“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” – Dr. Seuss.
♦Nightmare Relationship Partners♦
Some people find calculus easier than relationships, and that is because relationships are a lot like houses, wild-fires, and job applications: difficult and confusing. When our relationships crack and split at the foundation, we seldom know why; when we immediately click with someone, we cannot seem to put our finger on the spark that ignited a so wild, out-of-control, and passionate connection; and, when we date someone crazy, we are almost always left dumbfounded and clueless as to how that happened
Most of us have had the rather unfortunate experience of being romantically engaged with someone who, although seemed okay at first, turned out to be a nightmare. Some of our ex-relationship partners were clingy, stalkerish, abusive, or controlling. And those features, when imbued into the personality of our lover, turn our world upside down; rather than waking up to the familiar scenery of heavenly morning clouds, we instead wake up to the grim view of a hellish chaos. Each moment becomes a game of “the ground is lava,” wherein which touching the ground leads to a rather serious burn. But, in substitute of the ground, we instead avoid certain behaviors and conversational topics, so as to avoid the emotional burn associated with them: these topics are lava.
Now, a number of things can be said about the nightmare relationship partner; for instance, we could point out all the errors they make that lead to the collapse of the relationship. And we might even learn a thing or two from doing so. However, I think it is more fruitful to avoid the toxic relationship altogether, and so we will talk about just exactly why it is you got into a relationship with a nightmare partner, to begin with.
But before we do that, I have to dispel the lie that most people tell themselves, a lie which is told to perhaps make themselves feel better about the situation; namely, that there were no signs or red flags before the relationship ever began. This, more often than not, is a lie.
♦The Lie We Tell Ourselves♦
At the core of the lie is the notion that people change within a few short weeks or months. People, especially after a heart-wrenching separation, tell themselves and their besties that something happened to their partner, that somehow their partner’s character had undergone a change. And this, therefore, entails by logical implication that people change:
Your partner is a person
Your partner changed
Therefore, people change
Now, certainly, people do change over the years and so some people might have a legitimate argument, but the majority of us don’t have a legitimate argument. And here’s why.
Within personality research, theorists have been interested in whether personality is stable or not. The topic dates back to the days of psychoanalytic thought, as scholars like Freud believed people’s personalities remained the same after age 30. And as research shows, Freud was mostly correct in his intuition. One six-year longitudinal study, using the NEO-personality test on a sample consisting of both men and women aged 21 to 96, found that personality is more stable from 30 years of age and after (Costa, et al., 1988). Even furthermore, there is evidence that personality remains stable for up to forty-years of time (Costa & Mccrae, 1986). In addition to that, aggressive behaviors remain steady across contexts and time as well (Eron, L. D. 1983). And lastly, from ages 12 to 18, personality remains mostly the same, with the exception of individuals increasing in openness (Moya et al., 2014). So people’s character tends to remain the same over time, irrespective of age. But, if people are going to change, then it is most likely to occur from ages 12 to 30.
Of course, to be clear, no one is arguing that people cannot change. There is enough common sense evidence that people can change; for example, some people can adopt healthier lifestyle choices, some people can overcome drug addiction, and some people do overcome dysfunctional environments. We all probably know someone who has changed at some point in their life, but the argument I laid out above is that most of us simply don’t change. Therefore, the probability that your relationship partner did change in a short window of time is incredibly low.
So, if the argument, “the person changed from when I had first meant them,” no longer resides in the community of legitimate arguments, then why did you miss all those red flags?
♦The Mirror Hypothesis♦
When we purchase a new car, it reflects qualities about us. Like when someone purchases a DeLorean, we can safely assume they enjoy something about that car. When someone reads a lot of books, we can safely assume they enjoy reading. Even more so, when someone socializes multiple times a week, we can safely assume they are far more extroverted than introverted. Behaviors and decisions reflect something about the person responsible for them. By the same token, the behaviors and decisions that occur within the context of a relationship reflect something about the people involved in the relationship.
Our relationships reflect what we perceive as normal. This happens because of social modeling; meaning, at some point someone modeled a given behavior for us, and we normalized the behavior. For example, if a male lived in a house with nothing but mean, loud, and uncleanly sisters and an unsupportive mother, the male would accept that females are mean, uncleanly, and unsupportive. And because we have a mostly innate behavior pattern to mate with members of the opposite sex, the male would most likely mate with females that are mean, loud, and uncleanly because no one else would tolerate them; that is to say, because these types of females have such a low sexual market value, only those who think their sexual market value be untainted will mate with them. So our relationships reflect the mental models we hold about members of the opposite sex (or same sex).
When we get up every morning and look around, our surroundings are probably incredibly familiar looking; that is, we have most likely seen these surroundings well over a few hundred times. As a result, within such surroundings, we tend to only notice things that are out-of-place rather than things which remained the same; like when we notice that our keys have disappeared or that our shoes have been moved, all while we ignore the fact that our dining room fruit bowl is the same as it was a week ago. No one really wakes up and says, “oh, look at that, my toothbrush is in the same position as the night before”.
So we tend to notice things that are not normal or that fail to conform to our expectations. By the same token, we fail to notice red flags in other people because we have normalized something that is dysfunctional. For example, we may think significant amounts of weed smoking is nothing to be alarmed about because, in our mental models, the behavior is normal. Yet, in the mental models of others, significant amounts of weed smoking may me be an abnormal behavior, which will raise red flags. This means your relationship partner did not change, you might have just seen dysfunctional behavior as normal.
If it so happens to be the case that your mental model of romantic partners is dysfunctional, then the solution is to reflect. Consider the people in your life, currently or previously, that have similar behavior patterns to your crazy ex. Recognize the dysfunction and reapproach it, put the dysfunction in its proper context. Of course, in doing so, one might step on a few toes of others that posses the dysfunctional behavior, but such is necessary for a mentally healthy model of romantic partners. Afterall, relationships, in some sense, are like a mirror reflection of ourselves, and we all want to look “Daddy AF”.
