A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
A Bright, Vibrant Blue Diamond
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site
John Æonid, Reflections in a Personal Web Site

Stuck Beliefs, Game Theory, And Relationships

April 29, 2017, John Æonid

We have beliefs than we know, and we have no idea how limiting they are until we have the opportunity to examine them.  And, there can be different kinds of beliefs.  There are emotional beliefs, some of which are likely counter to your logical/rational beliefs.  But, the problem with emotional beliefs is that you won't know of a particular emotional belief until you are in a situation that triggers that belief and results in an emotion.  So, you won't be able to recognize that an emotional belief is counter to your logical/rational beliefs unless you stop to examine the resulting emotion.  These are emotions that can one can suffer endless times unless one manages to catch it and examine it.  And, they can simmer and percolate just below the surface of the subconscious for a very log time.

Methods for examining beliefs are readily available from Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, and others.  But, I want to explore a set of beliefs that are so common that we should regard them as ubiquitous.  And, this is a belief that is at the core of our relationships, both our transient relationships and our deep, ongoing relationships.  The category for these beliefs is this: “others should treat us well”.  This applies to our partners, friends, family, coworkers, sales clerks, and many, many others.  Note that I've used the word “should” here, and many will likely recognize that this is a tricky word, one for which we will examine the relevant emotional perspectives.

First, let's have a brief look at a couple of basic psychological concepts: punishment and reinforcement.  These are key concepts in operant conditioning, which is the idea that stimuli encourage or discourage various kinds of behavior.  For simplicity, I'm going to limit this to two informal terms: “reward” and “punishment”, but I think you'll see that it reveals some of the deeper implications without getting mired in the technical terms.

The thing about punishment is that it is essentially not treating someone nice.  And, if you respond to being treated badly by punishing, the intent of that reflex is to discourage the poor treatment.  The problem is that you are trying to discourage being treated badly by treating others badly.  To do that, you need a rational reason to believe that the punishment you mete out is justified.  But if they don't agree with that reason, then they may well respond in kind—with punishment according to their rational reason for believing it is justified.

After several volleys of this, we should begin to wonder if what was thought to be rational reasoning was more rationalization—because there is little agreement on what was justified.  This is what we call an argument, and this sort of thing is often followed by an argument over who started it.  Notice that this is a disagreement about beliefs, but this can only happen when both believe that they should be treated well.

The best dog trainers—really, any of the best animal trainers—never use punishment.  They just don't.  They accomplish everything by focusing on reward.  And, it creates a way of interacting and communicating with our pets that allows them to feel safe and loved, and it gives them a sense of belonging and contributing to their families.  But,that reflex to punish is hard to overcome, as seen in how much our human mates are often subject to punishment.  What this means is that people are often treated worse than a well-trained dog.

So, arguments are the evidence that we don't treat people well.  And, the suffering this creates is where we get the idea that “others should treat us well.”  I should ask you to examine all the rhetoric about the bad things people do, along with all the various movements that want to shame people into treating each other better.  Notice how little is done to encourage and reward constructive behavior, at least once we get to puberty.  The behaviors we learn about relationships we get primarily by imitating our parents.  Very little is done beyond that to reward healthy relationship behaviors.  We could define the measure of a bad relationship as one in which punishment is too often exchanged and compassion is too rare.  Focusing on the negative without creating a positive image of how things can be, is a problem.

So, let's get back to the word “should.”  Notice my use of the word “can” at the end of the previous paragraph.  I could have easily used the word “should”, and I must admit that I almost did.  The problem with “should” is that on an emotional level it gets confused with “shall” and “must.”  And, at that emotional level that becomes a sense of how perfect things have to be for us to be happy.  Must we be treated well—at all times?  Really?  Aren't we just a little more resilient than that.  But, how do we gauge what are reasonable amounts of being treated well?

