The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendship by John M. Gottman, Ph.D.

 

 I think like most people, I cringe when I come across these in-your-face, self-improvement books.  It just doesn’t feel natural.  Isn’t someone supposed to teach you this?  The whole self-help book industry seems like crockery, pseudo-science, pop psychology jibber jabber designed to sell a buck and make you feel temporarily like you’re doing something positive with your life.  Like the new, trendiest workout video or machine, most people try it out a few times and then it becomes a clothes rack.  Certainly, many of these types of books are poorly written and researched, but it doesn’t mean the whole industry is worthless.  Fact is, the vast majority of self-help books I’ve read including business improvement books are spot on.  The problem is that when you read them, it feels like these things shouldn’t be told to you directly.  It feels awkward.  It feels like they should somehow be learned through role models or in person.  None-the-less, I’ve also noticed that while I may not immediately apply the techniques to my life, a few years down the road, I’ll be in a certain situation, and I’ll realize that I did something wrong or I used a certain technique that really worked out well, and I’ll faintly remember that I read about that somewhere.  You may not absorb it immediately, but trust me, it nestles deep into your psyche, and it all comes out down the road when a relevant situation arises.  When I was younger, I even read a book about picking up on women, and I know that I learned a lot, because I used to watch dating shows and it was obvious to me what mistakes the dudes were making, overly eager, overly boastful, overly talkative, overly technical, etc. 

 Most relationship, communication, and leadership self-help books actually point to one of the most glaring and fundamental problems with modern society, and if you know my blog, you know where I’m going, because even I think it’s starting to sound like a broken record.  We, as a society, have lost the art of socializing, of interacting with one another in a respectful, open, friendly, kind, trusting, and honest way.  Instead, we have been taught that it is more important to study and work hard, obey authority, and listen and respect more those above you in positions of greater class, rank, and importance.  All of us are born with social instincts we have developed over a hundred thousand years to become the apex intelligent primates of this planet.  However, only in the last ten thousand years, have we created a strict social hierarchy in order to distribute and redistribute surplus grain, or wealth.  So, as children, we start off with a basic sense of right and wrong, and we know the difference between a nice and kind person and a mean and nasty one.  We know when someone is being friendly and engaged with us, and when they look down upon us and don’t care about what we have to say.  Unfortunately, in school, we start to learn that it is okay for some people to be mean, cruel, unfriendly, and disengaged.  We learn that it is okay, because they are in positions of authority above us, that they outrank us.  Obviously, as children, we should look up to and listen to adults, but those adults, at the same time, should also be kind, friendly, and engaging with us.  We learn in school that it is okay for someone to be cruel, unfriendly, and disengaged, because they are above us.  Since then, we are constantly engaged in this bizarre struggle for dominance, so we act cruel, unfriendly, and disengaged with others in a bid to make them feel inferior and a bid to make ourselves appear dominant and superior.  We convince ourselves that this is okay, because we live in a social hierarchy, and it is important to ascend that hierarchy more than it is important to acquire friends of an equal footing where we are never cruel, unfriendly, and disengaged from them.

 My only big problem with self-help books is that they don’t go deep.  They don’t ask why.  Why don’t people have leadership, communication, and relationship skills?  Why are some bosses, spouses, and so-called friends so anti-social, socially inept, frigid, disengaged, cruel, closed, and unfriendly?  While learning all these skills, as if for the first time, is good, it’s like putting a cast on a broken arm that just gets broken every year.  At a certain point, you just have to ask, well why can’t we just avoid breaking that arm every year in the first place?  Why can’t we just dismantle this stupid hierarchical system where people on top treat people below them like shit?  Why can’t we just be nice and friendly to everyone?  Why do we have to constantly attempt to gain domination and superiority over everyone? 

 In order to prove my point that most all leadership, and communication, relationship problems are rooted in social hierarchies, imagine the interaction of a woman and her maid. 

“Mary, remember to water the plants this weekend.”

“Okay, Mrs. White, I’ll remember.  Oh, by the way, how was your day at work?”

“Oh, it was lovely.  There was a new coworker who was really funny, and I think he’ll really be a great addition to the office.  How is Lisa doing?  I heard she was entering middle school.”

“Oh, she’s just doing great.  She really likes it, and she’s making new friends all the time.”

Um, yeah, you’re thinking.  Now imagine an interaction between a teacher and his student.

“Sue, I think your essay on Tom Sawyer was really great.  So do you have plans for this weekend.”

“Thanks Mr. Jackson.  I’m going to a great concert with my friends.  We’re so excited about it.”

“Wow, that’s great.”

“What about you, Mr. Jackson.  How are the wife and kids?”

Do you get my point?  Why do we find these interactions so implausible and absurd?  Who says you can’t be friends with your maid and develop a friendly relationship with them?  Who says you can’t be friends with your teacher or students?  While people argue that this is not professional, that is just a euphemism for, it’s not appropriate to be friendly and engaged with those above or below your station in life.  From school, we learn this lesson immediately.  You don’t talk friendly with your teacher, and even if you did, the other students would accuse you of being a kiss-ass.  In other words, the only reason one would ever be friendly and personal with a superior is to gain their favor and nepotism.  Meanwhile, a superior is supposed to be aloof and unfriendly with all their subordinates or else they are also accused of impartiality.  The problem with all relationships is that we treat each other either as superiors or inferiors and never true equals.  So for the longest time, husbands assumed superiority over their wives and were aloof, unfriendly, and disengaged with them.  Kids pick up quickly.  So obviously, the older siblings assert dominance and then become aloof, unfriendly, and disengaged with their younger siblings.  Even amongst our friends, we try to establish a leader and subordinates.  We’re all caught up in this stupid idea of alphas and everyone is trying to assert alpha status in their groups.  It has nothing to do with alpha and more to do with social hierarchies.  You cannot enjoy a friendship with someone you feel is superior or inferior to you.  And people wonder why they have no good friends, or why they suck at communicating and relationships. 

