that every interaction demonstrates the intent of trying to understand.  Even reflecting something back to someone as wrong is generally responded to well, since the perception is that both parties are trying to bridge the gap.

In Sum

The short may be that it doesn’t matter where it started to unravel.  The point may not be the first failure.  The point may be what can be done to validate and understand the other person as much as possible – no matter who is at fault.  Fault-finding, pinpointing, blaming, and isolating isn’t a part of the solution.  Demonstrating a desire to communicate and understand – even when the other person doesn’t appear to be making the same efforts – is the way to stop and reverse the unraveling process.

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