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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dynamic Tension

A Working Theory of Inter-Relational Health

Relationships, like muscles in your body, become healthy with regular exercise. And they get exercise through the process of resolving tension.

This tension is created by differences of opinion or values. Though for tension to actually exist, differing opinions have to be expressed openly and both partners must stand up for those values to some extent.

A healthy relationship, like a healthy body, involves different parts working together and trying to create a greater whole. The experience of creating a "greater whole", sometimes called synergy, is important. It is the primary reward for each participant to continue engaging in the relationship. This process reminds me of studying force vectors back in high school physics class.

Two individual forces (let's call them A and B) combine into an actualized thrust (R). The A and B arrows respectively represent the desire (both the direction and the intensity) of the two participants. The R arrow represents the compromise of those two desires, reflecting both A's preference for an upward direction and B's preference for an eastward push.

Note the angle of separation between the A and B arrows. Perpendicular and acute (less than 90 degrees) angles work well in creating synergistic results. Then contrast with this model:

Obtuse (greater than 90 degrees) or opposite forces will tend to cancel each other out, resulting in frustration and homeostasis. In this image, a weaker force A is mostly opposed by a stronger force B, resulting in a weakened thrust R. This is like the force of gravity opposing the thrust of a rocket. The rocket will win, but gravity will naturally be seen as a troublesome obstacle rather than a valued partner in a dynamic relationship. With opposing vectors, someone has to give up their motivation and allow the other force to guide their relationship path. These solutions are less than ideal... resulting either in stasis or in repression/resentment. And it's important to note that the repression/resentment exists in both parties, even the "winning" one. After all, the "winning" rocket is still likely to resent gravity for weighing down its thrust.

A Positive Workplace Example:
My boss Don and I have slightly different values. His job as a director is to prioritize the well being of the agency. My job as a social worker is to prioritize the well being of each client I work with. My energy is much like the A arrow in the first diagram, and Don's is much like the B arrow. His has more force associated with it since he has more stake in the outcomes. However, he also listens to and has respect for my opinions, so we often compromise on difficult cases and come out with something like the R arrow.

Don and I have discussed this and have agreed that it is part of a healthy working relationship... that we exist with a certain dynamic tension, but that it allows us to both advocate for our positions openly and we both suspect that the result is probably best for both the agency and the client. Without my client advocacy, our workplace might gravitate away from prioritizing the needs of our clients; and without Don's oversight, we might go bankrupt funding every request that came our way.

A Negative Workplace Example:
Our counseling department works in conjunction with our domestic violence department. Counseling has agreed to refuse treatment to perpetrators of domestic violence or to couples when we feel DV is present. Therapy is often suggested for DV perps, but it is not available at our agency. The DV director and I have different takes on what constitutes DV. Her ethics place her far to one side of the social work continuum (in order to offer help to as many victimized women as possible) and my ethics place me near the opposite end (in order to humanize all people, even unhealthy ones, and try to serve them.) I have been overruled on occasion. I have advocated that we treat a couple only to find my recommendation vetoed because our DV director labeled the relationship as DV... I had deemed it simply as unhealthy and mutually unsatisfying. I could make various arguments about how therapy would not endanger either participant since there was not a history of physical violence or of jealousy/blaming/demeaning on the part of the man. But in this scenario, my arrow is rendered impotent by the fact that there is a binary policy in place. You're either in or out, and in this case, the people wanting therapy were ruled out. These sorts of unsatisfying resolutions tend to exist when the angles between the goals of people are too wide... when they are like opposite forces. When confronted with a strong opposite force, I often cede to the power of the other person's values, and am not able to have my values represented in any kind of compromise.

A Famous Theory About Negative Relationship Patterns:
Local researcher John Gottman has made a study of relational health, as it pertains to romantic couplings. He has identified four risk factors (he calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse... since they usually signal the end of the road for that couple) that creep into relationships where dynamic tension is not being successfully negotiated. His Horsemen are Withdrawal, Criticism, Contempt and Defensiveness. Withdrawal has to do with running away from conflicts rather than engaging with your partner when troubles arise. Criticism has to do with sniping at your partner as if they were an opponent rather than your lover. Contempt has to do with expressing belittling or scornful thoughts toward one another. Defensiveness has to do with escalating the conflict by counterattacking whenever someone offers up a complaint.

Gottman acknowledges the need for conflict and tension (even praising it at times) but identifies underlying problems in the way those tensions are resolved. He suggests that empathic communication techniques, healthy respect for the collaborator, having a touch of humility, flexibility and willingness to participate in the process are vital to the positive outcome case examples. And suggests that bad outcomes are a result of, or at least associated with, the four Horsemen.

But what happens when relationships feature opposite (neutralizing) force vectors? Good communication skills still don't resolve the situation satisfactorily, because only the one party is able to successfully get what they want, or move in a direction that has any appeal. The other person is screwed. The DV director and I may have all these positive attributes but that doesn't mean a happy solution is available for our conflict. And we may not express any contempt, defensiveness, withdrawal or criticism toward one another... in fact, I think we respect each other as professionals and as people... but because of the opposing nature of our vectors, a mutually positive solution is not accessible.

I think Gottman's research fails to take into account the damning nature of opposing vectors. The appeal of synergy (of unexpectedly positive compromises) is so powerful, that we naturally seek out these gratifying types of interaction; and we seek out relationships that offer lots of these compromises. So I guess I'm arguing that finding great relationships has as much to do with basic compatibility as it does good will, effort or commitment. Finding another person whose values sync up for a number of synergistic compromises seems more important to me than having a relationship that's free from Gottman's Horsemen or filled with good communication techniques.



At 1/06/2008 04:05:00 PM, Blogger Courtney Putnam said...

This post is so thoughtful and well-constructed, John. I'm still contemplating the issues you pose regarding the nature of relationships, so I don't have much in terms of a useful commentary at the moment. But, you do have me thinking...

Compatibility. Synergy. Good will. Commitment. Forces. Arrows. Thrust.

Oh my. Lots to consider here.


At 1/07/2008 11:54:00 AM, Blogger John said...

Thanks Court... I wasn't really expecting any comments on this piece, so I'm glad to hear from someone.

Actually, I expected someone to pick on me for overintellectualizing basic emotional intelligence.

So anyway... I'm glad you read it and got something to think about out of it.

At 1/07/2008 02:32:00 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

Gottman has many other observations about conflict and I din't think your critique based on this example is valid. Goittman acknowledges that over half of all relational conflicts are unresolvable. By that, I think he is agreeing that with opposing vectors it is impossible to compromise without one party not getting what they want. But this is normal and expected in relationships, and he observes that people can self report that they are happy in relationships even when these opposing vectors are present IF the horsemen are absent. So, I conclude that good communication is sufficient, that we can never get everything we want, but we will have healthy relationships is we practice healthy relational skills.


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