Anatomy of an Apology

An apology should be simple.  Just say, “I’m sorry.”  However, it’s not that simple.  There are questions about why we apologize and what the other person expects when we do.  An apology is often an attempt to regain or begin the process of rebuilding trust, but an apology done incorrectly can reinforce the negative predictions of future behavior – lack of trust – and make things worse, not better.

Our goal with an apology is never to make things worse.  However, in too many situations, there are more hurt feelings than before the apology was issued.  Here’s how to avoid them, why they happen in the first place, and ways to make relationships better.  We start by examining the forms an apology can take.

The Forms

Though the contents of an apology change, they take a few basic forms:

  • I’m sorry that I did something, and it harmed you. (True)
  • I’m sorry that it happened. (Sympathy)
  • I’m sorry [that I got caught]. (Consequences)
  • I’m sorry that you felt that way. (Felt)
  • I’m sorry, but… (But)

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

True Apology

Obviously, with a label like “true,” I’m conveying that this is the kind of apology that most of us want and the kind most likely to restore a relationship or begin the rebuilding process.  It connects the behavior of the person apologizing to the impact to the recipient.  Implicit in this is empathy, compassion for the person who was harmed, and the willingness to change behavior in the future.

The behavior change may come in the form of notification, protections, avoidance, or other ways to avoid harming the person again in the same or a similar way.  Some of the best apologies explain the techniques that will be used to avoid the same situation again to help ensure that the recipient of the apology can distinguish this form from the others – and can rebuild their trust.

The need for specifics is largely dictated by the degree of remaining trust in the relationship.  In relationships with a high degree of remaining trust, there’s often no need for the details.  But in deep betrayals and harm where trust is nearly completely gone, explaining the “how” of the behavior change is essential – we’ll explain why when we get to the point of apologies in the first place.

Sympathy Apology

While technically not an apology at all, sympathy often starts with the words “I’m sorry” and therefore is often confused with an apology.  It’s the first of the detractors that leads people towards believing that an apology has been issued when one has not.

When our son died, many people said, “I’m sorry.”  They weren’t apologizing for their actions, because they weren’t involved.  Instead, they were offering us their sympathy.  At times, it’s all that can be offered, but it can be dangerous, because it’s too easy to perceive the recipient to be lower than the person who is uttering the words.  Sympathy for a tragic event is understandable; sympathy for who someone is… it’s its own tragedy.

The risk with sympathy is that you separate yourself from the person with whom you’re trying to maintain or build a relationship.  It’s only by trying to gain some degree of empathy (or understanding) and have compassion for them as well that you’re able to avoid the separation.

Consequences Apology

Another form of an apology takes on the unspoken characteristic.  Instead of wishing to eliminate the pain in the recipient because of their actions, the person wishes they weren’t discovered.  Often, this occurs with addicts, who are not yet willing to acknowledge and accept their addiction, as well as those who betray the trust of their partners by straying outside of their agreed-upon monogamous relationship.  Whether married or just “going steady,” those who strayed outside the relationship are sometimes not sorry for their own behaviors but are instead sorry they got caught.

This detracts from true apologies, because instead of changing the behaviors that led to the hurt, the person offering the apology will simply redouble their efforts to keep their activities secret instead of legitimately changing their behaviors.  This makes trust in the relationship harder – often unbearably hard.

Having believed that the addict would quit using or the other person would stay within the confines of their relationship boundaries – whatever they are – they’ll eventually be confronted with another example of the behavior.  This is what leads to a cycle of apologies until the person receiving the apologies can no longer see a path to possibly rebuild trust.

Felt Apology

The felt apology skips over the actor’s behavior and expresses sorrow and sympathy for the way that the recipient feels.  It takes no responsibility – and therefore may not lead to future behavior change.  It can, however, be appropriate when there is no way to reasonably predict the other person’s reaction.  Perhaps they’ve got an undiscovered wound around a particular phrase or a sensitivity to a topic.  The person uttering the apology may have had no way of knowing about these sensitivities. They can honestly be sorry for the pain they caused without accepting responsibility for having directly caused it.

In the case of hidden wounds, the process exposes them and therefore makes repeat behavior unlikely.  The future behavior changes may therefore simply be a heightened awareness of the sensitivity rather than a direct change of behavior.  This can be completely appropriate.  It can be that the hurt felt by the recipient of the apology is not the speaker’s fault.  It can be that the recipient of the apology does have their own need to address these hurts, and all that the speaker should do is create space for the person to address their own hurts.

The difficulty is that often the felt apology doesn’t feel like an apology to the person receiving it.  They don’t see the other party as having taken an appropriate amount of responsibility for the outcome.  It’s difficult to sort out what part of the hurt is from prior circumstances and what part is the result of a person’s insensitivity or poor choices.  Here, there are no clear answers; however, it may be that the apology becomes a process where the person who was hurt attempts to help the person offering the apology understand how their behaviors directly or indirectly caused the hurt.

But Apology

With the but apology, things start off great.  The recipient of the apology hears the speaker acknowledging their behavior and the harm it caused.  However, the hope that begins to form is quickly dashed when the speaker adds “but” to the statement.  Here, the speaker acknowledges their bad behavior but, importantly, fails to accept responsibility for it.  Instead, they inappropriately return blame for their bad behavior on the recipient of the apology.  These apologies often cause more harm than good as the person receiving the apology correctly detects it as an inability for the actor in the situation to accept that they’re responsible for their behaviors.

There’s a common phrase that is quite literally incorrect: “They made me mad.”  The truth is that no one can make us mad – or any other emotion.  We chose to be mad, angry, frustrated, or even disappointed.  Their behavior may have violated our expectation or breached our trust, but we get to choose our feelings and reactions to them.  It may be natural for someone to be mad or angry given the circumstances and behaviors – however, that doesn’t mean that this is the only alternative.

There’s a great deal of research that supports that the stimulus we receive from the environment doesn’t directly control our feelings and moods.  Our feelings and moods are driven by how we interpret and respond to those stimuli.  The but apology ignores this research and, in shifting the blame, abdicates responsibility for themselves.

The Indirect Apology

Before moving on to why apologies are so important, we’ve got to address one other form of apology, the indirect apology.  This happens when one person is used to relay an apology from another.  These forms of apology simply don’t work.  It conveys that the person who reportedly wanted to apologize didn’t believe it was important enough to do it themselves.  In our technological world today, this is simply unacceptable.

Indirect apologies convey very clearly that the person harmed isn’t worth the trouble of communicating directly – even when the trouble of communicating directly is almost nothing.  It’s hard for the person receiving the apology to not hear the dismissiveness in an indirect apology.

At a logical level, the indirect apology should be better than nothing, but the truth is that the indirect apology reminds and reinforces the hurt without offering relief, thereby making it worse.

What’s the Point?

Understanding the different types of apologies and their limitations, it’s time to return to the reason for the apology in the first place.  Is the point to add another patch to a relational road that is filled with potholes and patches simply to make a seemingly obligatory gesture and smooth things over – or is the purpose instead to pave a stronger and healthier relational road?  Certainly, the former is easier and requires both less work and finesse.  However, in the end, the patches to the relationship either make it rocky or cause it to fall apart altogether, requiring a radical restructuring – or, more frequently, a dissolution – of the relationship.

Conflict Avoidance

Many apologies that fail to move the relationship forward are the result of an attempt to avoid true conflict.  The goal isn’t to strengthen the relationship, improve the character of the parties, or move to a deeper level of trust.  The goal is to quell the immediate pain and make things a bit more tolerable now.  The problem is that these approaches necessarily lead to a patchwork in the relationship and more areas that both parties must move slowly and carefully past instead of finding and resolving the root issues.

Apologies that occur too quickly fail to get to the root of the issue or create deep understanding and therefore fail to change the perception that the problems won’t happen again.  The consequences apology is the prototypical example here, but other forms can also apply.  Instead of exploring the depths of the pain, one or both parties decide to quickly cover up the problem with “I’m sorry” and hope that this is enough to escape the discomfort of the conflict.

Getting to the root of the issue that led to the hurt is sometimes hard work, and frankly I’ve never met anyone who enjoys this work.  However, at the same time, I’ve met many whole-hearted people who love others, feel compassion for their pain, and are committed to having the hard conversations to get to the results of true relational repair.

Relational Repair

Many of the circumstances that lead to an apology have caused a rift in the relationship.  One party assesses the behavior of the other as having been bad or hurtful, and they want their relationships to be positive – so they naturally desire the behavior to stop.  Depending on the severity of the violation of expectations or the grievousness of the behavior, it can be that substantial damage was done to the trust on which the relationship is built.  All relationships are built on some form and degree of trust.

The goal of relational repair is to rebuild that trust in a way that builds a firmer foundation for the relationship going forward.  This necessitates the belief that the hurt won’t reoccur.  This can be prevented by changing one or both parties’ perception of the circumstances that led to the hurt, or it can be accomplished through behavior change.  When it comes through a change in behavior, we must believe that the person who both parties concur behaved poorly will have sufficient motivation, tools, and willpower to make and sustain the change.

Trust and Safety

At the heart of our relationships is the belief that we can trust the other person.  We believe that we can feel confident – or safe – that the other party has our best interests at heart and will seek to minimize our pain when appropriate.  Strictly speaking, not all trust is positive.  We can trust that people “have it out for us” or wish us harm.  However, these are not people we are in relationship with – or, at least, we shouldn’t be in relationship with.

Trust serves an important purpose.  We trust so that we can limit our need to protect ourselves and conserve our resources.  We can use those resources for our own betterment or entertainment or for the betterment of others.  We accept the risk of betrayal – that we will incorrectly predict someone else’s behavior and be harmed – because the benefits that we receive through trusting seem like more than a fair trade.

Three Kinds of Trust

There are three different kinds of trust.  There is the basic kind of trust that we extend to others for being a part of being humans.  We trust that the person holding the door for us won’t slam it in our face.  We expect that – for the most part – merchants will treat us fairly.  We use this degree of trust to navigate the world around us and to intentionally reduce our vigilance in places where we need not consume our focus.

The second form, blind trust, is a dysfunctional kind of trust, which ignores evidence that should be leading us to not trust the other party.  Spouses often acknowledge that they should have seen infidelity long before they did because of inconsistent stories.  Many embezzlements are found long after they should have been discovered because the clues are simply ignored.  Rather than patching over the issues with trust, they’re simply ignored.

The third form of trust is authentic trust, where both parties understand the character, values, and circumstances of the other, feel able to predict the other’s behavior, and sure in their belief that such behavior will be in their best interests.  Most people have people in their lives who they’ve gone through tough times with and gotten to the other side.  These “foxhole” relationships are built on strong foundations that make them last through new challenges and the tests of time.

Contextual Confidence in Trust

One thing that is so often overlooked with trust is that it’s contextual.  We trust specific people with specific roles.  We trust our babysitter to watch our children.  We trust our accountant with our taxes.  We likely don’t trust our accountant to babysit our children or our babysitter to do our taxes.  Yes, we trust each of them.  However, we trust each of them within a specific context.

When we say that we “just don’t trust them,” we oversimplify and fail to specify the context.  To understand how we trust, we must both identify the prediction of the behavior we don’t believe we can make and the conditions – or context – that we don’t believe we can make them in.

Three Components of Trust

Trust can also be said to have three components.  There are three aspects that we may choose or refuse to trust a person in.

The first component is communication.  Do we believe that the person will tell us when there is a problem or when they made a mistake?  Will they reliably communicate with us when things are going well, too?  Communication is an essential aspect of trust that enables us to believe that we’re getting an accurate picture.

Trust comes down to an implicit contract.  The contract is what we are offering (which can be nothing) and what we expect (which may be minimal).  Our contractual trust with someone is our belief that they’ll deliver on their end of the contract.  Here, one of the key challenges is the fact that these “contracts” aren’t written.  They’re inferred and estimated.  Often, the difference in views about the nuances of the agreement or contract can lead to conflict, as one party has one expectation, and the second has a different expectation.

The final component is competence.  Do we believe that our babysitter has the skills necessary to perform their job?  Do they have a Safe Sitter® certification where we can leverage our trust of the institution on the person?  Do we trust our accountant – initially – because we believe that being a certified public accountant means that they understand the basics of accounting sufficiently to do our work well?

Competence is often a given in the trust equation – but one that sometimes shouldn’t be, as people mislead us about their competence in areas.  (Often, this misleading isn’t intentional; they’re misleading themselves as well.)

The Safety of Predicting the Future

We want trust so that we can feel safe.  As humans, we’re prediction machines.  We predict wars, markets, and, more importantly, people.  When we have a high degree of confidence in our predictions, we feel safe.  We believe that we can see and avoid problems and that no harm we can’t handle will befall us.

