Browsing the archives for the love tag.
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How Can Bad Relationships Feel So Right?

The human mind

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on schema therapy and mental schemas, a subject I’ve written about here a number of times: see links on my Mental Schemas and Schema Therapy page. One of the most intriguing insights that’s come up in that reading is “schema chemistry.” What’s schema chemistry? The short version is this: sometimes the people we are most strongly attracted to are the ones who are the most likely to make us crazy.

I don’t want to overstate this: I don’t imagine for a minute that all love, romance, chemistry, and attraction are based on people fitting their mental baggage together–but it’s pretty fascinating that some of it seems to be, for some people.

The apparent reason schema chemistry happens is that the kinds of troubles we’re used to are comfortable and normal-feeling to us, so a person who causes the same problems we’re used to will feel more familiar and closer. If Mary grew up in a house where her parents always left her alone, she might very well feel more “at home”–not happier, but in more familiar and “right-feeling” territory–if she dates someone who always leaves her home alone, too. If Jack’s mom was always telling him he was a hopeless screw-up, he might have more respect for and feel more familiar with a girlfriend who always tells him the same thing.

According to some accounts in Schema Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide by Drs. Jeffrey Young and Janet Klosko, it appears this isn’t always a mild effect, either: sometimes it really makes the sparks fly.

As you might expect, this can be bad news. Two people might fall madly in love, have a breathtaking romance, and then settle down into a pattern of gradually making each other miserable. Apart from breaking up, the best hope for a couple like this is often to get couples therapy–I’d be inclined to suggest couples schema therapy specifically–and to learn there not only how to handle their own emotional baggage better, but also how not to push the other person’s destructive buttons.

Here are a few more examples of schema chemistry:

  • A person who feels defective (the Defectiveness schema) gets together with a person who feels like people should be punished for even small mistakes (the Punitiveness schema)
  • A person with a sense of being better and more deserving than other people (the Entitlement schema) gets involved with someone who is constantly taking care of other people at the expense of their own needs (the Self-Sacrifice schema)
  • Someone who grew up feeling lonely and neglected in a house where there was very little nurturing or expression of love (the Emotional Deprivation schema) dates someone to whom expressing emotions seems unnecessary and disturbing (the Emotional Inhibition schema).

There are any number of combinations, given that there are 18 different schemas and a variety of ways to express each one. Fortunately, there are many other factors to bringing two people together than schema chemistry. Here’s hoping it’s not at work in your relationship! If it is, just becoming aware of how the two schemas interact may start to help. I’m working on a short, informal book on mental schemas that I hope will make it easier for people to gain insights on their own and others’ schemas; it should be out in November or December. For information on that, stay tuned.

Photo by jb_brooke

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What Do Divorce and Malpractice Suits Have in Common?

The human mind

What do divorces and malpractice suits have in common?

My current reading is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, a book about the power and perils of responding from the gut. Early in the book he examines some clever research into divorce and some other clever research into malpractice suits, which together help illustrate one surprising principle.

The divorce research is something I’ve heard about and been fascinated by before. John Gottman, a research psychologist at the University of Washington, has developed methods for analyzing a brief conversation between a married couple on any subject that has been a recent difficulty for them. Gottman’s researchers, incredibly, can predict with 95% accuracy whether or not the couple will still be together in 15 years–without knowing their history, common interests, finances, love life, how long they’ve been together, family relationships, or anything else.

The malpractice research is just as fascinating. You might imagine that the doctors who get sued most for malpractice would be the ones who make the most mistakes, yet this turns out not to be the case at all. The biggest predictor of malpractice suits is a bad relationship with the patient. That is, doctors get sued much less for screwing up than they do for being disliked!

The common element between these two kinds of relationships–between spouses on the one hand and doctors and patients on the other–is respect, or lack of it.

How to predict divorce
Gottman’s researchers are trained in SPAFF (specific affect) coding, which involves recording a person’s attitude or emotions on a second-by-second basis. Using cues like word choice, tone of voice, expression, and body language, they record how a subject seems to be responding moment by moment throughout a conversation. The biggest indicators of divorce are what Gottman calls “the Four Horsemen”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. And it’s contempt (and its close relative disgust) that is the most powerful and reliable signal of a doomed marriage.

