Stable Relationships

Stable Relationships

“We all know that a friendship that may take years to develop can be ruined by a single action,” writes Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow. I quit Facebook for 2020 to get away from political ads and posts, but I imagine that this year many friendships and relationships have been ended with just a single post advocating for or against a candidate. People who have known each other for a long time have probably been surprised to see political posts from friends that don’t match what they had expected, creating friction within friendships.

 

At a high minded level, we don’t generally think that friendships should be influenced by something as small as a political post. True friendships, our stories and Disney movies tell us, are built on more than just liking the same sports team, belonging to the same political party, or lending something to our neighbors every now and then. Real life, however, seems to suggest that those things are exactly what friendship is about. We are constantly doing a mental calculation, keeping score of favors and interactions, and cutting out friends who don’t measure up and don’t bring us happiness or don’t appear to be useful allies.

 

Describing research from John Gottman, Kahneman writes, “Gottman estimated that a stable relationship requires that good interactions outnumber bad interactions by at least 5 to 1.” If we think about our relationships with others from a Disney movie standpoint, this sounds a little bleak. It sounds like all of our relationships are transactional, as though we are willing to ditch a spouse, an ally, or a close friend as soon as things start to turn a little negative and as soon as we get the sense that we are doing more for the friendship than the other person.

 

I don’t think Gottman’s findings are as negative as they might first appear based on the stories we create about true friendship. I think his research presents some hope. His findings show us that we can maintain friendships and good marriages when we find ways to structure more positive than negative interactions with others. To do this, we can think about others rather than about our selves, and we can do things to help create more positive experiences for the other person. This will get us thinking beyond ourselves and about the people we want to be close to and want to connect with. If we can create many positive interactions and limit the negative interactions then we will maintain strong relationships with others (even if an occasional social media post turns other people off). We will develop the strong friendship and trust that we believe relationships are all about. Having a mental accounting system of good and bad interactions doesn’t have to diminish the quality of the relationships we have, at least not if we find ways to create more positive interactions with others and use it in genuine and non-manipulative ways.

Thinking About Our Friendships

I am always saddened by how challenging adult friendships can be. Once you begin working 40 hours a week, have to deal with a commute, and have a household to look over, keeping up with friends and getting out to do things with friends becomes nearly impossible. I enjoy being able to own a home, but unfortunately, like many suburban residents I have a lengthy commute to work, get home and park in my garage, and generally don’t see a lot of friends or even neighbors during the week. I try not to be on my phone at work, and when I get home I start cooking and generally don’t message or call anyone.

 

In this busy work-life world, it can become easy to start seeing friends the way we see our impersonal relationships with ATM machines, paddle boards, and the grocery store. If it is convenient and if I get something in return from our friendship, I’ll reach out and try to schedule something for the weekend. If you can help me and if being friends with you is likely to pay off, then we can say hi to each other and maybe hangout for a BBQ sometime.

 

Trying to cram friendship into our suburban lifestyle in this way, however, doesn’t work and we won’t be satisfied with our friendships if we approach friendship with this type of utility maximization. Friendship and deep relationships are about more than just convenience or borrowing a leaf blower. Seneca writes, “He who begins to be your friend because it pays will also cease because it pays.” Many of our friendships end-up being just cordial relationships when times are easy.

 

This can leave us without support when we face real challenges and emergencies. It can leave us feeling isolated and depressed and provide us with fewer opportunities to socialize and connect with people in a meaningful way. I truly think this is one of the greatest challenges we face and I see even small things, like starting a club or community group, as a huge step toward changing the relationships we have. We need to see people not as friendship ATMs,  but as real individuals who have the same challenges, fears, and capacity for enjoyment and interest in the world as we do. By seeing a little more of ourselves in others we can start to see the importance of having meaningful connections with people and we can start working to better connect with the people around us.