Any sort of hurt lowers our belief that we can predict our future.  We didn’t anticipate the hurt, and therefore we appropriately can wonder what we missed.  The apology offers us the possibility that it was a fluke or a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence that will never happen again.  It can also leave us wondering whether the person offering the apology is sincere and therefore unable to predict the future.

An apology does damage to the relationship when it lowers our ability to predict the other party’s future behavior rather than raises it.  Apologies that leave us unsure whether the other person is really going to change – or not – make things worse, not better.  Naturally, after being hurt, we’ll scale back our trust in someone else.  If the apology makes it our fault, refuses to accept responsibility for their part in it, or minimizes our pain, we’ll further reduce trust – since we can’t predict that the person will continue to have our best interests at heart.


Sometimes, the Christian Bible connects language to concepts in ways that aren’t helpful.  Repentance has a negative, almost self-loathing, connotation that is undeserved.  Repentance just means a change of direction.  It means going a different direction.  It’s about different attitudes and behaviors leading to different destinations and different results.  In an apology, we’re looking for repentance.  We’re looking for a change in behavior that eliminates our future pain.

Apologies that fall short of convincing us we’ll see a change in behavior leave us worse off than when we started.  There are many ways to move towards and away from convincing others that the change will really happen.

Premature Closure

An essential aspect of an effective apology is understanding the other person.  The person issuing the apology must understand their behaviors and how it impacted the other person prior to issuing the apology.  A failure to encompass all the factors or behaviors – or, conversely, all the aspects of the pain inflicted – will unravel.

Often, the consequences apology suffers from this unwinding – and it’s the way that you can identify a consequences apology after the fact.  Apologies that fail to enumerate the aspects of the harmful behavior or fail to seek complete (if painful) understanding of the impacts to the other person are often indicators that the person isn’t sorry for their behavior or the pain it caused, they’re simply sorry they got caught.

Even in situations where there is an honest attempt at an apology and sincere regret for the pain that was caused, a failure to walk into the behaviors and the pains can invalidate the apology – and make both parties frustrated, as one believes they’ve apologized and the other finds their apologies lacking substance.

Effective apologies must review all the behaviors that could lead to the same kind of hurt whether they’re known by the other person or not.  They must create space to learn more about the pain that it caused and why.  Without these components, the apology may fold like a house of cards.

The Specifics

If you want to make your apology more believable – and more actionable for you – it requires specifics.  Getting a gym membership doesn’t make you go.  Deciding on a schedule is substantially more effective at getting in shape.  The best apologies are those which are accompanied by the specific behaviors that will change and in what circumstances.

Even when conditionalized with “I’ll try” or “I can’t make promises I’ll be perfect,” the apologies that include the specific behaviors that will be changed and how the person intends to accomplish that change are more believable than those that leave the change up to chance or fail to deliver a specific plan.

The Guardrails

Another way to bolster the effectiveness of an apology is to create space for appropriate monitoring and consequences.  In the case of infidelity, it’s often the case that the activities of the spouse will be more closely monitored.  Whether that comes in the form of monitoring their location or communications or in some other form, the point is that the person who was harmed can identify the situations or behaviors that may harm them sooner – even if this infringes a bit on the apologizer’s privacy for a while.

Similarly, clear consequences can serve as an effective tool for restoring trust.  Knowing that the person will accept a set of consequences that they pre-decided before the next lapse in behavior is both an effective deterrent for them and a reassurance for the other party.

Accepting the Apology

In the end, the person receiving the apology must accept it.  It’s not the issuance of the apology that signifies the end or minimization of the hurt, it’s the acceptancy by the person to whom the apology is offered.  Too often, we believe that we can wipe our hands of hurt when we utter the words “I’m sorry.”  It absolves us of any further responsibility or need to make amends.  Instead, we should work to ensure that the other person accepts the apology before moving on.

It’s hard, because we can own our words and behaviors.  We can offer the apology, but we can’t guarantee that the recipient of the apology will accept it – and we’ve got to accept that they may not be able or ready to accept an apology yet.  It can be the hurt is too big, the situation is unfolding, or they’re simply not able to let go yet.

Our responsibility is to issue the apology in the best ways that we can and wait for acceptance.  We may find that our apologies are never accepted.  While this may mean the tragic end to a relationship, it is something over which we have no control.

Until the apology is accepted, it’s our responsibility to monitor and be open to learning more about what we’ve done to cause the other person harm without insisting, “But I’ve already apologized.”  Often, this only furthers the awareness that the person wasn’t repentant for what they did, they just want to smooth over the conflict.

Acceptance Withdraw

Even after acceptance, there is the chance that the acceptance may be withdrawn, and work must be done again to seek acceptance.  However, the truth is rarely that the acceptance was withdrawn, but rather more evidence has come to light about behaviors leading to the hurt that were not previously disclosed.  Frequently when dealing with consequences apologies, additional information comes to light, it reopens old wounds, and the process of seeking acceptance for an apology begins anew – with a new apology that encompasses all the behaviors.

Book Review-Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray

It was a secret love affair for over 40 years.  It was two preeminent psychologists.  And it’s difficult to get to Love’s Story Told: A Life of Henry A. Murray without stumbling between the public appearance and the private relationships.  I came to Murray through his work with Christiana Morgan and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).  It’s a popular projective test like the Rorschach inkblot test, and it has some of the same challenges.  But I’m way ahead of myself – I need to take a step back and explain Murray and the loves of his life.

Wealthy, Even by Wealthy Standards

Murray was born to a well-to-do family and spent his time at boarding schools before heading to Harvard for his education.  He didn’t seem to be constrained to any one place or even continent as his life seemed to have him constantly traveling from America to Europe and beyond.

As might be expected from someone who grew up with wealth, he enjoyed rum, rowing, and romance.  Much is made of his battles with a professional coach for the Harvard rowing team and the rivalry with Yale.  It seems as if these challenging moments pushed Murray as much as his schoolwork.

Josephine Rantoul

Jo was born to wealth herself, and after a short courtship, she and Henry were married.  Their marriage was described as more helpmate and “pal” than romantically driven.  Their marriage was outwardly positive but internally driven by challenges of infidelity.  In addition to the “40-year secret love affair,” there are at least two other chronicled dalliances.  While Jo was certainly aware of the “secret love affair,” it’s unclear about the others.

Ultimately, Jo felt as if it wouldn’t be acceptable to divorce Henry, and he felt the same, so they remained married even after the big secret was revealed.

Christiana Morgan

She had a husband as well.  Will had Christiana’s hand in marriage.  In fact, the two couples traveled together – and separately – before Murray’s romance with Christiana.  It was certainly disappointing to Will and Jo that Christiana and Murray had an affair, but it was something that both seemed resigned to.  Will because he devoutly loved Christiana and seemed willing to put up with almost anything to have her, and Jo for the social implications.

Christiana would come to work with Henry at Harvard and would co-author the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) but not before both Henry and she had visited with Carl Jung.

Carl Jung

Jung is probably only second to Freud in terms of recognition in the world of psychology.  His work is the genesis for a large number of works including the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).  (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more on MBTI.)  However, most interestingly, Jung had a former patient, Toni Wolff, as a lover with the consent and perhaps even approval of Jung’s wife, Emma.  This was the legitimization that Murray and Morgan needed.  Sitting for tea with Emma, Toni Wolff, and Carl had to have been an odd experience.

Morgan and Murray’s relationships with Jung continued for years and only really stopped when it became apparent that Jung was using Morgan’s visions as the source for his Visions seminars.  The realization that this secret was on the verge of getting out caused Murray to interject and ask Morgan to stop sharing her visions with Jung.

Jo, for her part in the story with Jung, considered him to be a “dirty old man.”  However, she did seem somewhat more settled after the talk where he explained that Murray was not that different than other men.  This hearkens to the duality of sex as explained in Anatomy of Love, where we profess monogamy with discrete affairs on the side.

The Underworld

Jung explained that Wolff exposed him to the sense of the underworld.  Morgan did the same.  She was able to flow with her feelings and consciousness that seemed unreachable to both Jung and Murray.  Neither man could on their own be so free flowing, and thus used the women as ways to investigate the emotions that they couldn’t themselves let out for fear of losing themselves to it.

Christiana continued to explore the underworld of her psyche with visions and artistry long after she stopped sharing with Jung.  It was this exploration that led her and Murray to the thought of the dyad.

The Dyad

Morgan and Murray believed that, in working together, they could perfect love and share it with the rest of the world – when the time was right.  She would bring visions, emotions, and artistry.  He’d bring cold, calculating reason.  Together, they believed that they could unlock the very secrets of love.  They never completed their mission.  Both, in their own language, eventually would declare their work a failure.  Through 40 years of effort, they’d struggle to understand, define, and document their experiences, and they’d ultimately fail.

The scribe for their endeavor was Christiana, who seemed much more taken with the idea. Henry’s writings are a small portion of the content available from their experiences.  It seemed that the differences in their worlds would pull them apart, bring them back together, and ultimately torture them both.

The Separations

After their initial love making session, Christiana and Henry were apart for about a year.  In fact, there were many times in their relationship of 40 years when they were apart.  The sketches have Henry traveling with and without Jo across Europe, and Will and Christiana taking separate roads of their own.

Despite the long-term view of a 40-year secret love affair, there were many periods when the pair weren’t together.  However, more importantly, their goals rarely were.  Christiana routinely wanted more than Henry was willing to give, and Henry wanted more out of life than Christiana.  This set the stage for the fundamental disconnect in their relationship.

For Christiana, the dyad was the thing.  For Henry, it was a thing.  Though he acquiesced about his fascination with Herman Melville and his desire to write a book about him in favor of the dyad, there seem to be many cases where the dyad wasn’t as important as his work in the clinic and, particularly, his book, Explorations in Personality.


No love story is complete without sex, but here the sex wasn’t a part of the love making process as it was a way for both of them to recover from pain.  In the later years, there was Christiana’s desire for pain and domination and Henry’s struggle with the process.  It’s fair to say that for Christiana the sex and the pleasure associated with it was a primary aim, where for Henry it seemed to be secondary.

More broadly, Henry is said to have lived with a great deal of guilt for the pain and turmoil that he inflicted on both Jo and Christiana.  His guilt, though well hidden, never left him.


My first experience with Henry Murray and Christiana Morgan was through the TAT.  During a custody evaluation an evaluator used this test among others to try to determine who was a better suited parent.  I found out later that the TAT is prohibited from expert testimony in federal court cases because of its lack of reliability.  (See Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and The Cult of Personality Testing for more on the challenges with this test and others.)  It’s at that time that I picked up the book Love’s Story Told, because I was curious about Murray and how he created a test like the TAT.

I learned that many of his contemporaries were cautious about the lack of rigor and science in his work; despite that, the TAT became a widely popular test.

Around Suicide’s Bend

The real reason for making a point of reading the book was because of suicide.  Edward Shneidman was a student and fan of Henry’s who went on to lead the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center for many years and became an accomplished, well-respected suicidologist and author.  In The Suicidal Mind, he spoke about his appreciation for Expressions in Personality, and I knew I’d want to read it – but I decided I wanted to do that after I had a chance to learn more about the man behind the book.

What I didn’t realize was that it was Shneidman who would be entrusted with the letters and items for the dyad, nor that there would be so much suicide in and around the couple.

The Suicides in Murray’s Life

While Will and Jo died normal deaths, many around Murray weren’t apparently so lucky.  Other “friends” of Christiana’s, like Ralph Eaton, died by suicide.  At least 6 of Henry’s preparatory school class of 29 died by suicide as well.  There are questions about whether Christiana’s death was a suicide.  Suicide, it seemed, surrounded Murray’s life.

It’s Hard Work

The dyad wasn’t for everyone.  Even if it wasn’t the power-control fight that it appears to have become, with Christiana pulling for more of Harry and more sexual exploration and him longing for zestful thought, it would be hard work.  Both decided that it wasn’t going to be successful, but perhaps they glimpsed the kinds of relationships that folks like John Gottman would journey to discover years later.  (See The Science of Trust, The Relationship Cure, and Eight Dates for some of his work.)

It seemed as if both were so afraid of losing the dyad that they were in a constant battle to see who could control the other.  In the end, Love’s Story Told may have been more about control than love – but you should decide for yourself.

