Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why relationships fail

In my part-time and wholly unpaid role of amateur psychotherapist, today I consider the question of why relationships fail. And does Myers-Briggs add anything to our understanding?

The more curious question is why relationships happen in the first place. We are surrounded by people, we meet lots of people, we know lots of people. Almost all of them are not significant others - we treat them as acquaintances or friends which, trust me, is not the same as being 'in a relationship' with them.

The visceral (note the word!) attraction which is at the root of lust, romance and long-term attachment is not directly analysed by Myers-Briggs theory which tends to focus on personalities when not in the grip of emotion. However, the bonding deriving from the human limbic system has to overcome those feelings of mutual irritation, mutual incomprehension; those clashes of ego and objective which divide any two human beings. It’s in analysing the likelihood of these that Myers-Briggs can lend a hand.

Studies suggest that people are most likely to be friendly with people of the same, or closely allied type as themselves. They are most likely to be in a significant relationship, however, with someone whose type differs perhaps in one feature. Relationships exhibit a complementarity which friendship doesn't.

There is further empirical data that Ns are compatible with Ns and Ss with Ss. Conceptual people spark off each other and concrete people share in the immediate. A mismatch here may create ongoing irritation - just one more thing to manage.

It's also been observed that SPs and SJs tend to partner up. It’s the creative tension between the organising and conformist SJ with the maverick and spontaneous SP which stop the relationship getting stuck into a conformist SJ rut or a centrifugal 'do your own thing' SP explosion. Similarly, NTs and NFs are a good match: the NTs are calm and strategic, the NFs bring warmth, empathy and people skills.

Still, life is a process of continual conflict. We were not born to agree with each other all the time. Conflicts between two people in a relationship will inevitably arise. What happens next is critical: if the relationship (the underlying attraction) is in good shape, both parties will work to damp the tension and work towards a compromise. Conversely, if the underlying attraction is too weak then differences go into positive feedback and relationship-breakdown occurs: screaming matches, sullen withdrawals, dislike and despair. Note that it takes two to bring negative feedback to bear on crises, but only one to blow things up.

So in summary, relationships are perennially unstable and always about to tumble. If mutual attraction is strong enough then both parties can and will damp the instabilities but if either party loses the magic it's only a matter of time before events will crash the relationship. If you want relationships to succeed, nurture those feelings.

Clare's comment on the above: "You over-analyse. I just want a relationship which works." My reply (accepting of course that she's right): "Over-analysing is what I do. When it's paid for it's called consultancy."