This is the point where you can explore this further with Byron Katie, Eckhart Tolle, and the like.  But, I'll just shortcut some of this.  You must have heard that people aren't perfect.  That's nothing new.  So, you must expect to be treated badly on occasion.  The problem is this: when we think we are treated badly too much, and we make things worse by fighting it—by lashing out.  So, what we are effectively examining here is a matter of how we think about this.

Let's take a brief look at this using a decision matrix.  This doesn't really take it all the way into Game Theory (though, I was tempted to examine how these outcomes might be viewed from the perspective of the Nash Equilibrium).  What we examine here is what we get when: 1) we believe or don't believe that others should treat us well, and 2) how we react to being treated badly.  Examine the outcomes summarized in the table below:

Outcomes to Responses If Treated Badly, Generally
Others should treat me well? Believe Set Aside Belief
Retaliate/Punish War ensues, leading to deeper entanglement and injury. Peace ensues, as there is no motivation for war.
Capitulate/Repair The ego is injured, because it believes an injustice has occurred. The ego is spared, because there is no expectation regarding insults and transgressions.

The word “entanglement” I get from Matt Kahn.  It's the word I've come to use to refer to the way our habits and reflexive behaviors pull us into being involved in a way that traps us.  In comparison, those I've know who get really depressed describe it as spiraling down.  And, I take this to mean that when they feel bad, thoughts are triggered—worrying thoughts—that only lead to feeling worse.  Being entangled is like spiraling down in depression, except that it is a matter of reactive cycles between people.  This cycling results in long lists of transgressions and reasoning for deciding that punishment is warranted.  To be free, you have to change your thinking—to the extent that it changes your reactiveness.  If your beliefs enslave you, then you have beliefs that enslave.

Note that conflict can also lead to avoidance.  But avoidance does not free you from an individual because their presence still dictates where you must be in order to avoid them, or what things must you must not mention to avoid arguments.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is all laid out on my assertions about what's important to people.  There are many other beliefs and choices that could be factored in, depending on how complex you want it to get.

Next, let's look at what this means when we have spouses or partners that we are unhappy with.  First, Matt Kahn makes it very clear that if a relationship is abusive, you should leave.  Go to a shelter or go sleep on someone's couch—just go.  I say this is certainly true for physical abuse, and I also say this is true for emotional abuse.  If someone is using emotional abuse for the purpose of enslaving you, then leave—do it now.  However, if you are managing to function reasonably well but are very unhappy, consider the table below:

Outcomes to Responses If Treated Badly, In A Relationship
She/He should treat me right? Believe Set Aside Belief
Stay True False Stay War ensues, leading deeper entanglement and injury. Peace ensues, as there is no motivation for war.
Leave The capacity for entanglement is still there, and the cycle continues with other bad choices. The capacity for entanglement can dissipate, allowing for healthy future relationships.

You need to decide how bad it really is.  How much time to you spend actually feeling happy?  How much time do you spend feeling numb, and can you really know how much time that is, particularly if you are often feeling numb?  If that's a difficult question, you could track it.  Keep a little calendar, filling in the days with smiley faces, frowns, and such.  And, how much time are you feeling in apprehension of trouble and dreading what comes next?  How many times have you been to relationship counseling with little or no results?  Finally, how much time are you actually feeling unhappy?

By the way, if you often have trouble getting out of bed and such, you should already be getting treatment for clinical depression.  Remember, the exploration we're doing here is more for those who lead relatively functioning, if unhappy, lives, and I'm only offering a way of changing relatively typical thinking; this is not clinical advice, as I am not a licensed counselor or therapist (see my EULA).

Also, this is not the only way to evaluate your level of happiness.  I'm sure an Internet search will turn up hordes of self tests, if that's what suits you.

So, given a sense of how unhappy your relationship is, look again at the table above.  Now consider how things are progressing for at least the last six months, even the last few years.  Which way are they progressing?  Are you reacting with anger and outrage?  Is it happening more and more?  Is it getting worse and worse?  If you believe you must stay and that you must be treated well, you're in a bad situation.  Clearly, you're behavior is not changing your partner, and it likely never will.  You're going down hill—unless one or both of these beliefs changes.  Those beliefs are very much at the root of the entanglement and the cyclic behavior with your partner, and this is making the both of you very miserable people.