Book Review-The New Peoplemaking

I picked up The New Peoplemaking not because I wanted to continue delving into family systems but instead because that Virginia Satir’s work is often used as a model for change. I have no problems with the fact that her change theories were based on changing the family systems of her clients and many of the applications that we speak of for the model are designed for corporate use instead. While the book doesn’t fully enumerate Satir’s model for changing family systems, it does illuminate some of the powerful forces that shape families and clearly communicates Satir’s respect for those people who bravely pursue the process of having children – and therefore people-making.

Impacting Society

We speak of cultures, nations, and societies as if they exist. In truth, they are collections of people, processes, and thoughts. They don’t exist in the sense that you can reach out and touch them. They are, however, the big questions that we seem the most interested in working on. But because they don’t directly exist, we can only change them by changing the individuals that make up these institutions.

This has been the focus of Satir’s work: individual changes. How do you change the behaviors that people choose in their everyday interactions with their families and the world? Satir simultaneously recognized the personal responsibility of every member of the family system and the system itself. More importantly, she recognized that sustained societal changes happen only when you develop people. No amount of arrangement or organization will be effective in the long term if the people aren’t supported and enabled to be the best people they can be.

Strangely, the connection for individual change and its relation to organizational performance comes from the Hawthorne Works, as described in Management and the Worker. In it, the relationships of the operators changed. It wasn’t the intent of the study, but the result was a change in individual health and therefore productivity.

The Hardest Job

Satir asserts that family is the hardest, most complicated job in the world. While family isn’t one of the Gareth Morgan’s prototypical Images of Organization, perhaps it should be. If raising a family is the hardest job, then perhaps it could be a good model for how to make organizations work.

When you look at the factors that influence the effective and ineffective operation of the family, one can easily see that they’re the same sorts of factors that influence the effective operation of an organization. Quoting Satir (emphasis mine):

The factors in a positive pairing relationship are:

  1. Each person stands firmly on his or her own feet and is autonomous.
  2. Each person can be counted on to say real “yes’s” and “no’s”—in other words, to be emotionally honest.
  3. Each person can ask for what she or he wants.
  4. Each acknowledges and takes responsibility for her or his actions.
  5. Each can keep promises.
  6. Each can be counted on to be kind, fun to be around, courteous, considerate, and real.
  7. Each takes full freedom to choose to comment on what is going on.
  8. Each supports the other’s dreams in whatever way possible. Together, they cooperate instead of competing.

Compare this with the kinds of guidance that Amy Edmondson recommends in The Fearless Organization, Tim Clark exposes in The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety, or Richard Hackman shares in Collaborative Intelligence, and you’ll see similarities.


The basis of any human endeavor are relationships. Whether it’s a work, professional relationship or a family relationship, it’s the basis of what it means to be human. Historically, counseling focused on the individual who was representing problems, either of their own report or because their behaviors deviated the norms that their families and society could accept. However, Satir recognized that the behaviors operate only in the system that they’re created. Kurt Lewin explained that behavior of a function of both person and environment. (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality.) Thus, counseling one person necessarily misses half the problem.

Satir recognized that relationships start in pairs: two people in relationship with one another. However, these relationships quite quickly take on a third element, whether it’s the first child entering into the marriage relationship or someone else. While triads can be powerful, in the case of relationships, they’re generally fragile. In chemistry, O3 is ozone, and it’s unstable. O2 is the more familiar oxygen molecule that we’re used to. In Grannoveter’s work, he recognized that sometimes we see unstable relationships through forbidden triads like a man, his wife, and his mistress. It can work together, but often does not. (See Analyzing the Social Web for more.)

Family Portrait

While the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is a discredited test that used to be used as a part of psychological evaluations that drew inferences from pictures, the idea of visualizing your family portrait may have value. (See The Cult of Personality Testing for more.) By visualizing the way you see your family and then comparing it to real life, you may be able to see distortions that lead to poor interaction patterns.

Too many people are led to believe that family life must be perfect. This is an expectation that simply cannot be lived up to. In my review of Fault Lines, I explained that we believe our family lives should resemble Norman Rockwell artwork, but it can’t. That’s not real. The perception of our family should accept the faults that we have, that our family members have, and how our relationships aren’t perfect. We can’t expect perfect, we can only look to accept things as they are and work to make them better.

Stopping Problems

Dysfunctional families spend all their time and energy working to prevent problems from happening. They want to hide their reality from the outside world and as a result they use all their emotional energy trying to prevent the inevitable.

Healthy family systems recognize that problems will happen. They aren’t desired or welcomed, but they’re expected. These systems don’t waste their time preventing problems that can’t be prevented or denying the problems that are happening. Instead, they focus their energies on coping with the problems that do occur.

Fear of the Future

All fears are fundamentally a fear of a negative situation happening in the future. Our fears are the result of our concern that a negative outcome will substantially impact them in a way that they won’t be able to cope. (See The Hidden Logic Behind Perceived Situational Safety for more.) The key is that the more people believe they have the resources and capacity to overcome any impacts of the risk or stressor they fear, the less fear they’ll have.

We fear what we don’t believe we can successfully confront – whether that confrontation is a threat to our life or just our ideas.

The Control of our Attitudes

Sometimes the circumstances can’t be changed. Consider a family that is severely in debt. They can’t instantly transform themselves into a debt-free family – though this is possible over time. What they can do is change their relationship with money and, more importantly, how they interact with each other when they feel financial pressure. It’s not the circumstances that have changed that can create the substantially positive result, it’s the attitude about the circumstances that matter.

I’ve seen numerous people who are in the midst of struggles with their finances, their relationships, and their addictions. The most powerful changes they make aren’t the changes they make in their situation. The most powerful changes were in their attitudes about their situation. When they stopped seeing their marriage as an obligation and started seeing it as a way to express their love to their children and spouse, the problems nearly disappeared. Objectively nothing changed, but subjectively the entire world was different.


Having self-worth isn’t always easy. Whether it’s the voices of your parents or others in your life that told you that you were no good, didn’t meet the standard in some way, that they hoped for something else, or a myriad of other options, understanding your inherent value as a human is a powerful way to keep fear at bay – and to improve relationships with others.

Many of the problems that people have in their relationships are reflections of their poor self-worth. Instead of interpreting the other person’s comments in the most generous way possible, they respond to their childhood hurts and lash out. A husband can ask her wife where the spatula is and receive a response about him interfering in her kitchen, because she fears that if he cooks, she’ll have no value.

Everyone has redeeming qualities and aspects of themselves that are adored – or can be adored – by others. Finding ways to expose these aspects in ways that allows the person to grow can be difficult. In Creative Confidence, Tom and David Kelley explain that all of us are born creative and it’s “reinforced” out of us. How do you send messages of self-worth to yourself and others instead of messages of worthlessness?

Planting a Person

Consider for a moment that a trusted friend gives you a seed for a precious plant that they want you to have, but they don’t (and won’t) tell you what plant the seed will grow. You dutifully plant the seed, water it, and fertilize the soil. You’ve created the conditions under which the seed can grow without controlling or directing its growth. (For more of this general idea, see On Dialogue by David Bohm.) Judith Rich Harris explains in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption that you can’t expect your children will grow exactly the way you want them to. There are too many factors involved. The result of this is your children are precious gifts that you can’t control but you can encourage towards growth.

Taboo Against Touching

In some families, touching is restricted. Fathers stop hugging their daughters, and, to a lesser extent, mothers stop hugging their sons. What may have been a family ritual of piling on the couch to watch a movie becomes awkward as the children grow, and the parents become concerned that touching their children may be misinterpreted. Out of fear, they pull away from physical touch that is a part of our human condition.

It’s not that there don’t need to be boundaries and that attention need not be paid to appropriate vs. inappropriate touch – there does need to be. However, in too many families, these waters seem too difficult to navigate and in the process all touch is prohibited.

In our world, I can tell you that I hug our sons and our daughters – and Terri does the same. We recognize that this is an important part of feeling connected as a family and work to find appropriate ways to share touch without it feeling sexual to any party.

Taboos Against Sex

As explained in Anatomy of Love, our Western culture has numerous restrictions on discussion and acts of sex in general where other cultures are much more open. The unfortunate side effect of this is that we’ve unintentionally taught our children that sex is bad. As a result, when they become a part of a relationship where sex is appropriate (say marriage as an example), they still struggle with their ability to express themselves sexually because they can’t shake the feeling that it’s somehow bad.

The more we can be open about sex – without encouraging it for young adults who aren’t ready – the less dysfunction that the children are likely to express as an adult.


There are many words that are used to describe the same concept. “Congruence” is Satir’s word for the same thing that I’d call a “stable core” (see Resilient for more) or that Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness.” (See Dare to Lead for more.) The Arbinger Institute uses different language in Leadership and Self-Deception about staying out of the “box,” but the point is the same. It’s about being the best possible person, a person who can experience negative external events and situations without being overly reactive. Satir’s word hints at the stance that makes that possible. She hints to the facts that what someone does on the outside, the way they act, is in congruence with the way they feel in the inside. They’ve not just changed their outward behaviors, but they’ve also changed their inner mindset.

Privacy and Self-Integrity

Many people will claim their need to privacy. However, this isn’t exactly what they need. Privacy creates places where we can behave in ways inconsistent with our values or the image, we want to show the world. A person with an integrated self-image (see Braving the Wilderness) will need very little privacy and only in cases necessary to prevent vulnerability.

However, it is important to note that the root of the suggestion that we need privacy comes for the need to protect our identity from others. We also ask for privacy when we’re concerned that others may try to intrude on our identity.

Don’t Talk About It

A friend of mine’s family didn’t talk about certain things. Growing up as a preacher’s kid, he learned that if it was negative or too “out there,” you just didn’t talk about it. The unwritten rule in the family was that if it wasn’t talked about, it didn’t exist. Of course, this is like burying your head in the sand. It doesn’t change the actual situation, it just changes your perception and not in a good way.

His family isn’t alone. Many learn the message that you shouldn’t talk about Aunt June’s drinking problem, Jimmy’s conviction, or the fact that we know other members of the family are cheating in public. If you don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. Embarrassment prevents reality.

The problem is that it doesn’t. In addiction circles, there’s a saying that “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” (See Neurodharma for more.) The more that we can be open about any topic and discuss it, the less likely we are to find ourselves in dysfunctional states.

You, Me, and Us

One of the key questions in relationships is how to take two separate things and mix them together to become not you and me but you, me, and us. Some relationships have a high degree of you and me with very little us. Conversely, some people become so enmeshed that they lose themselves. They really don’t understand how they can exist without the other person.

For healthy relationships, there must always be all three – you, me, and us. For those who have stronger senses of themselves, it’s possible to minimize the amount of me. For those who are co-dependent or unsure of their own identity, minimizing their identity in a relationship is dangerous. They may very well lose themselves.

Often, we see people lose themselves to the us, because they’re so afraid of loneliness that they’ll do anything to avoid it.


Loneliness explains how being alone and loneliness are not the same. We can be surrounded by people and feel loneliness and conversely be alone and not feel lonely. Loneliness is an unfortunate feeling that humans must endure. There is no avoiding it.

The key is to accept loneliness in appropriate amounts and to learn how to move your way back from the loneliness. Forming and maintaining multiple relationships is essential for keeping loneliness from lingering for too long. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on multiple relationships.)

Good from Bad Stock

One of the challenges with guardians – including parents – who are negative about a child’s parents is that you may unintentionally create self-esteem problems. The question becomes, “How can I be good if my parents aren’t good?” This creates a huge problem – and it’s one of the hidden impacts of parental alienation. (See The Progression of Parental Alienation for more.)

There are ways to decouple someone’s self-esteem from their parents’ value, but it’s not always easy. One tool is to reduce the belief that genetics are the only thing that makes someone good or bad. (See No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption for more on the degree to which genetics play a part.)

Reaction Not Control

One of the challenges in any family is the degree to which one family member believes that they have the right to control other members of the family. While this happens from parents to children rather frequently, it also happens with siblings. Older siblings are often enlisted as assistants with the younger children and therefore retain some sense of responsibility or control.

We all want to control others, but none of us want to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control for more.) As we attempt to control others, their natural inclination is to try to turn away. If, however, we learn to be responsive to them and their behaviors without accepting responsibility for them or attempting to control them, we’ll find that the entire family system becomes healthier. (See The HeartMath Solution for more on detachment, and Responsive or Responsible for more on the real meaning of responsibility.)

Pals for Parents

Another trap that parents can fall into is the desire to be friends with their children. Children need strong boundaries (see Parent Effectiveness Training and Boundaries). The primary responsibility of a parent is not to be their child’s friend, rather their primary responsibility is to help their children become functioning adults. Too often, parents become so concerned with being their child’s friend that they’re unwilling to hold them appropriately accountable. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for more.)