 Fundamentally, we have become suspicious of anyone who is overly friendly and engaged with us, because in our minds, where everyone is either above or below you, such an overture is either an attempt by an inferior to gain your favor or a superior to establish some sort of inappropriate relationship with you.  I mean, what would you think if the Prince William of England started to chat you up and really appear interested in your life and hobbies.  If you were a woman, you would think he was coming on to you, and if you were a man, you would think he was crazy.  The idea of social hierarchy is most blatantly exhibited in Japan where you never talk to strangers without first establishing your social standing by exchanging business cards.  But this is not so bizarre when you think about walking down the street in your hometown and some strangers starts chatting you up and being overly friendly.  Immediately, I would think he would soon ask me for money.  If he were in a business suit, I’d just find him the strangest man in the universe.  But why should this be so odd?  We’re humans.  We like to make social connections.  We like being treated kindly.  While Americans love to think we’re all egalitarians, we have actually monetized friendliness and engagement.  When a waiter or bartender takes an interest in us and asks how our day is going and what our hobbies are, this is okay, because we end up happily rewarding them for their excellent service which is nothing but friendliness and engagement.  While in the rest of the world, they don’t like friendly waiters and bartenders, because they think servers are all below them, in America, by monetizing friendliness, we make it temporarily okay.  In America, money buys everything.  In the rest of the world, they suffer eternal loneliness, but at least in America, we can buy that which has been stolen from us, friendliness, kindness, and engagement.  In fact, I would argue that in other countries, you never just chit chat with prostitutes, but in America, many guys in fact spend money to open up to and talk with prostitutes.  You literally can buy anything in America.  The ubiquity of tipping in America tells you that we can buy friendliness from anyone in the service industry: hairstylists, doormen, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, concierges, massage therapists, tour guides, shuttle drivers, basically anyone in the service industry who has an opportunity to interact with you and be friendly toward you.  The rest of the world finds this an odd custom, because they really do think people in the service industry are all below them and they shouldn’t be chit chatting with you, because it is a sign of disrespect and patronization. 

 One of the worst things we do is treat our very own children as inferiors not worthy of our attention, engagement, and comforting.  The idea that fathers were cold, aloof, and unfeeling with their children is only a bizarre modern thing.  We like to think that this is just how old-fashioned fathers were, manly men, cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking, slipper-wearing grizzled manly men.  The truth could not be further away.  Men only started behaving like this when they started to buy into the notion of social hierarchies, and this is how they treated their fellow men, then women, and finally their very own children.  They simply became assholes, and our culture made that normal.  Before social hierarchies, men were very attention to their children, especially their sons, with whom they would take on hunts, hikes, and fishing expeditions.  It would be their job to teach the boy the ways of manhood and nature.  A disengaged and distant father would create a poorly-skilled, inept, outcast son who would not be able to attract a partner, not be able to gain respect in the community, and then be cast out and likely to die alone in the wilderness.  If fathers wanted to pass on their DNA, they had to be better teachers, coaches, and mentors to their sons. 

 When a young child is stressed, they naturally turn to their parents for comfort and direction.  When something upsetting occurs in their vicinity, you always see the children look up to their parents to know how to react to this startling stimuli.  Naturally, a parent would touch and stroke the child to comfort them, and this would teach the child to relax and comfort themselves when their parents were not around.  When a parent does not respond and acts aloof or even worse, yells or hits the kid in frustration, the child quickly learns to never again approach people to calm themselves.  Instead they learn to distract and dissociate with mindless, obsessive, repetitive actions or even more stress-inducing stimuli to distract themselves from the initial stress-inducing stimuli.  It doesn’t seem to make sense, but a stress-inducing stimuli they have some control over brings comfort over a stress-inducing stimuli they have no control over.  These children are often doomed to become addicts to whatever comes along as a form of artificial self-comforting.  They also tend to suffer from short attention spans, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, depression, and all sorts of disorders.  In fact, one could argue that the vast majority of modern disorders and addictions are the direct result of having parents who don’t know how to comfort their children when they are stressed.  Even worse, that child then has kids of their own and have no idea how to comfort their children.  Before social hierarchies, these children were often cast out and never reproduced.  With social hierarchies, these antisocial mental wrecks were still able to get jobs, date, and procreate.  In fact, the modern world favors them, because they are more likely to cope with the demands of agricultural and then industrial work which was often solitary, repetitive, mindless, and dull and required the ability to deal with superiors who were aloof, uncaring, unengaged, and often abusive.  Unfortunately, you see how we actually trained our kids to adapt to the cold, heartless modern world by being cold and heartless toward them.  Fortunately, for us, there is the Information Age, and I strongly believe that it demands more social and healthy skills like social networking and creativity.  Creativity requires a dynamic mind capable of viewing things from many different perspectives and bringing together many different concepts from otherwise unrelated fields.  If you want your children to succeed in the Information Age, you would rather be more nurturing, engaged, and caring.  Your children would learn to comfort themselves when stressed, take more measured risks, and reach out to other people for friendships and comfort.  In the process, they would make more connections, expose themselves to greater diversity, and develop a more flexible, creative mind tailored for the Information Age. 

 This book is pretty long with small print, so I’m dividing my review up so I can get this initial part out now, which may wind up the most important part of the review.

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