Years ago, I learned a useful model for negotiating relationship issues, which was to separate problems into three components: (a) the facts of a situation; (b) how you feel as a result of the situation; and (c) the story you make up in your head as to why the situation exists.
It is probably best to give an example. My wife comes to me and says, “You have been going to bed earlier and earlier (fact). It has left me feeling kind of abandoned (how she feels). In my head, I keep thinking ‘Well, I guess whatever he does when he gets up so early is more important than time with me’ (the story she has constructed as to my rationale).”
So, I sit with that for a minute before responding. If we agree on the facts (which we do), I turn next to her feelings, which are inarguable. I certainly don’t like her feeling abandoned, as that is not my intention, so we work from there as to what my reasons are for going to bed at 8:30 at night, and try to figure out a way to get more time together at night.
I say all of that to say this: the most common mistake we make in relationships is confusing facts with emotions, facts with stories-in-our-heads, or emotions with stories-in-our-heads.
In the example I just gave, my wife might have said that “You’ve decided whatever you do when you get up so early is more important than me” is not a story-made-up-in-her-head but a fact. If that was the case, there would be no ground to have any kind of constructive dialogue, because she would have already declared my motives as known to her, which they weren’t.
Our tendency to do this is usually directly related to the strength of the emotions involved, and feeling abandoned in a relationship is a terrible feeling if ever there was one.
We do well always to remember that we do not know why people do things, and that no matter how confidently we assert that we do, our explanations are really just made-up stories.
We often find, when we look at issues in the public sphere, that the same sort of distinctions are useful. We should know the difference in the facts of a situation, what our emotions are, and the degree to which we make up stories as to why people think or act as they do.
We’ve almost all had the jarring experience, in public discussions, of having other people tell us why we think the way we think — and it is never for flattering reasons. Argument in these situations is fruitless, because our interlocutor has adopted some made-up-story about us as fact.
Virtually all political sloganeering takes advantage of the confusion between facts and made-up-stories: these types of constructs are easy to spot when used against us, and harder to spot when we go along with them.
Let’s start, by way of example, with an argument about tax policy, since those arguments have been going on for as long as their has been minted or printed money.
One side usually says something to the effect of “this is all a power grab, and it’s about controlling as much of the economy, and hence your lives, as possible. The people doing it think you are too stupid to make decisions for yourselves, and that they can spend your money more wisely than you can.”
The other side typically says something alongs the lines of “we are trying to insure a more fair and just society, which will not happen through our current system of unfair tax breaks for the rich, which only people who benefit from the current system are in favor of, because it advantages them; their desire is to perpetuate all of their current privileges.”
As a brief digression, the history of sports is where we go next. Organized sports were originally encouraged as a way to channel people’s natural aggressiveness into what were deemed healthier ways.
Human beings have been attacking, enslaving, and even killing each other for almost as long as there have been human beings; this is generally accepted as a fact. The reasons why people do so, however, is and has been a subject of considerable disagreement. At the time organized sports were first taking something like their recognizable modern forms, psychological and biological explanations centered around aggressiveness (particularly among boys and young men) as genetic facts that we could either channel or face the undesirable social consequences of.
Since these explanations were not in any major way at variance with the reigning religious views of the time, sports grew in popularity, among both children and young adults, as a healthy way of channeling aggression among the players. More surprisingly, however, it also provided a way to channel the aggression of the followers who gathered to watch the teams.
Fans of sports teams are interesting to look at, as the psychology of players is extensively catalogued and studied, but the psychology and behavior of fans, less so.
Players typically come to sports from every type of situation and background, and display every bit of the wide diversity of human experience that any endeavor has to offer. Almost as a corollary, the reasons why players play varies immensely, although the elements of enjoying competition, camaraderie, excellence, fame, and power (money) typically make up some part of it.
With fans, the variety is just as great, but the reasons are more obscure. A lot of players of sports think that their fans are simply trying to vicariously feel what players feel, i.e., that fans are essentially cosplayers, dressing up in the team’s colors, referring to the team as “we”, and other signs of enjoyment-by-role-playing.
However, many fans become so out of family or area loyalty; from genuine love of the sport; because of interest in or respect for certain individual players or coaches; or even as a way of relating to their own friends who are fans.
Aggression among sports fans is a subject that was studied, intensively, during and after the peak period of football (soccer) hooliganism. The relationship between sports and violence is not a surprising one, when it exists, if you think about why sports was developed in the first place. Because those reasons have largely been forgotten, even the playing of sports is now often looked at as being a cause of violence rather than a healthy channel for it. There are, of course, legitimate arguments that can be made as to that assertion.
One particular part of sports worth looking at are what in America are called “rivalries”, which are usually between teams that play each other often and, for whatever reasons, have particularly intense reasons to hate losing to the other side.
Very often these teams are located close together, geographically; in the U.K., they are often referred to as “local derbies”. An example of this would be between Celtic and Rangers, both association football teams from Glasgow, Scotland, or between the Alabama and Auburn college football teams, located about 125 miles apart in the same state of the United States. Other times, they are between the best teams or teams with the largest numbers of fans, such as between the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, or between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
One of the main features of rivalries is the degree to which fans of team A learn to hate and despise team B. It is not discouraged (as hatred of most kinds typically is, with children) it is encouraged. Taught. Modeled.
So long as fans keep their dislike of other teams to things like booing them (at live events) or maybe publishing memes making fun of them (the modern pandemic equivalent) it’s all just fun and no one gets hurt; hence it constitutes what has been called “a healthy channel for aggression” earlier in the article.
However, once it involves things outside these proscribed limits, it can become “unhealthy aggression” — throwing things at the other team, calling them offensive names that have nothing-to-do-with-the-sport, posting death threats, defacing other people’s property, etc., etc..
The Internet actually facilitates displays of unhealthy aggression, as, unlike a live event, it is possible to call people names all day and never get caught at it. In fact, I could argue that much behavior on the Internet seems to agree with the 19th century conclusion that people are aggressive by nature and need healthy outlets for it, or they will be more violent and abusive than a society should want to allow.
Much of politics takes on the worst aspects, these days, of sports rivalries. On top of the logical mistake of confusing made-up-stories about people’s motivations for facts, we add to it that people are often taught, from birth, to hate the other side in a reflexive way, or they come upon the view later in life as the only view allowable in order to be initiated into the tribe.
What this does, of course, it make mediation between opposing views next-to-impossible; and, if the other side is evil by definition, why would you even consider it?
People will question anything before they question what they do without thinking, but those are the very things about ourselves we should question.
In our personal lives, the model referenced at the top of this article is, I believe, a useful one for avoiding the worst types of relationship misunderstandings. It does, however, involve a willingness to give up many of our own mental shortcuts, as you may find, if you try to practice it, that the number of stories-you-make-up-in-your-head is far larger than you may have suspected.
As for my wife and me, we worked out a system where she lets me know when she is going to need extra time with me at night, and I try, on days where I am not working the next morning, to plan for more time that we can spend together.
Because I never want her feeling like I’ve abandoned her, not even for a second.