You Should Know

One of the weapons that is used against other family members is the statement, “Well, you should know.” Whether used by children or parents, it’s a weapon that isn’t fair and is one of the worst things that can be done. In The Science of Trust, John Gottman speaks about things that break down relationships the most serious of which is stonewalling. “You should know” combines stonewalling with shaming by implying that you’ve done something wrong that you don’t know – and effectively preventing further conversation on the topic.

It’s a logical fallacy that one should “know” anything, and that it should be allowed to end the conversation. (See Mastering Logical Fallacies for more.) Certainly, “You should know” may be uttered in frustration, but to prevent it from being toxic, it should be followed with “but here’s what the issue is.”

If you’re a parent or you’re thinking of becoming one, I encourage you to prepare for The New Peoplemaking.

Book Review-Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

It started simple enough. I wanted to explain to a friend who was struggling how there were different kinds of love. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the right words. I knew that there were different kinds and different expressions of love, but I just couldn’t find the words. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Helen Fisher’s work, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Buried in the middle of the work was the important answer I needed, but surrounding it was a rich study of how love works. Drawing from anthropology and neurology, Fisher explains possible answers as to why humans bond in the first place and why those bonds seem to break too easily.


The friends who introduced me to Fisher’s work are polyamorous. Both members of the couple are people my wife and I would consider good friends. While Terri and I are both clear about our beliefs about marriage and relationships, we continue to try to understand the perspectives and beliefs of our friends. The truth is that the couple aren’t the only ones we know who’ve decided at some point to have a kind of relationship that strays from what most people would consider traditional.

With the pieces that I’m about to share from the book, one might reasonably assume that I’m considering a polyamorous life; however, that would not be true. While I recognize that monogamy isn’t the norm for mammals and may not have been designed to last more than the time it takes to rear a child, for me, it’s still the right answer. The good news is that I gained a bit of extra insight as to why and how my friends find themselves with a primary bond and a non-primary bond.

Dual Strategy

The anthropological research shows something odd. Marriages exist in most cultures and adultery is common. It seems that most humans developed a dual strategy for ensuring the survival of our offspring. We find a good mate – a primary bond – and we find lots of others for whom we share a special affinity. In tribes across the globe, it seems like there was a marriage relationship and the expectation that there would be coitus outside of marriage. This is particularly true of men but, in many cases, true of women as well.

In some cultures, men often offer their wives to their hunting partners, friends, and guests. With mutual consent, the wife and the non-spouse have sex. In other cultures, it’s believed that it takes many men to father a child, thus everyone in the village feels as if the child is, at least in part, theirs.

Western Moral Code

It turns out that it’s only Westerners who attach such a stigma to sex in general but also to various sexual relations. The strict regulation of sexual activity may have been necessary to prevent communities from being unduly burdened by children from parents who couldn’t support them, but the result was a sense of shame and guilt about sex in nearly every form.

In other cultures, sex and promiscuity are more openly accepted, with everyone in a village knowing who is coupling with whom. In many cultures, the knowledge is shared in the community but never discussed directly between spouses. Perhaps this approach avoids jealousy and therefore prevents uncomfortable confrontations.

The only sacrosanct prohibitions about sex are that you shouldn’t disrupt the marriage union.


The marriage union serves a useful purpose. Humans’ massive heads can’t fit through the birth canal if fully developed, so Mother Nature started kicking out human offspring before they were fully able to care for themselves. The result was an even larger burden on the mother in caring for the child and therefore the greater need for support from another – typically the father or presumed father.

Marriage, then, as a concept provides a framework for support of the development of an offspring. Fisher’s research seems to lead towards the idea that marriages happened for 3-4 years if only one offspring was produced and continued only for 3-4 years after the birth of the last offspring.

One often points to other species to speak of the kind of monogamous pair bonding that we seek to achieve in marriage. However, only about 3% of mammals pair bond like we do. While 90% of birds pair bond, the problem is in how long it lasts – and the degree to which it holds. Scientists have found both that birds will copulate with others outside of their primary bond, and they’ve found in many cases the primary bond is limited to a single mating season.

Birds have a much shorter time until having an empty nest than humans, and their rapid de-pairing after a season means that it’s possible that humans have the same built-in timeclock, but the clock just takes longer to wind down.

When Marriages Fail

From an evolutionary perspective, having multiple suitors makes sense for the female. It’s been widely accepted that males chase and females choose. For a male with limited commitment to the development of an offspring, copulating with as many females as possible increases the chances of their genes to continue. For women, it can increase their chances for the survival of their genes as well. By courting favor with many men, should she become abandoned – or should there be a situation where her husband dies – she’s got a built-in set of potential stand-ins to assist her in raising her children.

Spiritual Evolution explains that baboons with better social bonds improved the outcomes for their children. What better way to form a social bond than to unlock nature’s reward system with dopamine?

The Reward System

Much has been made of the human reward system and how dopamine is the way that we’re encouraged to keep doing something. The Power of Habit perhaps overplays the hand by speaking of anticipation; but other books about addiction, like The Globalization of Addiction, take a more balanced view, explaining how addiction is fueled by the dopamine system and simultaneously explaining environmental factors.

The simple truth is that evolution equipped us with a set of mechanisms that rewarded behaviors that led to the survival of our genes. Simple biases added up to a system where sexual reproduction was rewarded with dopamine – our natural pleasure drug. It’s a quick response that helps us know that this is the sort of thing to do – like eating sugar, chocolate, or salt. Add to that the neurotransmitter oxytocin, and you add to the pleasure a sense of desire to bond – or pair bond. Which is, of course, what we need if our offspring require a great deal of resources to support their birth and growth to self-sufficiency.

It’s Not All About Sex

Despite the powerful neurochemicals in play most people (95% of females, and 91% of males) say that the best thing about love is not sex. There’s more going on than the neurochemical wash associated with sex. It seems like that the need for connection, understanding, and belief of mutual support is more powerful than we would anticipate.

Moving back to the analogy of love as an addiction for a moment, Fisher’s work parallels what we know about addiction. Addicts do receive a bit of dopamine from their addiction – in whatever form – however, the way that we fight off addition isn’t the use of more dopamine at other times. Instead, the way that we combat addictions is through changing the person’s environment and, most importantly, their connection with a community.

The Risks of Sex

One of the interesting changes that came to the way we view sex is the change in the degree of risk that sex entailed. We’ve had condoms as a form of contraception for centuries. The efficacy of this mechanism has varied over the years but has generally become more effective at preventing pregnancy and often the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As I mentioned in my review of The Normal Personality, the change in views on sex was accelerated by the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Within a few decades, the possibility of an unwanted child dropped substantially. Two forms of contraception and the possibility of abortion made it a much lower risk. Add to that a set of new antibiotics and other treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the foundation for a change in perspective about sexual practices.

While the Western world is still has many cultural taboos about sexual practices, there are forces set against that, and the tide of perspective about sexual practices is changing.

The Attraction

One of the most interesting ponderings is how someone’s love map is formed. That is, why are some people attractive and others are not? What is it that makes someone interesting as a mate? Some of it appears to be due to timing. While it’s possible to be attracted to a childhood friend, it appears as if there’s a period of time when familiarity makes you someone who’s not a reasonable suitor. Children raised together will rarely date or marry – but if they’re not together during a critical phase, there seems to be no such resistance. (It’s estimated between 3-6 years old.)

The opposite is also true. When someone is ready to “mate,” it seems as if the right person will come along. It seems that we tend to be attracted to those who are available – which, of course, would be advantageous if you don’t have that many available options – and it would help to be attracted to someone that actually exists.

That being said, we also tend to be attracted through our noses – and to people who have a set of genetics that broadens our immune defenses. Sweat has been an ingredient in love potions around the world. It’s been found to trigger luteinizing hormone in women – which increases sexual arousal. Sweat was more appealing when there was a genetic diversity in the histocompatibility complex, which drives our immune system.

The Nuclear Family

For the most part, we take for granted that the best family for a child to grow up in is a nuclear family. However, this is largely a new phenomenon. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains that family structure of the “GI Generation” was multigenerational. While Robert Putnam notes the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids, the nuclear family that rose during the “Silent Generation” was largely considered a luxury by the time the baby boomers were starting their families. Fisher’s work indicates that, in many cultures and in the prehistoric past, it really did take a village to raise a child – or at least that was the way it was typically done.

So, while our mating habits supported our dual strategy with marriage and adultery, the burden placed on any individual marriage was less weighty. Over time, as our relationships with others eroded (see Bowling Alone), and we removed the societal expectation of collaborative support – a social safety net – we began to put more emphasis and weight on the individual marriage, a weight that it seems evolution didn’t plan for, and we saw the rise of divorces. (For more about divorce in general, see Divorce.)

The Rise of Divorce

In Islam, it was easy to divorce a wife. In some cases, it meant saying that you divorced the other person three times and waiting out the waiting period, and it was done. However, divorce was also different. People’s possessions weren’t really up for grabs in a divorce. It was simply the end of the pair bond. The man kept his tools, and the wife kept her things, and both went along their merry – or not so merry – way.

However, the greatest influence on the rate of divorce in the Western world was World War II. During World War II, there were many changes that created a greater competition for men. More important, the labor shortage moved women into jobs that generated income, and suddenly their dependence upon men for their material needs vanished.

That is not to say that women didn’t work before; they did. However, they worked in “pink collar” jobs that allowed them to buy the modern conveniences that they wanted. After World War II, they were making real incomes – and realizing they weren’t dependent upon their men for money.

That is not to say that they didn’t make room for the returning men or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s just that, in the Western world, the illusion had been broken, and it became more of an option to divorce. Additionally, the introduction in the law of “irreconcilable differences” reduced the friction of getting a divorce – and released some of the couples from marriages that weren’t good but for which it was too difficult to escape.

Despite the focus on the United States, divorce rose in all places where women became less dependent.

God and Marriage

Many of the sexual acts that we would describe as immoral today were commonplace in the ancient past. The Greeks were notorious for their sexual practices – including homosexuality. In the Jewish faith, there were relatively few rules for sexual conduct. Though the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used by Christians for the condemnation of homosexuality, there’s a great debate about whether that’s the true reason for God’s decision to destroy the two cities. In fact, it’s in this story that we see perceptions of sexuality, as Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men – rather than the two male guests. One interpretation of this recounting (one I admittedly favor because it fits within the broader story arc of the Bible) is that it’s not the homosexuality which is the root of God’s anger but is instead the lack of concern for others’ willingness or beliefs that plagued the towns.

Fisher reports that the change in the relationship between Judaism and sex started somewhere after the exile period (516 BC) through to the follow of Jerusalem in about (70 AD). Suddenly, God was much more concerned about what people did – and didn’t do – sexually.

While contemporary Christians believe that the current interpretations about God’s position on sexual relations were always the case, there’s evidence that things have changed – and that they’ve been distorted. (Another serious distortion not covered by Fisher is the idea of whether sex before marriage is prohibited by the Bible or not. My reading doesn’t show any such prohibition on sex before marriage, but it’s become a well-established perspective in Christian circles.)

Why Do We Cheat?

If the system that we’ve created is one that is dual with both commitment and adultery, then why is it that we have adultery at all? The traditional explanation is that the marriage is bad or that one party is unhappy. The problem is that it can’t explain every case. Of those who admitted to adultery, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriages as happy. In short, the “party line” doesn’t work. They’re happy in their marriage, and they had a paramour. While the degree to which women admitted to having a paramour jumped from 9% in the 1950s to 25% in the 1970s, there’s no reason to believe they were substantially less happy in their marriages. Either they were more open about their dalliances, or they felt more free to have them.

While Fisher’s subtitle offers the idea that we’ll learn “why we stray,” it would be more accurate to say that we’re presented with a series of reasons why we might stray rather than a straightforward, linear, step-by-step, progression, perhaps indicating that there isn’t one reason but instead many. Factors like higher income increased the probability, while religious affiliation seemed to have no impact.

Perhaps the most strenuous statement about adultery is that these has never been found a culture that didn’t know of it, nor has there been a culture where societal rules have extinguished it. There are, however, many societies and communities where there is a strong pressure to stay in marriages as long as possible.

How Long Can One Be in Romantic Love?

Before fully explaining the various types of love, it’s important to recognize the factors that tend to lead towards the idea that chemically dependent kinds of love must be short lived. If we derive our feelings of attraction solely through a neurochemical, and love makes us feel this more intently, then eventually our brains will habituate or adapt to this heightened level of neurochemical and establish this as a new normal – thereby depriving us of the infatuation kind of love that we expect. From our study of drugs, we know that it takes more and more of the same drug – chemical – to derive the same result. What is called “tolerance” in alcoholics might be called “expectations” in those who are in love.

