Relationships- we may suck at them, but still we keep on trying
Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know about Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong
Eric Barker 2022
"If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships- the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together, in the same world at peace." Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Most of us agree that human relationships are important. Many of us think that we're pretty good at them. ("Look at my Facebook friends!") But in reality, we still have plenty to learn about them, which is why we have a loneliness epidemic. Plays Well With Others is an attempt to look scientifically at four areas of human relationships- friendship, love, starting out, and whether we even need them at all. Using scientific research Eric Barker mixes great stories about what makes relationships sound, and how they can go tragically downhill.
Barker is a writer, most well known for his earlier best-seller, Barking Up the Wrong Tree, a fascinating look at success and failure and how we get them wrong. His newsletter is one of the best ones I've ever subscribed to and full of handy tips for living your best life, backed by science. You can subscribe here.
Can you judge a book by its cover? First impressions and initial opinions are unavoidable and occasionally right. But when meeting new people we are wrapped up in our own dramas, and loaded with cognitive biases and prejudices that categorize people by their clothing, skin color, body type, voice, mannerisms, and other external stimuli. Sometimes we're accurate in getting an initial read on someone, but often we aren't, and changing the anchored impressions once their formed is very hard to do.
We often can't read people because they are lying or deceiving us, and we aren't good at catching it. The book gives suggestions on how to keep people honest with unexpected questions, eye contact, and humble curiosity that gets them to open up. On social media, where many of us congregate these days, it's nearly impossible to get a feel for what a person is truly like, and we rely on shortcuts and stereotypes to fill in the spaces.
Is a friend in need a friend indeed? We have a loneliness epidemic, partially because of an increased reliance on screens. Humans are a social animals that are wired for altruism, and the stronger their social circle, the more resilient people will be. Having friends is essential to feel acknowledged and appreciated, and as we age we have fewer and fewer of them. The author states that it takes time and effort to nurture true friendships (100-200 devoted hours of together time), and few of us make the effort. Also in the way- the central relationship paradox- by putting up a fake front we hide the vulnerability that makes us most appealing. Building trust with friends is essential to longevity and happiness, and finding good friends who will be there for you (and for whom you can be there) is a lifelong journey that we are on.
Barker finishes this section with the fascinating story of Larry Flynt and Jerry Falwell, two adversaries who battled in courts over pornography and religion. Late in life they evolved into friends who toured the country together doing debates on moral issues. If there's hope for two loud opposites to cultivate appreciation for each other, there's hope for us all.
Does Love Conquer All? The longest segment of the book looks at love and marriage, and why so many relationships fail. Most marital conflicts never get solved because people are just different. While romance and sex bring couples together, as soon as four years after a wedding things can start to go downhill. Bad feelings can erupt over the simplest misunderstandings, and couples on their own translate those feelings into a negative essence and failure of their partner. Barker talks about negative sentiment override, where hurt feelings from the past keep cropping up in everyday arguments and grow even more negative.
He points to the great work of John Gottman and his four horsemen that predict relationship failure with great accuracy.
- Criticism goes from an action to the person being bad and defective
- Stonewalling means the partners shut down and refuse to deal with the issues
- Defensiveness prevents any self-examination and places all of the blame on the other
- And Contempt is the worst of all- one partner sees themselves as superior to the other.
To combat this, Barker recommends positive sentiment override, and intentional and conscious attempt to rekindle loving feelings from earlier in the relationship. Examples given include:
1- Do things together that are stimulating and challenging. Young people on dates do this reflexively, and it works to bring people together.
2- Find out each others deep values by asking open, thoughtful questions. The famous 36 questions to connection is a good place to start.
3- Use the Michelangelo effect to chip away the BS and find the best in each other. Loving relationships are supposed to help each partner bring out their best. Somehow that attempt gets lost when life gets in the way.
Is No Man An Island? Why are we so lonely in an age of infinite connectivity? The book points to Bowling Alone and its findings that social institutions started shrinking in the late 20th century. Trust in others plummeted during that time, from 77% to only 24% today. When you don't trust most of the people that you meet, it makes it hard to want to take the risks necessary to build relationships. Social media provides a fake sense of connection, and the hard work that's needed to build connection in tough times gets lost when it seem so easy to find the next date or friend in our constantly moving social environment. Fear of missing out keeps us holding out for an unrealistic ideal rather than doing the work and showing vulnerability.
Barker ends with several inspirational stories about how connections saved lives. He shows that much of the placebo effect comes from the connection that people feel when they know someone- a doctor, a therapist, a nurse, cares enough to help them with their illness. Just swallowing a pill without any context or connection doesn't work as well. In times of darkness, people bond together and help each other, as the lepers did on Molokai when left to fend for themselves, or as the Ukrainians are doing right now. And in a story I'd never heard of before, there was a group of doctors in Italy that invented a fake disease, syndrome K, to scare off Nazi's and protect a vulnerable group of Jews taking refuge in their hospital.
Plays Well With Others is a fun, inspirational book, backed by science and entertaining stories. It gave me much food for thought about my own relationships. I highly recommend it as well as Mr. Barker's newsletter.