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A few weeks ago I overheard a short domestic spat between two people who appear to have a very good relationship. Later, over a drink, one of the partners said something along these lines: ‘most of the time we got along great but I find it hard when we are trying to make a decision that he seems to be almost wilfully ambiguous about what he wants’.

Combining the insight provided by this Stephen Pinker lecture and my own obsession with the three core drivers of human action I offered an explanation:

“ Think of healthy relationships generally comprising three domains. The first – the interpersonal equivalent of the hierarchical domain – is where one person gets what they want because they have the power and authority.  There will be agreement about the areas governed by this logic. It may be for example that one partner takes authority over domestic finances while the other is in charge when it comes to the social calendar. Mostly, we prefer having power to not having it but with power comes responsibility and the threat when things go wrong of a recrimination starting with ‘but I thought you were supposed to be in charge of…..’.

The second – individualistic - domain is where bargaining takes place. Here a partner pursues what they want but, albeit often only implicitly, trades preferences for those of the other partner. For example, the agreement to have a relative of one partner stay over might be traded for the freedom of the other partner to subsequently to have a night out with their own friends.

The third – the solidaristic - domain is where the partners act out of love. Acts here are selfless (which doesn’t mean they aren’t also pleasurable) and done to honour the relationship for itself. This motivation might lead a partner to go to great lengths to find just the right birthday present or to organise a romantic dinner.

The roots of ambiguity lie in seeking to manage the boundary between domains. Often, for example, one partner wants the other to do something out of love rather that for individualistic reasons (which might create the basis for a reciprocal expectation). A great deal of conflict in relationships relates either to such ambiguity, to what are perceived as inappropriate attempts to place acts in one domain rather than another or  - worst of all – shift the domain after the event. An example of the last being when one person spontaneously makes the other breakfast in bed but then in a subsequent bout of dealing seeks to turn the act of affection into a bargaining counter: ‘surely I can watch the rugby after I’ve gone to the effort of making your breakfast’, to which the unspoken reply is ‘if I’d known the breakfast was a way of wheedling me into letting you be a sports moron I’d have given it to the dog!’

Thus the plea against ambiguity ‘why don’t you just say what you want’ misses the point: ‘if you only give me what I want when I’ve said it’s what I want your act will be transactional (individualistic) rather than affective (solidaristic)’

I am not telling this story to reveal some great personal insight: I am sure similar, and almost certainly more sophisticated, analyses of relational domains are to be found in a hundred and one other theories and anyway, as I say, I was very influenced by listening to Pinker. There were two aspects I thought worth sharing.

The first was another hint that the three active forces theory of social action described in my 2012 annual lecture may have a correlation at the interpersonal level. It is this capacity of the theory to be recognisable in day to day life, not just when looking at the big picture, which is one of its strengths.

The second was that, having apparently accepted my interpretation, my friend seemed more positively inclined towards their partner. This, I think, is because it meant their partner’s ambiguity was no longer something which felt threatening – a puzzle they couldn’t resolve – but was now a challenge to which they could rise (in this case to make clear that they wanted to act out of love not as part of a deal).

This reinforces another warm (not to say inane and pious) thought: in situations of conflict trying harder to understand our adversary’s perspective might seem onerous or even undermining to us, especially if we perceive their view to be irrational. But if we try not only to see things from their perspective, but also remember that their most basic needs and motivations are just the same as ours, this will generally make us feel less threatened and more inclined to act generously.

Of course, giving advice is so much easier than living up to it …!


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