If we look at love as a set of different chemicals and mental processes, we have the option to find paths that lead us to a permanent, enduring love. Yes, we can develop greater production capacity for these chemicals, or we can release the chemicals in patterns that don’t increase tolerance while still giving us the intense feelings of attraction and infatuation that we associate with love.

Fisher’s research has shown while romantic (attracted or infatuated) love typically fades, it doesn’t have to fade. She found couples who had been madly in love for decades. The sight or thought of their mate still triggered the same areas of the brain and elicited the same kind of response. So, while it’s not the norm to remain infatuated with a mate, it’s certainly possible.

Four Kinds of Love

When C.S. Lewis spoke of love in The Four Loves, he did so more or less metaphorically. When Fisher describes her four different kinds of loves, she does so from the perspective of the four neurochemicals involved in the process. They are dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and oxytocin (estrogen). Dopamine, as has been previously addressed, is associated with infatuation, attraction, and lust. Fisher describes them as potential romance junkies. It’s the first kind of love.

Serotonin-driven love, Fisher proposes, may be disposed to becoming attachment junkies. Serotonin as a neurochemical is most well-known through the class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The short of this is that low levels of serotonin are connected with depression, and some love increases natural happiness – or at least protection from depression.

Testosterone-driven love are those prone to feeling as if they’ve accomplished something. It’s the kind of love where you guard your mate from being interested in others. Perhaps that’s why men (who have naturally higher testosterone) are two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide after being rejected. They’re also more prone to violence.

Oxytocin is known as the cuddle drug and drives people to want to be together and in physical touch with one another. This type of love is driven by physical closeness and touch.

Intimacy, Privacy, and Trust

Today, we desire greater intimacy in our relationships. We want to know more completely those whom we are committing ourselves to. Perhaps our changing expectations of intimacy are why we are considering ideas like people having Intimacy Anorexia. We expect greater degrees of intimacy – and not everyone has adapted to this greater need for and expectations of intimacy.

At the same time, we’re also fiercely protective of our privacy. We believe that we should be able to keep some things private – even from our committed spouse. We’ve grown up with private bedrooms and the expectation of privacy from even the rest of our family. In the 1940s it’s estimated that a home averaged about 1,000 square feet with only roughly half having indoor plumbing. The 2015 US Census places the average single-family home at 2,687 square feet. That’s with the trend in the number of people who are living in each home declining.

We talk to our neighbors less as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone. No longer do we chit-chat with our neighbors coming home from work. We drive our cars into our enclosed garages and hit a button to close the garage door behind us before anyone can intrude upon our space.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how we’re not as connected as we once were despite having faster, and richer communications options than have ever been present before. We feel hollow as we use these new technologies to try to form connections. We overexpose ourselves via social media and long for privacy from others.

As I explain in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, intimacy comes from trust, which leads to safety, which leads to vulnerability. One of the great challenges of our modern world is the belief that even among married couples there should be privacy. I disagree. I see the need for privacy as the result of a lack of feeling of safety. In some way, we believe that our marriage partner will judge us, and we will be harmed.

I know too many married couples who aren’t willing to allow their partner to see them naked – or at least they avoid it. There are those who don’t know the lock code for their spouse’s phone. In some of these cases, it’s because they don’t want to feel judged for what is on it. If we long for intimacy, we cannot rely on privacy and secrets.

Broken Homes

At some level, all our families of origin are broken. Whether they were fraught with a denial of emotions, bouts of rage, alcoholism, prison sentences, or other factors, we’ve all received our training for how to do love and family in incomplete or dysfunctional ways. This is just a part of growing up.

One of the key challenges that is often overlooked is the degree of enmeshment or fusion between parents and their children. Some parents cannot separate their children’s successes and failures from their own. Some are trying to relive parts of their lives they feel they missed though their children – and it’s unhealthy.

It leads to a potential pattern where privacy may be necessary in a marriage relationship. In every relationship, there must be a you, a me, and an us. In healthy, committed relationships, the amount of you and me can be small but well protected by both parties. An unhealthy relationship – driven by challenges during our upbringing – may require a larger amount of you and me to ensure that they don’t disappear. In general, these should only be large in as much as they are necessary to protect each individual from disappearing all together.

If you’re looking to better understand relationships and love, a good place to start may be the Anatomy of Love.

Book Review-Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success

Nice guys finish last – or do they? This is at the heart of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. If you study people and sort them into categories of the most giving and those that are trying to wring out the very last ounce that life has to offer by extracting it from others, who will come out on top? Does the hard-nosed negotiator win by a nose, or does the giver gallop to the lead?

The Biggest Losers and The Biggest Winners

Grant’s research showed that givers were the biggest losers. When they gave to others, they deprived themselves of productivity, and therefore they lost the race. When they contributed to others’ projects and worlds, they short-changed their own, and that showed up in their results. Game over. Case closed. Just take what you can, and you’ll get further. But wait, not so fast.

What if instead of using the time horizon of a few weeks, months, or years, you began to look at givers across the span of their lives or widened the lens out to account for many years and decades of continuous giving? What then? It turns out that givers come out at the top of the list.

In the short term, being a giver works to your disadvantage; but in the long term, being a giver works to your advantage. Giving is an investment in people, and it pays off – but only after time. Givers may never receive back from someone what they invest in them, but that’s okay. Whether you want to make it mystical and call it karma, or you decide to make it relational and talk about goodwill and positive affect, people begin to do nice things for givers, and those are things that the giver couldn’t do for themselves. They’re invaluable.

Knowledge Management

For years now, I’ve had the honor of being a part of the knowledge management community. It’s practitioners that have the lofty goal of getting more people to share what they know in ways that allows that knowledge to be helpful to others and therefore the organization. It’s fundamentally designed to create more givers in a corporate world that is more often filled with takers. Grant explains that, though we often act more generously in our personal lives, we tend to operate like takers in the corporate world.

Demand explains the idea of a hassle map. It’s the small things that often seem trivial or insignificant – but create big changes in people’s behavior. Knowledge managers are often focused on removing the barriers or friction to being able to share – either by connecting people to one another or improving findability of explicit (written or recorded) information. By paving the roads between the user’s current behavior and a more giving behavior, they help more people share.

Taking a page from Jonathan Haidt’s work in The Happiness Hypothesis (as was picked up in Switch), knowledge managers make the default answer the right answer. (Nudge also covers this idea.) The easier it is to do something, the more it will be done. The Tipping Point explained an experiment where the goal was to get more students to get a tetanus shot. There were several approaches, but the one that was the most effective was to include a map to where the students could get the shot. It didn’t require sharing gory details of possible outcomes. It required reducing the effort and confusion.

In the end, knowledge managers are trying to push the pendulum a bit more towards the giving side than the taking side.

Environment Matters

Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. That is, the environment has a great deal of influence on behavior. You may be generous with family and friends and cold hearted in business. The environment (or context) matters. However, the environment is malleable. The way people behave becomes the expected culture of the environment, and that environment then influences future behavior. (See Thinking in Systems for more on how systems loop back on one another.)

In The Evolution of Cooperation, Robert Axelrod shows with game theory that cooperation is adaptive. Programs competed in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma, and those that did best were those that used the tit-for-tat strategy. That is, you did back to the other party what was done to you. A slightly modified version, which occasionally forgave indiscretions by the other party, did even better. The kinds of programs that were competing dramatically impacted the overall success. The more positive and giving the programs were, the more likely it was for better overall success.

Weak Ties and Reputation

Programs can’t learn about reputations easily. The simulations are too direct, and don’t run long enough. However, our lives are much longer, and the number of interactions that we have are much more diverse. We begin to develop a sense of how we expect others to behave – and we can rely on other signals in our network.

In Analyzing the Social Web, we learned about how weak ties are sometimes more useful than strong ties. Weak ties bring you things that aren’t already in your experience. Granovetter published his research that showed that it was weak ties – not strong ones – that led to the most jobs. Our reputation is an expression of even weaker ties – and influence on those weak ties. If they’re so important, then perhaps in the very long term, making investments in reputation are critical.

Short Term vs. Long Term

In the narrowest view, the decision between whether you should be a giver or a taker is largely based on how long-term your view is. If you’ve got a short-term, tactical view of the interaction, then taking is the most advantageous strategy. If you’re looking for the long term, then giving up a bit now and being a giver seems to be the best answer.

In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I explain that shared history creates a strong bond that in turn creates a relatively positive impact on reputation. If you knew this person when you were both younger, you’re likely to be more positive about them than you would have been then – or perhaps should be.

Philip Zimbardo in The Time Paradox explains that people have different ways of looking at time. Some people look for the hedonistic immediate gratification while others look forwards or backwards in time – either positively or negatively. (Sidebar: Zimbardo is more famous for his role in the Stanford Prison Experiment, which he recounts in The Lucifer Effect.) It may be that the more inclined you are to look into the future, the more likely you are to take a giving strategy. Similarly, if you look at Clayton Christensen’s question, How Will You Measure Your Life?, you may be more likely to be a giver.

Service to Others

An odd aspect of this is service to others and how givers sometimes overcommit and burn out. (Check out Extinguish Burnout for burnout related resources.) One of the things that Grant noticed was that sometimes the right answer to burnout when you’re serving other people isn’t to serve less – but to serve more. What he saw was that, sometimes, when you add additional service, people became less burned out. We’ve seen this too – but the key point is that the people who added the additional service got clear, unmistakable feedback that their service was valuable. That drove their awareness of their results and made them feel like all their contributions were more valuable.

Agreeable and Assertive

One of the traps that givers sometimes fall into – which is often easier to escape than burnout – is the idea that they can’t be assertive and protect their boundaries. They believe that to be liked they must always be agreeable even when it doesn’t support their needs as a human. Learning that although people generally like others more if they’re agreeable, they often respect people more when they’re assertive. (See Radical Candor for more about this.)

Adaptable Styles

In truth, neither the giver nor the taker style is right for every situation – and neither is the third style that I’ve not mentioned, the matching style. The right answer for giving and taking is to be adaptable. Being generally a giver but being willing to prevent getting run over may make it easier to get to where you can use both Give and Take.

Book Review-Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them

Coming by estrangement in your family honestly doesn’t make it feel better. Knowing you’re not alone in the struggle doesn’t resolve the pain of broken relationships. However, the more you know about estrangement, the more you can come to terms with it. Fault Lines: Fractured Families and How to Mend Them isn’t a panacea for all that ails families broken by estrangement, but it’s a helpful salve that can take away some of the pain and perhaps start the healing process.

All in the Family

Growing up, I knew my dad wouldn’t speak with his brother. It started when I was about ten and lasted until I was nearly forty. It could have been a bit shorter or longer, but that’s my recollection of it, as one doesn’t put such things on a calendar. The disagreement that led to the situation was about money, and the recollection was ultimately meeting his brother’s wife at the death of his uncle.

Ironically, his uncle and his father had some disagreement that had estranged them. I never knew the story and haven’t asked. I just know that, at the very best, their relationship was strained. It seems that somehow my father had inherited a sense of estrangement from his father.

Today, I’ve lost track which of his siblings he is and isn’t talking to. I know that the state of the relationships is always in flux, with times when the mere appearance of one of his siblings will incense him. I stood in the middle of that at my brother’s wedding.

My mother has had an on-and-off again relationship with each of her three siblings. Sometimes they’re doing okay, and sometimes they won’t talk. Her relationship with her parents was similarly strained. When her father died, she didn’t come back for the funeral. I know that she has always felt slighted by them in some way or another.

In my own world, I barely speak to my mother, and my father has recently made it clear he wants no contact with me. My sister and half-brothers aren’t close. My son is also avoiding contact with me, and while I hope that it gets better on all fronts, I’m not sure how or when that will happen. I picked up Fault Lines as a part of a broader quest to understand how people get stuck in patterns of thinking which they can’t break. It’s about estrangements, but it’s also in general how people can become locked together in a battle of alternative facts. (Think Again is another example of trying to understand this dynamic.) I feel far from finding an answer, but I will continue the quest.

Norman Rockwell

Many of us developed our sense for what family life should be directly or indirectly through the work of Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s portrayal of American life was idealized and showed heartwarming moments. Over five decades his images reinforced an idyllic family life and created the unspoken impression that life in the family should be perfect.