♦The Cultural Conditioning Hypothesis♦
Human beings are hardwired for culture. By default, we are social animals that pass along knowledge from generation to generation. Consider the innate abilities of children. Our children innately know the difference between helper and harmer (Betchel, 1988), innately know the difference between biological and non-biological movement (Jean et. al., 2014), and children go through massive genetically programmed growth periods, wherein which they become sponges that constantly absorb the information around them (Pinker, 1995). This allows them to be effective learners from older generations, they are hardwired to learn from more experienced humans. In addition to that, children not only have parents but also grandparents. Indeed, there is even evidence, both comparative and sociological, that grandparents are an adaptation to further child development: the grandmother hypothesis. And to top it all off, there are networks of cells inside the brain that are specifically dedicated to social cognition: i.e., intentionality, belief ascription, social-pain (Lieberman, 2013). So, humans are meant to be social animals by design; hence why we so readily impact one another.
One of the primary ways we impact one another is through culture. For example, Elon Musk has an impact on many of us because of culture; be it through his space-x company, his talks about living in a hologram, or his concern about AI research. His impact is achieved through cultural influence. Now in the same way that Elon Musk impacts us through cultural influence, so too do our friends and family. We have cultural values that are pushed onto us, often without us ever noticing.
Consider dank memes. Without ever explicitly thinking about it, most of us use dank memes in our daily lives. We rarely reflect consciously on the impact a dank meme will have on us. When we are joking with a co-worker, friend, or sibling, we might rely on the culture of dank memes. So we unconsciously accept cultural information in an uncritical fashion.
In the realm of relationships, we can see cultural influence through transferred gender norms. That is, similar to how people model social behaviors for one another, we can also pass along socially accepted pieces of information that then impact our behavior; only because cultural information influences the details of our top-down mental models. As a consequent of this informational influence, we become culturally conditioned. For example, in the 1900’s, dank memes would have been outright rejected, and so no one would have used them; however, in the modern era, people use dank memes throughout their daily lives. So, cultural information can impact behavior.
We might have a group of friends that hold negative views about men or women, and because they pass along this information to us, we become influenced by it; especially if we aren’t on the lookout for such information. By the same token, if we’re in a group of 10 people, of which we want to make good first impressions on, then we might go along with some dysfunctional view or behavior unthinkingly. The perfect example of this is ash’s social psychology conformity experiment. In the study, there were planted participant who had been given specific instructions and participants that had had no clue what was going on. The planted participants and the normal participant were all in a single group. They were then given a task; namely, determine which of the three lines presented on the screen was the longest. The answer was obvious, by a lot. However, the participants get this wrong about 2/3rds of the time. Why? The reason so many participants got it wrong was because of the fact that the planted participants were allowed to go first, and when they went, they deliberately gave the wrong answer. And by the time it got to the non-planted participant, well over half of the group already gave the same wrong answer: “it’s c”. So, the normal participant would agree to the wrong answer, even when it was obviously wrong, only because everyone else did so first. So by the same token, our culture has an immense ability to condition us towards certain thoughts or behaviors, even when we know something is wrong. In doing so, we may begin to accept dysfunctional behaviors or thoughts, even when we know they are wrong.
So culture might be shaping you negatively, there may be certain groups or sources of information which have a significant and negative influence on your life.
♦Summary & Conclusion♦
To summarize, when we get into dysfunctional relationships, it is because we had missed the red flags. It is infrequently the case that the relationship partner suddenly changed. Instead, behaviors and statements which ought to have been red flags weren’t so, all because we normalized such behaviors. Meaning, they were either modeled as normal through our peers, parents, or media.
The solution to finding these modeled behaviors is reflection; more specifically, to reflect on the thoughts one associates with certain behaviors: i.e., what do you think about someone who has anxiety about their partner going to a bar, is it normal or not? In doing so, one can begin the process of changing what to expect from people, certain behaviors will no longer seem normal and will instead come off as red flags.
As a result of becoming #woke, you will begin to step on people’s little piggies, by which I mean toes. Having principles and standards of behavior means you have to select who you can and cannot be friends with; that is, there will be people who fail to uphold certain standards of behavior, so you’ll have to forgo their friendship. However, you will ultimately find someone who has done a process similar to this, and you will both be well-educated, principled people that are single and ready to mingle. So the journey down this path, though difficult it may be, will be rewarding in the end.
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Costa, P., McCrae, R., & Sarason, Irwin G. (1988). Personality in Adulthood: A Six-Year Longitudinal Study of Self-Reports and Spouse Ratings on the NEO Personality Inventory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 853-863. doi:10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.113.
Costa, & Mccrae. (1986). Personality stability and its implications for clinical psychology. Clinical Psychology Review, 6(5), 407-423.
Eron, L. D. (1983, August). The consistency of aggressive behavior across time and situations. In Consistency of aggression and its correlates over twenty years. Symposium conducted at the 91st annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Anaheim, CA.
Jean M. Mandler and Cristobal Pagan Canvoas On defining image schemas. Language and Cognition, Available on CJO 2014 doi:10.1017/langcog.2014.14.
Lieberman, M. D. (2013). Social: Why our brains are wired to connect.
Moya, Viruela, Mezquita, Villa, Ibáñez, & Ortet. (2014). Stability and change of personality in adolescents: A 4-year longitudinal studydoi=”10.1016/j.paid.2013.07.367″ aid=”5863.67″. Personality and Individual Differences, 60, S15.
Pinker, S. (1995). The language instinct. New York: HarperPerennial.
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