Systems Thinking for Relationships

In today’s Observer magazine Andrew G Marshall writes about his application of ideas from Malcom Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point to the field of couples counselling.

He believes that the systemic explanation given by Gladwell of how ideas suddenly infect a whole population can also explain how a relationship can appear to go sour overnight.

[…] I always asked couples when their difficulties started, mainly to identify the classic life changes that put relationships at risk […] However, on analysing the responses, these rarely came up. In fact, most couples did not even agree on the timing of their negative tipping point – the point at which the relationship went from satisfactory to unhappy. Yet if I asked why previous major relationships had failed, the majority did refer to these substantial life changes. Could it be that we retrospectively attach big issues to a relationship breakdown because it makes sense of the big changes in our lives? […] The Tipping Point theory, however, would suggest that a build-up of what my clients call ‘stupid things’ are the real causes of marital breakdown. The key idea is that little things can make a big difference. At first sight this was profoundly depressing: my clients seemed trapped in a downward spiral where ‘forgetting to defrost the fridge’ could seed a divorce. So instead of concentrating on major issues, I decided to focus on the little things.

He goes on to give an example of a couple whose relationship seemed to be breaking down over the issue of cleaning the children’s shoes. The more she nagged about it the less he could understand what all the fuss was about. On probing their backgrounds Marshall discovered the deeper structure that lay behind this surface behaviour

Julia’s father had always cleaned her shoes and therefore she believed that good fathers did the same. However, Graham had been brought up to be self-reliant and clean his own shoes

and probing further

the shoes represented their attitudes to bringing up their children. She wanted to nurture them, while he wanted to make them self-sufficient

Looking at this through a n NLP and Neuro Semantics framework this argument over apparently trivial behaviour seems firmly rooted in the value structures of the two people. For Julia the behaviour “Graham doesn’t clean the children’s shoes” was criterially equivalent to “Graham is not a good father”, a criterion that had been set up by the example of her own father.

This sort of confusion based on the meanings assigned to behaviour seems to be (IMHO) one of the most common causes of difficulties in any relationship – professional as well as personal. If you assume that all behaviour somehow “makes sense” in the moment according to the mind frames of the person doing it then by wondering “so what do they have to believe that makes this logical” you can begin to map out the frames that are driving them.

In the example given it seems likely (admittedly a “mindread”) that both partners shared a frame of “be a good parent” – their differences arose because Julia had a lower level frame of “nurture your children” whereas Graham’s intermediate frame was “teach your children to be self-sufficient” – both perfectly good examples of how to “be a good parent”, but also inevitably leading to the sort of conflict Marshall describes.

A powerful approach to any sort of negotiation (and I view coaching a couple in this sort of situation as fundamentally about facilitating a negotiation between them about their values) is to help the parties find their common ground. Asking meta-stating questions such as “why is this important to you?” or “what does that mean?” helps each party map out the levels of their frames of meaning – and in my experience there is almost always significant common ground within three or four “layers”…

When it comes to making the necessary changes, Marshall again refers back to Gladwell:

The two key elements identified by Gladwell for reaching a positive tipping point are the ‘law of the few’ and the ‘stickiness factor’. The first undermines an old myth about relationships: that both halves of the couple have to want to change […] Often a couple arrives in counselling because one half, who used to be responsible for the relationship glue, has given up. Paula, a 37-year-old recruitment consultant, was typical. ‘Why should I make all the effort? Jake made no effort to fulfil my needs, so I just withdrew.’ I sympathised with both Paula and Jake: in their different ways, they both felt unappreciated. After several weeks, I threw my hands up and asked: ‘Do you want to be right or happy?’ The next week they came back smiling. Paula had been less critical of Jake, and he had been more willing to talk and listen. They had achieved a positive tipping point, but it had been up to Paula to take the initiative. However, she was so pleased, it ceased to matter that she had made 80 per cent of the initial effort, because both were now contributing equally.

This result should be no suprise if you think of a relationship as a system.

Any cultural artefact (such as a relationship) is the result of systems of shared meaning between two or more people. If either person changes the way in which they look at the relationship it will inevitably affect their behavior – this changed behaviour will be interpreted by the other in the context of their frames and thus change their behaviour, which feeds back to the first person … and so on…

This is why the concept of being “at cause” is so powerful – once you acknowledge that you can control your own behaviour then you can change the system of shared meaning that is the relationship.

Why are some messages heard, while others fall on deaf ears? The second law, which Gladwell identifies as the ‘stickiness factor’, might explain it. Sometimes, tinkering with the way a message is delivered can make it stick. If someone is not listening to us, we find more dramatic ways to get their attention: shouting, tantrums, threats, walking out. However, small changes are often more effective. Since discovering The Tipping Point , I have spent more time getting clients to ‘reframe’ their messages to each other, rather than forever upping the same ineffective stakes.

This is a classic example of working with the feedback forces in the relationship system rather than against them.

When we escalate our communications in the ways Marshall describes then it often triggers the very opposite of the desired response, a shortcut to a downward spiral. Again, reflecting the principle of being at cause – if what you are doing doesn’t work, try something else!

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