Of course, Rockwell wasn’t trying to skew the perceptions of an entire generation, but that was undoubtedly the effect. Sometimes the most positive intentions lead to poor outcomes. (See The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable for some examples.) Rockwell wasn’t alone in having a powerful impact with unintended consequences. According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Finding Flow, Dr. Spock, responsible for the wildly successful Baby and Child Care, shared regrets in his later life about the advice he gave, which essentially coddled children. Others have said that the sense that everything must be perfect made it so that children never encountered difficulty and as a result became children that the parents couldn’t stand to be around.

Perhaps by burying familial problems under the appearance that everything is fine, we’ve injured ourselves and our families. Perhaps it takes a more open approach that no family is perfect and that the pursuit of perfection in families isn’t accomplished through covering but is instead accomplished through hard conversations and deep concern. (I wonder because of my experiences with twelve-step groups, as I described in Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)

Hard Conversations

There’s a need for hard conversations and self-reflection from every member of a family – whether they’re facing an estrangement or trying to avoid it. Admittedly, hard conversations are even harder after an estrangement has happened, but they’re always hard.

Crucial Conversations is a book that many point to as a practical guide for having difficult conversations. However, it’s focused on conversations that occur between power-balanced pairs. The relationship between parent and child is not a power-equal but is instead one-up/one-down. In that case, works like How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk may be more helpful.

One of the difficult spots in any hard conversation is acceptance of our emotions. We must believe that the way we respond to the conversations we’re having is the result of our perspectives and ultimately our choices about how we want to respond. (See How Emotions Are Made, Choice Theory, and Emotion and Adaptation for more.) Too many people believe that others make them angry. It’s more accurate to say that from their actions, behaviors, and words, we’ve chosen to become angry. It’s about establishing that we have an internal locus of control of our emotions. In other words, we’re responsible for them – not other people.

The Right to Control

As I considered the stories in Fault Lines and in my own experience, a pattern emerged for many but not all the estrangements. The pattern was our need to control. Parents felt like they could control their children – and the children demonstrated their independence instead of acquiescing to the parents’ demands. This, of course, angered the parents. Let me decompose this a bit.

First, everyone wants to control, and no one wants to be controlled. (See Compelled to Control.) Even those with a low need for independence (see Who Am I?) have some level of desire for their own autonomy. (Deci and Pink point to autonomy, mastery, and purpose in Why We Do What We Do and Drive, respectively.) At some level, we all know this. We ourselves have escaped our parents’ home and therefore their rules. We’ve all expressed our need for freedom and independence.

Second, the perception of control on the part of the parents leads to a sense of assurance based on the certainty of the situation. (See Think Again for more about the need for certainty.) This need for certainty feeds back and creates a greater perception of control than parents really have. Judith Rich Harris in No Two Alike and The Nurture Assumption challenges the assumption that either genetics or the nurturing of the parents can guarantee an outcome. In short, Harris explains why the control we believe we have is an illusion.

Third, we tell parents that they’re responsible for their children. That’s not true. You cannot be responsible for something that you can’t control. (See The Road Less Traveled.) We’re expected to be responsive to our children’s needs and protect them. but the idea of responsibility implies control that we don’t have – or deserve. (See Kin-to-Kid Connection: Responsive or Responsible for more.)

Fourth, in Eastern/Buddhist thinking, anger is disappointment directed. (See Destructive Emotions for more.) Disappointment is a failure to meet an expectation – or, more clearly, stated a prediction of what will happen. Parents are obviously angry when their children don’t do what they expect they should do. It’s the natural response. The challenge is to assess whether the expectations that led to the disappointment are the problem – or not.


It was early on in my career that I encountered a friend who told me something akin to “my marriage works because of low expectations.” It was my first full-time job after graduating, and the comment was very confusing to me. I gradually came to learn that it was the expectations we had that led to disappointment, and appropriately setting expectations was key to avoiding frustration. That isn’t to say that we should necessarily lower our expectations but rather that we could ground our expectations in reality.

When we’re addressing estrangements, we need to learn to expect what the other person is capable of – and decide whether we can accept that or not. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on the importance of acceptance.) There may be times that we need to cut someone out of our lives for a time to allow ourselves to heal – but fundamentally, if we believe that we can erect a boundary that keeps someone out forever, we’ve misunderstood Dr. Cloud and Dr. Townsend’s work, Boundaries. Dr. Townsend explained in his follow up book, Beyond Boundaries, that boundaries may be temporary, protective boundaries, or they can be permanent, defining boundaries. The key is that boundaries are about what you will and will not do – it’s not about what other people will or won’t do.

Temporary, protective boundaries make sense at times to allow you to heal from your hurts, but no matter who caused the hurts, you’re responsible for addressing those hurts – and removing the temporary boundary.

Dr. John Gottman was concerned with the behavior he called stonewalling. He called it one of the four horsemen of relational apocalypse. In fact, he believes it to be the most challenging, because from stonewalling, there is almost no recovery.


Gottman’s work has primarily been with couples. He is noted for his 91% accuracy rating at predicting divorce after only watching three minutes of a couple. They’d argue about one of their most long-standing and contentious topics, and through coding the behaviors, he’d predict divorce. It turns out that how you’re willing to treat someone else in a conflict is quite predictive of whether divorce is on the horizon or not. (See The Science of Trust for more.)

Intimacy Anorexia doesn’t ever use Gottman’s term “stonewalling,” but it explains the pain associated with someone who must keep themselves away from others to prevent them from being fully understood. (Under the idea that, if they’re understood, they won’t be liked or loved.) The problem with stonewalling is that it prevents any recovery. Time passes, but the relationship is stuck at the time when the wall is constructed and can’t move forward.

Love and Disagreement

One of the things that I believe is missing in estrangement is the ability to disagree with someone and love them at the same time. I mentioned this simple statement in my review of The Available Parent. It seems to be missing in estrangements. It’s like the disagreement becomes bigger than the love.

When Terri and I teach conflict resolution, we do so by explaining all conflicts are caused by either a difference in perspective (we see things differently), or a difference in values (we believe in different things). We also teach that if you want to get through a conflict, you must separate agreement with understanding. Agreement is a judgement. It’s an alignment of perspectives and values. Understanding is a fundamental gift that we can give one another. It’s part of how we became the dominant biomass on the planet. (See The Righteous Mind.)

Stonewalling robs us of the ability to understand, and it’s probably one of the reasons why it’s such a destructive and harmful coping skill when confronted with a disagreement that you don’t have the skills to handle positively.

Divorce as Estrangement

Before continuing to how to repair estrangements – when that is possible – it’s important to stop at another area of family life that is strangely like estrangement. Divorce is sometimes the right answer, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t send negative ripples through the family. (See Divorce for more.) The similarity to estrangement is that, often, divorce causes family to take sides, and after the divorce, there is often little or no contact with the divorced person and their extended family.

This same pattern plays out in disagreements in the family. Family members frequently – but not always – pick sides. The members of the disagreement rally support for their perspective and cause people to join them in their frustrations with the other party. Eventually, battle lines are drawn, and those willing to be swept up into the conflict have made their decisions.

Invisible Gorillas

When estrangement erupts in a family, it creates a fault line that encompasses not just those involved but also the family members around them. It also crystalizes the fault of the other party. The unfortunate fact is that rigidly believing in the fault of another makes us blind to other circumstances.

There’s a famous experiment where people were asked to focus on counting basketball players’ bounces and passes. Most people got the numbers right or at least close. However, they completely missed the gorilla that entered the frame, beat its chest, and moved on. (See The Invisible Gorilla for more details.) Incognito and Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) both make the point that our perspectives, beliefs, and understanding are manufactured fiction rather than fact, and we’ll defend them vehemently.

One Way Forward

It’s tempting to take the olive branches that are offered by the other party and use them to justify your perspective on the disagreement that led to the estrangement. It’s tempting to try to set right the perspectives and values that created the conflict in the first place. However, the chances of redefining the past situation are slim according to Pillemer – and my own experiences. The truth about moving forward past estrangements is that you must move forward and leave the past behind.

This isn’t the first time that my father and I’ve spent years not talking. The first time was in my late teens and early twenties. I was graduating, and I asked my father about getting his tax returns so I could fill out the forms for federal student aid. He refused. I asked if he was willing to start paying back child-support, as my mother had committed to giving it to me for college expenses. He refused. The result was I couldn’t make the math work. Though accepted with honors to the college of my choice, I couldn’t make it work. Not only could I not receive any need-based support, I was summarily ineligible for most scholarships.

I was hurt. I knew it took my life in another direction. At the time, I thought I’d work and go to school, but it didn’t work out that way. While I’ve now received both my Bachelor of Science and my Master’s degree, the rejection stung, and as a result, I didn’t talk to him for years. Ultimately, I had to move forward and forget the past. I worked on what the future could be like.

I wasn’t going to get him to understand the difficulty he created for me. I decided I couldn’t try to make him understand. He had his own challenges and struggles. I’d have to move past the hurt to find a way forward.

Family Systems

The curse of family systems is that everyone in the system has their own role to play. To find healthy relationships, you must know what your role in the dynamics are. Sometimes you can prevent the unhealthy relationships that drive the system. Other times, you can dampen the oscillations. Sometimes you can’t influence them at all.

Even if you feel there is no fault, you must recognize your role in the system. For me, I realize that I should have been more transparent with my father. I knew he’d be unhappy, and that he might take it out on my sister-in-law and the girls, so I kept silent. Whether I made the right decision or not, it’s this structure that created the opportunity for him to be angry now – and to feel as if I was working subversively.

Sometimes, the energy that sets the system into a tailspin is a new member of the family joining. A new spouse comes in, and suddenly they become treated like a member of the family – and in some cases, that means poorly. The new member bucks the trend, creates a ripple, and ultimately ends up willingly ripping the son or daughter out of the family system – estranging them.

Into One Estrangement

I’ll let you further in on one of the estrangements in my world. My father confronted me about luring my sister-in-law from Paris, IL where he lives to Carmel, IN where I live. My sister-in-law is my deceased brother Rusty’s wife. She and her two girls lived in the town that Rusty and she were born in. She had expressed openly to everyone in the family a desire to get away from the town and make a new life for the girls.

Over the years since Rusty’s death, I had continued to reaffirm my support for her and the girls. It was how I believe that I’m called to behave to my brother’s widow. The time came when she decided that the school systems and opportunities meant it was the right time for her to move.

The truth was that the school systems are better. The career opportunities are greater. However, that’s not what my father wanted to hear. He was (and is) focused on the fact that the girls were going to move away from some family. (Two of my brothers still live in Paris, and obviously he and my stepmother live there as well.)

It boils down to my father believing that I shouldn’t be willing to support my sister-in-law and her decisions. He believes – consciously or unconsciously – that his decisions are the right ones, and that she should have stayed in Paris. Because I was supporting her leaving, I was (and am) somehow against them.

Providing the statistics comparing the two schools was seen as an attack on where most of my brothers went to school rather than being viewed as a statistical fact. Instead of recognizing that I could see some logic in the decision, it was seen as evidence that I was luring them away from the family.

It’s my hope, as I write this, that he can move past this disagreement and remember that love – in both directions – is more important. I’ve written this on his birthday and Father’s Day. (They are the same day this year.) It’s the only gift I can give him, because he’s refused mail and threatened to bring harassment charges if I contact him. In short, someday I hope to repair the Fault Lines.

Book Review-The Grief Recovery Handbook

I didn’t come to reading The Grief Recovery Handbook through a recent or traumatic loss. I came to it because I have stated that all change involves loss. One of the arguments I received referred to a post that in turn referred to The Grief Recovery Handbook. The irony is that, while the post argued against all change involving loss, The Grief Recovery Handbook ultimately validates the key point, which is that Kubler-Ross’ model from On Death and Dying does have applicability – even in its disagreement.

The Arguments Against Kubler-Ross’ Model

Kubler-Ross’ model has been criticized primarily for two things. First, it’s not evidence-based. There’s no research study underlying the model. The second is that people don’t go through all the stages sequentially. The first is easy to dispatch with the knowledge that there are almost no studies of emotion that have a research basis. We’ve been unable to find effective ways to study emotions like this. Thus, it’s apparent it has no research, and, ultimately, it’s about the capacity to learn from the model rather than treat it as gospel.

The second is harder to dispatch, because it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Kubler-Ross’ work. She indicated that each emotion didn’t have a fixed time, and the emotions may occur over a long period of time, with periods akin to a relapse as people move back to “earlier” states. However, people have simplified the model to a strictly linear, step-by-step model.

So, while The Grief Recovery Handbook briefly mentions that they hate the model, it’s because the model is step-by-step. When you recognize and accept the richness of the model in its original form, it’s not fundamentally opposed to the suggestions in The Grief Recovery Handbook – it’s just a process model instead of the skills model that The Grief Recovery Handbook uses.