To put it another way, as long as both partners feel as though they’re getting a reasonable amount of respect–that their spouses are not looking down on them but rather holding them in some esteem–the marriage will tend very strongly to do well. As fond as I am of the Beatles, it appears that all you need is not so much love as it is respect. (With that said, I highly recommend love as well.)

How not to get sued
Getting back to doctors, it turns out that people tend to sue doctors when they feel those doctors look down on them, have little regard for them, or treat them poorly. Acting superior, ignoring the patient, trying to rush through with the minimum amount of contact, or dismissing patients’ concerns are all dangerous behavior in this respect. Statistically, if you are a doctor and you have made a terrible error but have treated the patient kindly and respectfully, you’re much less likely to be sued than a colleague who has made only a minor error but who has alienated the patient.

I won’t go into how Gladwell shows respect applying to car salesmen and their customers, but by now you can probably guess how that works.

Using respect for personal benefit
All of this gives me one simple, clear principle to apply in my own life: the single most important thing I can do to improve my relationship with other people–whether they’re friends, coworkers, customers, family, service providers, police officers, strangers I run into on the street, or anyone else–is to try to find things about them I respect and let that respect show. Whether I want to be married to the person in question or just want to help ensure they don’t sue me (or both), the lesson seems to be the same. Relationships being as complicated as they are, simple principles for making them better are a heck of a boon.

Photo by wajakemek | rashdanothman

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Mental Schemas #14: Need for Approval

Handling negative emotions

This post is the fourteenth in a series that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The Need for Approval schema is all about appearances and other people’s opinions. This might make it easy to think of it as just being shallow, but a person with a Need for Approval schema has gotten deeply involved with and affected by the idea that love needs to be won from other people, that it is not something that they deserve or are entitled to automatically, and that they can’t fill that void themselves.

Need for Approval schemas often arise in childhood, when children feel that a parents or other important figures in their lives only show love or affection when the child is behaving a certain way.

The schematherapy.com site elaborates on some of the ways a Need for Approval schema gets expressed: “Sometimes includes an overemphasis on status, appearance, social acceptance, money, or achievement —¬† as means of gaining approval, admiration, or attention¬† (not primarily for power or control). Frequently results in major life decisions that are inauthentic or unsatisfying;¬† or in hypersensitivity to rejection.”

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting others to think well of us as a rule. Approval-seeking only becomes a problem when it gets in the way of something more important. Dr. Young and colleagues describe people with this schema seeking approval “at the expense of fulfilling their core emotional needs and expressing their natural inclinations,” though I wonder if the same thing sometimes happens where the damage is to someone else, as with bullies or people who perpetrate hate crimes. My sense is that a bully might feel such a desperate need for approval from peers that they might victimize someone else to get it, or that someone with a phobia about gay men might hurt a gay man just to get validation from similarly homophobic friends or acquaintances. But this is just my own speculation.

Overcoming a Need for Approval Schema
The key problem in a Need for Approval schema is an inability to feel emotionally self-sufficient, to be happy with who we are. My understanding is that when we learn this skill as children, we gain a sense that we are worthwhile and good from parental love. If a child is powerfully convinced of the importance of their parents (as most children seem to be), then the parents’ attitudes toward us would seem to be the most important clue we can take as to our own self worth.

But if this ability isn’t developed as a child, we can still develop it as adults. As is the case with many kinds of personal change, often a good cognitive therapist can be a big help, and while self-worth isn’t something we can prove inarguably, it is something we can demonstrate to ourselves. When we focus on the things we’ve accomplished that we’re proud of, or the things in our lives that we’re happy to have, we’re more likely to feel good about who we are than if we spend a lot of time reviewing what we see as mistakes, shortcomings, and flaws.

That’s not to say we should ignore any negative thoughts we may have about ourselves, but it certainly is a caution that letting negative thoughts about ourselves become broken ideas is especially harmful to our ability to be emotionally self-sufficient. It’s one thing to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do, and that’s a problem.” and another to say “I forgot to do that errand I promised to do: what a loser I am” (labeling) or “I never do what I say I’m going to do.” (overgeneralization) or “I forgot to do that errand: now everyone thinks I’m an idiot.” (mind reading).

Thus this process of building a sense of self has two parts: consciously reflecting on good things about ourselves and our lives, and being aware of our thinking processes to be able to stop broken ideas from forming regularly. Over time this gets easier, and our sense of ourselves changes.

Photo by Sudhamshu

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