Take marital relationships as an example. If we believe what we read in the newspapers, something like fifty per cent of UK marriages end in divorce. If that is the case in the UK, it seems likely to be at a similar level throughout the western world.
Think of any couple in a long term relationship. We may expect the relationship between two people to deepen with the passage of time. However, if the reported divorce statistics are reliable, for married people as example, the relationship does not deepen. The relationship becomes stressful and often falls apart.
Do relationships deepen automatically, as time passes? It’s probably not an automatic process. Everyone is familiar with the notion that we have to make an effort to sustain any relationship. What does working on a relationship look like? What is the outcome? Have we simply welded our cracked relationship together? Maybe we could do better than that.
In straightforward terms, working on a relationship might mean forgiving our partner when they undermine us, demean us, offend us and so on. However, another style of working on a relationship could be preventative. There may be something we can do to deepen our relationship. With the passage of time we could strengthen the bond between two people and avoid getting to the point where we are badly hurt emotionally. That approach may be less stressful but how do we do that? The bestselling author Daniel Kahneman (2011) may be of help here (Thinking Fast and Slow. Penguin Books).
Kahneman explains how everyday conversations between two people can take place in a form so simplified, there is little chance that the speaker’s words will touch the heart and mind of the listener. The listener is not likely to feel known and understood and so the relationship does not deepen. Simplified conversations are all around us. It is nothing to do with our ability or educational level.
Take a simple example of how our talk does not meaningfully touch or reach out to our partner. One of us is stuck in a horrendous traffic jam on the way home from work. There is the exasperation and stress of the traffic jam plus late arrival at home which disrupts our plans for the evening. We are now going to be late for things and the feeling of letting people down adds sharply to our stress.
We get home and need to reduce stress by letting off steam to our partner. Our partner listens for hardly any time at all and then changes the subject to tell us story about a friend’s traffic jam. We are left hanging and hurt by our partner’s disregard for our stress. They would rather tell us about the stress of someone we have not even met. The interaction with our partner increased our stress when we were hoping for stress reduction and soothing from our loved one.
Why do partners react like this when we need their help? Kahneman says it is because we want our conversations to be effort free. We react impulsively and say what pops into our head instead of thinking of the needs of others. We talk by simple association. We hear the words, traffic jam, then think of a traffic jam somewhere in our own world and talk about that.
We increased our partner’s stress when we had a chance to reduce it. We created anger, frustration and emotional distance when we had a chance to trigger warmth, gratitude, emotional closeness and a deeper relationship. Deepening of our relationships may be an effective preventative action, lessening the tendency for outbursts which hurt us emotionally, reducing stress and sustaining relationships over time.
What do you think?