Grief Is the Reaction to Loss

“Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss of any kind.” Grief is therefore the emotion of loss. Loss is the intellectual realization of a reduction in value of any kind, and grief is its emotional twin. One of the other objections made against Kubler-Ross is that her work was targeted with people who were themselves diagnosed with a terminal illness. Others criticize that the model has been applied to those loved ones who surround those who are dying. Here, the position is clear that loss is loss, and grief is grief. The intensity of the emotion may vary, but it’s fundamentally the same emotion.

This is key to applying the Kubler-Ross model to change, as William Bridges did in his Transitions model. If all grief is the result of loss and there is a loss at the heart of change, then it’s appropriate to apply or at least consider the model for changes as well as other kinds of losses. Bridges makes the point that, at the very least, a change involves loss, even if that loss is just a nostalgic loss.

Head and Heart

I mentioned in my review of The HeartMath Solution that I’m not completely convinced of the embodiment aspects of that model, but I am in total agreement that the way we process emotions and the way we process rational thought are not the same. You cannot address grief by minimizing loss. Loss is a rational thought, and grief is an emotion. Similarly, you can’t change your rational thoughts about the degree of loss by addressing the emotion.

One of the common challenges that people face is the fact that others try to minimize the loss. The problem with this approach is that, in doing so, they’re making the grieving person feel like they’re not understood. Instead of validating the person’s feelings, they’re invalidating their reality. That alienates the grieving person and deprives them of their emotional support system.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

There’s a common saying that time heals all wounds. That saying is incorrect. Time doesn’t heal all wounds. All wounds can heal in time. It’s not time itself that heals, it’s the work that we do to address and work through the emotions that ultimately leads the wound to be healed. When we say to someone that time heals all wounds, we’re minimizing the hard work that must be done to heal ourselves. Brené Brown in Rising Strong calls it “gold plating grit.”

Instead of focusing on how to create time to help people who are grieving, we should be focusing on healthy ways of processing it.

Six Bad Messages About Grief

We’ve all been taught incorrect messages about grief. Our parents and grandparents have had to suffer through grief, and in this, they’ve sent us messages that don’t set us up for processing grief in a healthy way. Some of those messages are:

  • Don’t feel bad
  • Replace the loss
  • Grieve alone
  • Just give it time
  • Be strong for others
  • Keep busy

While these messages are well-intended, they pull us further away from our ability to process guilt and to be more connected with others in a way that helps us cope.

Nobody Knows How You Feel

Even with advances in neuroscience, the simple fact remains that nobody knows how you feel. Even in How Emotions are Made, there’s no claim that any two people have the same emotions. When someone says that they know how you feel, they’re wrong. They may have some idea of how you feel. They may be able to relate – but they don’t, in fact, know exactly how you feel.

Learning how to express how you feel is, as James Pennebaker explains in Opening Up, a part of the healing process. We need to be able to share how we feel. Attempts to stop us from that – by saying that they know exactly how we feel – prevents that and at the same time alienates us, because we know, at some level, they’re wrong.


Grief is something unfinished associated with the loss. Whether it’s being willing to let go of the old habits or it’s finding a way to express things that you couldn’t express while someone was alive, there’s unfinished business, and it needs to be addressed. In twelve-step programs, steps 8 and 9 are about making amends. These amends are about unfinished business. Clearly, it’s making amends towards others that we’ve harmed, but more than that, it’s closing the loop and allowing us the psychic release that comes with closure.

If a loved one has died, there is obviously no direct way to communicate with them about the unfinished business. However, finding a way to communicate your feelings can be valuable, whether through a written letter or through a person who plays the part of a proxy. The goal isn’t really communications directly as much as it is being able to close off the pain.

The question the book offers is “What do you which had been different, better, or more?” as a way of discovering what is unfinished in a relationship. I say it a bit more succinctly as it was asked of me at a Church of Scientology building: “What do you regret?” (See my review of Theory U for that story.)

Feeling Bad

One of the most difficult things for me to share with others is that no one can make you feel something. Feelings are your reactions to what has happened. They’re internally generated, and as such no one can make you feel something. However, all too often, we’re confronted with people saying that we made them feel something – happy, mad, or sad. There’s a saying, “People can’t drive you crazy if you don’t give them the keys.” It’s another way of explaining what Richard Lazarus explains in Emotion and Adaptation – that there’s a gap between the stimulus and our assessment of it.

We’ve learned – inappropriately – that when we feel bad, we can feel better with food. It’s a short jump between that and alcohol and drugs. We struggle with addiction in part because we struggle with ourselves and dealing with all forms of pain, including grief. (See Why and How 12-Step Groups Work.)

The authors don’t advocate for pain. Nor do I. However, I recognize that sometimes pain is necessary to get to the other side. Setting a broken bone may be painful, but without proper setting, it will never heal right. Sometimes, we must move into the pain so that we can discharge it and move on. In fact, one of the ideas about PTSD is that the situation was so traumatic that people cannot face the situation completely and make sense of it. (See The Body Keeps the Score for more.)

Don’t Ask for Forgiveness, Make an Apology

Sometimes we ask for, or beg for, forgiveness. In doing so, we are fundamentally misunderstanding how forgiveness works. We should not ask for someone to change the way they feel about something. Instead of asking for forgiveness, we should be apologizing instead. Consider the broken bone analogy from above. Which would you prefer the doctor say?

  • Forgive me for hurting you.
  • I’m sorry this is going to hurt.

When set out this way, you can see that the right answer is an apology (I’m sorry). I’m not sorry, however, that I read The Grief Recovery Handbook, and I don’t think you will be either.

Book Review-Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

Hollywood makes it look easy, whether it’s jumping from a building to a rope ladder hanging from a helicopter or it’s building and sustaining a lifelong love – at least as much of the love as you can fit into a two-hour movie. Just because they make it look easy doesn’t mean it is. Having a high-quality and deeply intimate relationship takes work. That’s something that the Gottmans know about – not only personally but in their work as well. Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love is a roadmap for building and maintaining a lifetime of love.

At its heart, the book shows a way to prioritize each other and hold the eight conversations every couple should have at least once – if not on a regular basis.

Requiring Vulnerability

Identifying what keeps people together and what drives them apart is what John Gottman has been doing for decades. As I mentioned in my review of The Science of Trust, Gottman is distinguished by his capacity to predict divorce after a short few minutes of argument. His criteria for the way couples manage their conflicts are very predictive of how likely it is they’ll be able to stay together. So, when he says that vulnerability is required for a lifelong relationship, it’s worth perking up your ears.

To get to vulnerability, we’ve got to make two stops first. The first step is trust. I’ve written about trust and its relationship to vulnerability extensively. The most recent coverage is in Trust=>Vulnerability=> Intimacy, Revisited. The short version, for our context, is that trust is the belief that we can predict someone’s behavior enough that the chances of betrayal are low. When we predict that the other person will have our best interests at heart, we develop a perception of safety. This perception of safety allows us to become vulnerable. So, the stops on our way to vulnerability are trust and safety.

Requiring Effort

John Gottman calls the moments when you can make the choice to lean into your love or be selfish “sliding door” moments. In the response for a bid for affection, you have the choice to make to do what you want – or respond to the bid and pour into your relationship. Sliding door moments are the choice between what we want in the moment and the long-term health of the relationship. That isn’t to say that we should, or even could, make the decision for love every time. It’s always possible that we’re too tired, too sore, or too distracted. However, it’s the effort it takes to make these choices routinely that builds relationships up.

Making the decision to turn into your relationship isn’t always natural. It’s not the easiest choice. It’s a decision to put your relationship first, because you know that good relationships nurture and sustain you when things get difficult.

Whenever you’re putting effort into anything, there’s a background accounting happening. Is the effort I’m putting in worth the results I’m seeing? While we can defer seeing results, ultimately, the calculus that happens is deciding whether the results are worth the effort. (See Relationship Calculus for more.)


The Gottmans share six characteristics that seem to be found more often when successful couples are speaking of their marriage:

  • Fondness
  • Affection
  • Admiration
  • We-ness (vs. separateness)
  • Expansiveness (vs. withdraw)
  • Glorifying the struggle

I know plenty of couples whose marriages work for them but in which there is very little “we” and a lot of “I” space. They enjoy their time together, but that time is small and secondary to their individual lives. While it seems to work for them, it doesn’t work well for Terri and me – and the Gottmans seem to believe it’s not the best approach.

For the record, Terri and I get to work together, both literally and figuratively. Her desk is right next to mine. We speak together. We write together. We dream together. It seems like that is important.

Expansiveness is an interesting aspect – it’s “Yes, and…” It’s amplifying each other’s perspectives rather than negating them. It’s an attempt to build the other person up rather than tear them down. Our jobs are to help the other person become the best person they can be, and that means supporting them. (See my review of Group Genius for more on improvisation and “Yes, and…”)

Finally, I can say, personally, that Terri and I feel like we’re on a mission together. We’re struggling – to have a great marriage, to raise children, to build a business, to eliminate healthcare-associated infections. Through all of it, we’re in it together.

The Dates

The eight dates are:

  1. Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment
  2. Agree to Disagree: Addressing Conflict
  3. Let’s Get It On: Sex and Intimacy
  4. The Cost of Love: Work and Money
  5. Room to Grow: Family
  6. Play with Me: Fun and Adventure
  7. Something to Believe In: Growth and Spirituality
  8. A Lifetime of Love: Dreams

Each date is laid out with a guide to how to be successful. Everything from where you should be and what to bring are included in the guide to give you the best chances of success. There’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to successfully navigate the sometimes difficult conversations, but at least with the guide, you’ll handle some of the big things that trip people up and create barriers.

For Love of Money

While I have great respect for Gottman and agree with most of what he shares, there’s one area where I’ll disagree about the root cause. The research says that money is one of the top five reasons couples fight. I’ll agree that it shows up this way, it feels this way, and it may even be the content of the conversation. However, I believe that couples disagree about money because of a difference in values.

It’s not that they’re in a conflict about money. They both want more income for the family, less expenses, more play time, a more stable nest egg for rainy days or retirement, and so on. They’re quite aligned on all these things. Where they’re not aligned is in their values about each of these in relation to one another. Should we save more money or have more vacations? Should we take stressful jobs with higher salaries – or live simpler lives with a less stressful job?

Those are the real questions at the heart of the fights. The husband wants to buy a new car, because he thinks he deserves it. The wife is concerned about the kid’s college fund, or the fact that they can barely meet their current commitments, or whatever. Similarly, the husband may not understand the new dress that helps the wife feel more attractive.

So, while money is the surface level-issue that’s seen, in my experience, it’s rarely the root cause.

Conflict Apathy

I’ve developed conflict apathy. I don’t go looking for fights. However, I’m no longer afraid of them, either. I don’t worry that there will be hurt feelings or permanent damage. I speak my truth in love and expect that Terri will do the same. That’s not to say we don’t hurt each other – we do. However, we don’t run away from the conflicts because we’re afraid of getting hurt.

We walk through the conflicts, because the view on the other side is better. We walk through the conflicts, because we know if we’re willing to do that, we’ll stay on the same side and work together.

I don’t know if you can build what Terri and I have, but Eight Dates might be a good start.

Book Review-The Secret Lives of Adults: Your Seven Key Relationships – and how to make them work

Who are we really? Are we the person we are when we’re with friends? Or is it that we’re the person we are with family? Or perhaps we’re really expressing our true nature when we’re by ourselves. In The Secret Lives of Adults: Your Seven Key Relationships – and how to make them work, Allison Keating explores the different aspects of our identity.

Seven Relationships

Keating believes we have seven key relationships:

  1. Me, Myself, and I
  2. Mum (Mom) & Dad
  3. Siblings
  4. Romance
  5. Parenthood
  6. Friends
  7. Work

These relationships are how we express ourselves. Fundamental to this is an understanding of how to bring our whole selves to each of these relationships and how to fit these images of ourselves together. I’ve spoken a few times about the need for and power of an integrated self-image. (For just some examples, see Braving the Wilderness, Happiness, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, and Beyond Boundaries.)

Being an Adult

Whatever image we see for ourselves, it should be an adult. Richo speaks in How to Be an Adult in Relationships about what it’s like for us to be the most authentic human that we can be. Keating takes a different approach: instead of focusing on the things we need to give ourselves and others, she seeks to help us better understand ourselves.

We’ve this unconscious assumption that adults must have life all figured out. After all, as a child, we thought our parents were all-knowing and really had it sorted. At least, we felt like this until we became teenagers and suddenly decided we knew more about life than they did – only to return to our beliefs that our parents knew everything when we hit our twenties.