If you can get rid of the belief that you must stay, you get to leave.  I suspect that the belief that you should be treated well creates in many a belief that they have to stay in a relationship until they get the good treatment they expect.  Such a belief surly contributes to the bitterness and ugliness of divorce.  If you've been struggling with this for some time, I'm sure people have already suggested you leave, maybe even begged you to leave.  This is likely a very good option, as it will take you out of the pain.

By the way, there are personality disorders that lead to being overly dependent on others, and you might be having trouble leaving because of that.  If you haven't already, this would also be something to check with a properly qualified mental health professional.

But, you see, even if you manage to leave, you'll still have to deal with these tendencies that lead to entanglement.  It's very much a part of this culture that people go from relationship to relationship, having the same problems over and over.  Until what?  Until you figure out which belief is screwing you up.  And, these include your beliefs about how you should be treated.  If you were right about them, then you would already be where you think your supposed to be—because you could never have gotten entangled with the wrong person.  If you manage to leave and you want to never be in that situation again, then you should remain alone until you've successfully rid yourself of the beliefs that lead to entanglement.  Unless I've misinterpreted Matt Kahn's teaching, this is essentially what he says.

Notice that without such a belief, that table shows that the results are good whether you stay or go.  And, won't your behavior change when your beliefs change.  Think about it; what will that lead to?  You'll stop retaliating.  You won't feel a need to retaliate.  It will change the way you respond.  It will change the way you treat others.  And, they will notice.  You bet they'll notice.  Don't they already notice when you seem moodier than usual?  Well, they sure will notice when you never seem to be moody anymore.  Every negative emotion you feel, every moody period, every bout of anger, is evidence that you need to examine your beliefs.

Looking back to the points about reward versus punishment, what do you imagine the World would look like if there was only reward for good behaviors, and no one ever needed to be punished—only offered compassion for their suffering.  People would be raised this way—just as the best pet trainers do today.  Again, I have to say how strange it is that we recognize that pets are best taught without punishment, but most humans grow up knowing very well what it means to be punished.  This is about the beliefs that exist in our culture, and they are at the core of our relationships.

I'm not going to say that anger is wrong.  But, if we examine what lies behind the anger, we might well find that the belief that led to the anger was not the only point of view.  I've already written about being able to have many points of view.  Having a narrow point of view is a sure way to lose freedom and being unhappy.

Don't get stuck in the belief that people should treat you well, or that they should treat each other well.  People are people.  They express emotion—often by acting out, often by some transgression against others.  We don't always put them in jail.  Sometimes we help them, sometimes with very positive results.  At this point, I unavoidably must quote Matt Kahn: “if you want others to treat you well, then treat others better than they treat you.”  (At the time of this writing, I'm quoting from memory and that wording is approximate.  TODO: verify that wording)

We can't expect people to treat others well, and we can't use punishment to encourage it.  We'll be more resilient when we discard such beliefs, and we'll stop reacting by punishing.  Without such beliefs, we'll react with compassion or we won't react at all.  And, it won't be forced; it will be genuine.  It will be genuine because we won't be fighting an expectation that wants to react with indignation and outrage.  “How dare you not honor the ‘shoulds’, the ‘musts’, and the ‘have tos’?”  Look what reacting in compassion does for a relationship.  You get what you need when you stop needing what you merely want.  And, those wants arise from unexamined social conditioning, and they persist as unexamined beliefs.

There's a lot of work to do here, and you don't have any idea how many levels there are left to go.  So you better get started—or you might slip back into numbness and end up just waiting for the next trigger.

Peace, Blessings, Insight, and Clarity


Nov. 8, 2019 Shadow
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May 14, 2017 Listing
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Jan. 14, 2017 WOT
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