Here comes an example of why learning and science are my life’s passions.

Because wait long enough, and some amazingly smart and dedicated researcher might come up with a break-through that changes your life.

Maybe it’s medical. Maybe technological.

Or, as the field of neuroscience advances, the light bulb that clicks on is more and more often psychological.

OK, soooo…..

Why do relationships fail?

John Gottman’s latest book, The Science of Trust, actually answers this eternal question (scientifically, with lots of sound research evidence). And it’s such a simple, no-duh explanation:

Relationships fail when trust dies.

(Can trust actually be studied? Quantified and tested in the lab?…yup!! The romantic part of you might doubt it, but psychologists and game theorists have been studying the dynamics of trust for decades. Gottman then figured out how to apply these same well-established tenets to couples.)

Personally, I’ve always thought that relationships die when too much bad stuff happens. I’ve figured that there comes a point where the last straw gets applied and the back of the relationship finally breaks, and that, therefore, both parties ought to avoid rocking the boat and, as they say in the South, “Just be sweet!”

Anger, arguing, conflict…I’ve always found them deeply threatening, because I assumed that every negative incident weakened the relationship, like dropping bombs on a bridge.

Well, that’s not how it works at all!

In fact, Gottman explains that making nice-nice and avoiding unpleasant issues is a sure-fire way of breeding mistrust and killing your relationship.

This is from page 202, Explaining relationship failure:

Negative events in couple relationships are inevitable. The way relationships fail is…If a couple’s negative events are not fully processed, then they are remembered and rehearsed repeatedly, turned over and over in each person’s mind. Trust begins to erode…continually unprocessed negative events…involve the erosion of trust, as well as increase… the potential for betrayal.

Here’s my understanding of how the process works:

  • Human beings are naturally wired to be a little bit paranoid and extra-vigilant (we’re always on the look-out for danger; it’s a survival instinct),
  • and so unprocessed events leave knowledge gaps which our minds fill with “explanations” that tend to be negative.
  • We imagine answers in our heads that are, on average, worse than actual reality.
  • And, because our emotional systems don’t distinguish between what we think and what is objectively true,
  • we respond to these mental products as “facts.”

According to Gottman, when the mind is left to its own devices, the most common “explanation” ¬†it concocts for a hurtful relationship event is that “my partner is selfish.”

And when the natural paranoia is allowed to run rampant, this even worse “explanation” may emerge: My partner deliberately set out to hurt me.

Over time, enough negative events go unprocessed to collect up ample “proof” that “I am in a relationship with a cold, selfish, untrustworthy person, who doesn’t really care about me and whom I can’t rely on. In fact, my partner may even purposely design events so as to hurt me. I therefore need to protect myself, hold back emotionally, keep secrets, not invest too much, keep my options open, etc, etc…”

And what relationship can survive in this sort of environment?

Gottman talks a little bit about borderline and other personality disorders, and he also mentions post-traumatic stress disorder, which really got my attention.

For one thing, PTSD is often mistaken for BPD, because the two conditions share several symptoms including:

  • a history of troubled relationships
  • hyper-vigilance
  • emotional dysregulation (hyper-sensitivity)
  • emotional avoidance (compartmentalization/denial)

The roots of PTSD are, as one article elegantly put it, devastating exposure to human cruelty.

Atrocities, rape, neglect, betrayal…horrifying things that happened to a helpless child or unsuspecting adult, that made them feel terrified and unsafe and exposed and alone. Experiences¬†that destroy a person’s capacity to trust other human beings.

And trust, as Gottman reminds us, is the stuff of which enduring relationships are made.

Love, desire, common goals and interests…those are the forces which bring people together, but it is TRUST which keeps them together.

I’ll be back to share more on this topic, from John Gottman’s excellent book!

[photos of lock rusted shut at Westport train station; a safe home at LisSurMer]