Girlfriend: Hey sweetie…can you come over and cuddle? I really miss you.

Boyfriend: Babe, it’s 2:30am and I have to get up at 6 for work tomorrow. Maybe another night.

Girlfriend: So you’re not going to come over then? Don’t you want to see me?

Boyfriend: Dude! Of course I want to see you, but I have to get up at 6am for work. I’m so tired right now and all I want to do is go to sleep so I can at least get SOME rest. We can see each other tomorrow.

Girlfriend: Ughhh! fine, whatever. Don’t come over…

Boyfriend: (sighs) …fine, I’ll bring my work clothes and come over…

Girlfriend: No! I don’t want you to come over now because I asked you to; I want you to come over because you want to. You should want to come over and see me. Anyway, I really don’t want to see you NOW…

Boyfriend: WTF…

If your reaction was the same as the boyfriend’s in the above scenario, congratulations: you’re probably sane. More simply though, you’re mostly likely a pretty mature adult—which unfortunately, has become an increasingly rare experience at present day. The phone call between the boyfriend and girlfriend represents a common scenario in relationships that often leads to their ultimate demise. For all the geeks out there, the proper term used in psychology circles is called “double bind”. The term double bind refers to any such situation in which a mixed message prevents someone from making a correct choice. In this way, the inherent problem of mixed messages is that there is no way to “win”.

In double bind the recipient of such mixed messages is presented with two choices, both of which are “bad”. This is all determined by the sender of the message. So, quite literally, whichever choice the recipient decides to make, it will be wrong. This kind of scenario spells disaster for two people in a relationship, as it denies the recipient partner the ability to be the “good guy”. So, no matter what, the partner receiving the mixed message has no choice but to be the “bad guy”. Looking again at the scenario above, the logic is easy to follow.

The boyfriend has two choices:

A.) Stay home and get some sleep.


B.) Go over to his girlfriend’s house just to make her happy.

Now initially, the choice seems clear; if he stays home, the girlfriend will be upset and he’ll be the bad guy. Okay, fair enough. But, after the boyfriend finally concedes to her demand in an attempt to win her over, she still denies him the role of good guy. The girlfriend makes it very clear that there is no way to win her over anymore: if the boyfriend stays home he will the bad guy, but on the other hand, even if he comes over, he will also be the bad guy. So, with no way to avoid being the bad guy, with no way to genuinely “win” over the situation, all of his efforts are rendered useless. The implications of useless efforts will later translate to feelings of helplessness, insecurity, low-self esteem, and ultimately, contempt for his girlfriend (which is one of the leading causes of divorce and the ending of relationships).

 

HOW TO MAKE A DOUBLE BIND

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand that the girlfriend’s anger became more important than the relationship. And, because she insisted on staying angry, even when she got what she wanted, she denied its positive effect. This is an extremely subtle yet crucial point. It is the single most important concept of this entire essay, and indeed, of healthy relationships in general:

When the goal of anger becomes anger itself, there can be no victory.

In other words, if you’re determined to stay angry at your partner, there will be nothing they can do to win you over. Think about it. Often times anger is conditional; most anger has a goal or some kind of conceptual idea that can diffuse it, because usually, anger is a negative feeling that we’d like to be rid of. The whole idea is that if you can achieve a certain scenario, the anger will leave you and all will be well again. To get a better idea of this concept, consider the following sentences:

If he would just listen to me more I wouldn’t have to scream.


If I could just kill that guy, my brother’s death would be avenged.


If I she didn’t always say those kinds of things, I wouldn’t get so upset.

Okay, so you get it now?

Now, in the case of double binds, the goal of the angry partner isn’t to diffuse the anger, but rather, their goal is to stay angry. In the scenario at the beginning of this essay you can see that even when the girlfriend got what she wanted, the anger stayed. Why did it stay? Because at that point, her anger was not about getting the boyfriend to come over; it was about staying angry. One of the serious implications of this kind of behavior is that it completely eliminates the opportunity for a partner to redeem themselves, even when they do make a sincere mistake.

THE SCIENCE

There was a study done using dogs, which I think perfectly illustrates the concept of a double bind. If I remember correctly, in the experiment they taught a dog to explicitly distinguish a circle from a square. The dog would then pick the circle or square based on commands from the researchers. Correct answers were rewarded with a treat and wrong answers were punished with a small shock of electricity. Next, they “shaved” the sharp corners from the squares’ edges so that the squares could easily be mistaken for circles. As you might imagine, the dog tried to choose the circle or square demanded of him, but received arbitrary punishments for what he believed were right answers. Effectively, this represents the “mixed messages” often found in a double bind scenario. By all clinical measures, the dog quite literally went insane. And, if you’ve ever been in a romantic relationship where you could never be the good guy (like I have), you know that insanity is exactly what happens to you. So in the first part of the experiment, it was clear to the dog which choices would reward him (make him the good guy). Yet, in the latter half of the testing, where punishment was given out even for what appeared to be right answers, the dog had no way of knowing which answers were definitively correct (he was always the bad guy).

THE BOTTOM LINE

People need to know that their efforts mean something, that they can make correct choices simply because those correct choices actually exist. In a relationship, if you make anger your goal, and therefore eliminate your partner’s power to win you over, you will destroy the relationship. Period. We must find ways to concentrate and use our anger effectively. If we arbitrarily wield anger as a means to feel powerful or beat our partner to death with, then anger has become more important than our love. Always give your partner a way to win you over. Even if it takes time, let them know they are making progress and heading in the right direction. Reward works. Choose love.