The problem is that this is a false belief. Being an adult means you’re willing to confront the places you don’t have figured out, but few adults I know feel like they’ve got it all figured out. Instead, most of the folks I know, who are brave enough to be honest, know that we’re all struggling to do our best in a world that keeps changing. We hope that our awareness of the world continues to grow.

Relationships Today

As Sherry Turkle explains in Alone Together, we’ve got technology that connects us nearly every moment of every day, but at the same time we’re more alone than we have ever been. We have fewer confidants and fewer real friends, even as the number of our Facebook friends blossoms. Friends are an emotional buffer that allow us to weather the storms of life. Without them, we feel buffeted by the minor challenges of day-to-day life and poorly equipped for all that being an adult means.

Our friends today are less likely to know about the deep, emotional scars we carry with us since childhood and the embarrassment of our past. As a result, the friends we do have are poorly equipped to know when they need to step up and support us.


The pace of progress continues to increase. We’re producing more food than ever before. We can meet our own needs with fewer hours of work than ever in the history of humanity, but we’re also working more hours and harder than even a few years ago. The competition bug has caught us. Social media has turned up the volume on the age-old problem of “keeping up with the Jones’.” We get caught on the hamster wheel of work and keeping up, and we barely realize we’re doing it.

Gone are the days “on Walden Pond,” where a deep thinker could sit and stare at the water and peer into their own souls. It’s easier for us to login and find out what someone else is thinking (or saying they’re thinking) than it is to connect with ourselves and what we truly think, feel, believe, and fear.

The tyranny of this is that it binds us to the hurts of our past. No one seems to know about the hurts. Not our friends. And, buried under layers of denial, not even us. We react to others based on events that we no longer remember.

Knowing and Not Knowing

A Johari window is a simple, two-by-two grid of knowing and not knowing both ourselves and others. It creates spaces where we know things about ourselves that others don’t know, things that both we and others know, what others know but we don’t, and, finally, things that neither others nor we know about ourselves. It seems that, instead of peering into the space where no one knows, we’re more interested in staring at the spot where others know things about us that we don’t know.

We’ve become obsessed with “what do they really think about me?” In an age of political correctness and ethical and moral weakness, we must wonder: is what someone telling me what they really feel? Too often the answer is no, and we know it. But we also know that getting to the real answer may not be possible because of the fears they carry inside of themselves. (See The Fearless Organization for more about fear and its impacts.)


Sometimes, the knowledge that you gain about yourself addresses the limitation – and sometimes it doesn’t. Knowing you have the flu doesn’t stop you from having it. It can, however, inform what you do and how you change your behaviors so that you can get better. With the flu, you may choose to get more rest, but you’ll still have a few days before your body has a chance to recover.

On the other hand, knowing that you are sabotaging your success by a simple behavior, you can stop the behavior and get more success. The amount of action (or inaction) required is trivial compared to the challenge of awareness.

The journey to understand ourselves is filled with both kinds of awareness. There’s the kind that makes the problem evaporate – and the kind that exposes the long path that we have to recovery.


Much of the hurt we experience and react to is said to come from our attachment style. John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth described the attachment styles as: secure, ambivalent, avoidant, and disorganized. (For more see Daring to Trust.) Of these, only secure attachment was considered to be non-afflictive. That is, people with secure attachment styles have fewer places of harm and are therefore supposed to be less reactive to environmental stressors.

In practical terms, your attachment style isn’t fixed. (See Mindset.) You can heal old wounds by recognizing them and working through them. In effect, we walk towards the pain that we felt, and we resolve it rather than ignoring it. Ignoring the pains we feel leaves us vulnerable to someone else triggering the emotional landmines that we’ve buried. (See Step, Step, Click for more.)

Unconscious Time Travel

It seems that our unconscious doesn’t notice the passing of time. This was hinted at in the movie A Beautiful Mind. (See Incognito for more context.) The point the movie made was that Nash’s friend and the little child that he saw never aged. They never changed as he aged. It’s almost like they were frozen in time. This is an interesting curiosity that could be relegated to a value for dream interpretation until you consider how we respond to hurts.

Our response to hurts is quick and automatic (see Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on how this happens). In that response is no sense of the time that has gone by – or even, to some extent, how the situation has changed. We’re still that frightened little boy or girl on the inside. It’s that frightened boy or girl that’s lashing out. Until and unless we can quiet the pain of that spot inside ourselves and learn to be okay, we’ll never be able to stop the outbursts. Whether we were injured ten minutes ago or ten years, we’ll still respond to similar situations – until we address the core.


Perhaps our greatest fear lies beneath the surface. The fear is that we’ll be or become unlovable. Some memory back before our brains were fully formed warns us that we’re dependent upon others. We hear every criticism as a hint that this fear of being unlovable may be true. Deep inside, we can’t stop the nagging feeling that we may be unlovable and therefore ultimately vulnerable again.

The nagging feeling can be pushed back. It can be kept from surfacing too frequently, though everyone seems to have it surface now and again.

Constructive Arguing

Some people are taught by their environment that they must always be agreeable. Perhaps their family system is predicated on the need for tranquility at all costs. Instead of having healthy disagreements and constructive arguments, hurt feelings are buried until the day that they boil over. Everyone else is surprised, half at the content of the explosion and half that the family member couldn’t keep it together.

In a system where conflict is bad – rather than constructive – it’s hard to make it ok. In other environments, healthy means sharing feelings without being hurtful and arguing about the perspectives and the values but not about the worthiness of the people. As we learn to be better adults, we learn that, to be ourselves, we must be willing to engage in constructive arguing – and we need to learn how to do that well. (Here, John Gottman’s The Science of Trust is great.)

The Cult of Easy

While the need for tranquility may be isolated to some families and some environments, it seems like there is the perspective that things should always be easy. We shouldn’t have to pour our hearts and souls into things, it should just come naturally, like the YouTube star who seems to effortlessly makes millions.

The truth is “Tenacity, hard work and persistence, especially in the face of adversity, are how you succeed.” As we learn to be adults, we learn that adulting isn’t easy. It’s not easy to face the fifth or fiftieth rejection – or the five-hundredth. It’s not easy to slave over something for years or decades in obscurity believing that something will turn any day now. However, it is how success is won, at least for most of us. (See Grit for more.)

Accepting Your Feelings and Frustrations

In the end, being an adult means accepting your feelings – good and bad. That includes the joy and the frustrations. You can’t side-step or ignore your feelings, because they will eventually come out whether you want them to or not.

Feelings are a part of The Secret Life of Adults – and just like the book, they’re worth discovering.

Relationship Calculus

No one wants to believe we’re making a value judgement with every relationship we’re in. It feels impersonal. It feels like, if the other person doesn’t measure up, we’ll cut them out of our lives. That in turn means they may choose to cut us out of their lives. It a yucky feeling that no one wants to feel. Despite this, there is a calculus that we’re unconsciously performing when we’re in relationships. We’re evaluating whether this relationship is something we want to continue or not.

Give and Get

The basic math behind relationships is a simple inequality. We are looking to get as much as – or more than – we give from the relationship. It sounds like this would make everyone selfish and only out for themselves and not others. However, there are two reasons why this isn’t the case. First, how we value our efforts and the things we get from others isn’t even. We can greatly value something someone else does for us that’s easy for them.

Second, what we get isn’t always from the other person. Sometimes what we get is a greater sense of being the kind of person we want to be. We do things for others not because we expect to get something back from them but because we get a sense of peace, power, or belonging that we find valuable.

With this as a foundation, we can explore how we view what we give and what we get.


With my background in technology and particularly Microsoft Office applications, I know things that I’m not even aware I know. I will routinely press a key or activate a feature in Microsoft Word that people around me have never seen. When I’m asked about it, I happily share the information, and they’re richer for it. The cost to me is trivial. It’s something I can give with a few seconds of time.

Sometimes what I can offer is more expensive. The chief cost of giving is the time it takes. Certainly, there are some things that have a material cost, but for most of us, those costs can be converted into the amount of time it would take us to earn that money. Ultimately, the time we invest in others, through time spent with them, doing things for them, giving things to them, etc., is just as important as if we had invested in material things.

Getting Externally

A friend comes over to help you diagnose a problem with the air conditioner. You know nothing about it but he’s an expert. It takes only minutes for him to find a problem with an inexpensive relay that he happens to have with him. An emergency call to a heating and cooling contractor would have been hundreds of dollars – and hours of waiting on them to arrive. Your friend spends a handful of minutes and a few dollars for the part. However, the value to you is substantially greater.

That’s the primary imbalance that allows relationships to function. Sometimes, you give a little, and they get a lot. Sometimes, they give a little, and you get a lot. Because of specialization and the reality that we each have unique skills that we can share the benefits of with others, we create the opportunity to get more than we give – from a perception point of view.

Getting Internally

There’s a certain sense of peace that you get when you know you’re able to help others, even when you know they’ll never be able to repay you. It’s a sort of karma. You believe more firmly that others will be there to help you in your time of need when you’re able to do that for others. So, paradoxically, when you’re giving to someone who may never be able to repay you, you’re getting internal validation that the world is becoming more like the world you want to see in life. You don’t need to receive anything externally, because you’re getting the value from giving. In effect, the relationship with the other parties is about having a better relationship with yourself.

Simulating Relationships

The entire idea of compassion and generosity doesn’t seem to make much sense. If Darwin’s survival of the fittest were operating, wouldn’t it make sense that the fittest would be looking out for themselves? As it turns out, no. Cooperation is a powerful tool for surviving and allowing one’s genes to propagate. Even self-sacrifice to the point of death can pass along genes through the relatives who, through your selfless act, are still alive.

Robert Axelrod performed a series of competitions for programs to make a rather simple decision about how generous or greedy that they’d be. The competition was setup with the prisoner’s dilemma. The short version is two criminals are captured. If they both stay loyal to each other, both will get three years. If one defects (offers evidence on the other), they’ll get one year and the other will get five years in jail. If they both defect, they both get five years of prison. In this configuration, an agent – program or person – should always defect, because it creates the best outcome for them personally when the other party’s behavior is unknown. However, that’s not what was the most effective for both in the simulations. Generosity and an attempt to get to the best outcomes for both sides won the competitions. In short, start with the assumption that the other side won’t defect and only defect to retaliate against the other party.

Evolution, it seems, may not work on survival of the fittest at an individual level. Rather, it may be that evolution works on survival of the fittest at a group level. This can explain generosity and a desire to be good to others – because doing so makes it more likely that your group will survive.

Trade Imbalance

While it’s possible to get more – either externally or internally – than you give, the reverse is also true. Consider the effort to put together a delicious and nutritious meal, and a family who doesn’t care. They’d be just fine with warmed Spaghetti-Os and hotdogs. Your gourmet meal is lost on them – just like the time spent preparing it. In trade imbalances like these, the best thing is to just stop doing the things that lead to the imbalance.

That’s sometimes easier said than done, as people still need to be fed, and you may not be okay yourself with making such a simple dinner. The result is a need to find a way to renegotiate what you’re doing – and why you’re doing it. You may decide that the gourmet dinners are for you and not them anyway.


Relationships are all built on trust – even if the trust is that the other person will always do what is in their personal best interests regardless of whether it’s in your best interests or not. Trust is the mechanism by which we evaluate our contributions to a relationship – we trust they’ll acknowledge the contributions – and the way we evaluate what we’ll get. We believe that the person will be there to help us out in our time of need.


Another consideration is our belief may be predicated on the expectation that, in the end, we’ll get more from the relationship than we put into it – but over what time scale? When you’re putting in extra effort to help a friend as they’re struggling with a death or a divorce, do you expect that you’ll receive as much as you’re giving? The answer’s probably no.

However, if you believe that the other person has already given you much more than you can ever repay – or you feel like they’ll be there when you need them – then the momentary imbalance in what you’re giving vs. what you’re getting may be completely appropriate.

Predicting the Return on Investment

These factors make up our assessment of the return on investment we’ll receive from a relationship – or the amount we feel we owe the other party for their previous support of us. The problem in the way we predict the return on investment in relationships exists in the biases we all have. We can fall into negative confirmation bias where we fail to see any value in the what the other person is doing in the relationship. We can similarly be in positive confirmation bias and be blissfully unaware of how the other person is taking advantage of us.

We can discount what the other person has done for us in the past. We can disbelieve they’ll help us in the future – or we can be sorely disappointed, when we trust someone else will come through for us, and they don’t.

There’s no perfect answer to whether a relationship is valuable or not – there’s only the awareness of some of the factors that are involved in the equation.