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Why it’s hard for us to get along

Updated: Sep 29, 2022

If you watch preschoolers playing together, it can be disturbing. Yeah, sometimes they cooperate beautifully, but too often they’re like psychopaths. Snatching toys from one another. Shoving one another. It’s a jungle out there!

We think we’ve grown out of this until we find ourselves in grown-up relationships. When all too often it’s back to the jungle. The heaven of cooperation we’d hoped for is dashed on a rocky coast of endless conflict.

Why is it so hard for two people to get along?

Three reasons, and the third one’s what’s really interesting here.

First, the two of you can’t get along because you shouldn’t be together in the first place. You’re just too different. Or rather, you have too many essential differences for normal people to overcome. One of you likes it warm, the other likes it cool. One of you likes rap, the other likes country. One of you likes walking, the other likes sitting. Pretty soon the wheels come off the wagon.

Second, the two of you don’t get along because one of you is a mental case. Anger management issues. Hunger for conflict. Inability to see another person’s point of view. Narcissism. This is the usual go-to explanation for “why we don’t get along”: it’s all your fault!

The third reason goes deeper. It should. It comes from the June 2004 issue of the Quarterly Review of Biology, in an article called “Evolution of Cooperation.” The question is, why is cooperation so rare between animal species? Sure, there are plenty of ways animals have found to live in groups. Monkeys and apes do so, though not so much by cooperation as by a strictly regulated hierarchy. Wolves do cooperate very much when then hunt, but once their prey is brought down, the spoils of war are, again, divided based on hierarchy.

What the article says about this is interesting. Get ready for some hi-falutin’ language:

...the mere fact that directed reciprocation has been established does not ensure its persistence—these systems are potentially vulnerable to exploitation, in which an individual receives the benefit from its partner and then enjoys a further benefit by not reciprocating (also known as “cheating”). Models that account for the evolution of directed reciprocation must thus account for the stability of cooperation against cheating.

The conclusion from the Axelrod-Hamilton paper was that the simple strategy of “tit-for-tat” evolved under a wide range of conditions if the likelihood of future interactions between the same partners was high. (The tit-for-tat strategy is the rule of “cooperate when your partner has cooperated in the previous iteration but refuse to cooperate if your partner did not cooperate in the previous iteration.”)

...repeated interactions of partners and the ability of interactants to alter their behavior in response to the other’s action.

Still on board here? Good. What all this says is that why should I cooperate (“reciprocate”) if I can receive a benefit—what you did for me—and then a further benefit by not reciprocating—not doing something for you? So cooperation ain’t gonna happen unless a) we are somehow guaranteed future interactions (we’re married or live together) and b) you can become more cooperative when you see me being more cooperative and vice versa (our altering our behavior in response to each other’s actions).

Here's the problem. Even marriage doesn’t guarantee future interactions. Married couples tend over time to separate their interactions. I do my stuff, you do your stuff. Cooperation is too hard. I get sick and tired of nagging you about how you leave your dirty clothes all over the place, so I just pick them up myself. It’s easier. But that makes me way less interested in cooperating with you about other stuff.

And as for our altering our behavior in response to each other’s actions... Hah! If ONLY people changed like that. The norm, I’m sorry to say, is outside of therapy, people tend to self-reinforce their behavior patterns. If I like to confront, then whatever happens I’ll double down on confronting, however poorly it’s served me in the past. We’re just like that.

So. Big question: Does this make me pessimistic about our ability to cooperate with each other, as couples or as a species?

Not at all.

We just need to know what we’re up against. Which will tell us what we need.

As a couple, distance—doing things separately—can make sense situation by situation, but the couples that win at the game of lasting love see themselves as a team. Bound together for all time against everything that life has to throw at them. Committed to endless “repeated interactions” that make any holding back when it comes to reciprocation unthinkable.

And as for our not altering our behavior in response to each other’s actions, all I can say is that in relationships as in the evolution of species, the adaptable survive, while those who can’t alter their behavior are playing chicken with disaster. If you can’t figure out what works and change to make things work, you’re an idiot and you’re doomed. You’re the worst kind of idiot: the idiot who keeps saying “I’m right” or “it’s my way or the highway” all the way down the tubes.

Too strong? Nothing could be simpler: when a couple is in trouble, if the partners adapt, they survive as a couple. If they don’t adapt, they don’t survive. If you’re not planning to adapt, get out now. But if you really can’t change how you function, then either change THAT or you’ll have a lot of trouble finding happiness.

But—to get back to my optimism—with commitment to being a team and working on adapting, you can overcome almost ANYTHING.

For down-to-earth understanding and how-to’s that’ll transform your relationship, get ahold of Why Couples Fight. Please!


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