Communication, Commitment, Compassion, Compatibility, Chemistry
[ As an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz 1983, I took a class “The Biology of Learning.” The capstone project was a research paper how people learn within a field involving a social construct. I chose romantic relationships. The concept of the Five Cs is entirely mine, derived from the research available at the time (drawn from disperse sources). The citations for the paper were on a different document that didn’t make it into my archives, so none are listed here. (The web didn’t yet exist, so I had to go to the actual library and look things up in physical books and magazines.) This paper is a simplistic undergraduate effort, but I find it fascinating to see how I was thinking at the age of 21. NOTE: I have edited this document to sharpen the clarity on several key points, but the text below is largely from its original form. ]
What people seek from relationships also evolves throughout the course of their lives, beginning at a very young age by observing parental behaviors. By the teenage years, they not only have their own empirical experiences, but learn the perspective of others through academics — writers throughout history, from the arts to the sciences, dedicated themselves to this uniquely human mystery. Understanding this complex ecosystem is not the goal of this paper. Rather, it is to deconstruct the components involved in romantic relationships, and explore the mechanisms by which these cognitive modules interact with one another.
While the lessons I’ve gleaned from this research may have certainly helped in my understanding how and why relationships form and thrive, my personal motive is more towards artificial intelligence. By deconstructing the elements of a relationship of any kind, I hope to establish a scheme by which one could simulate such relationships, albeit crudely. If one were to devise an artificial learning system to interact with humans based on these models, people would be more willing to engage with such systems for more practical (non-romantic) devices, such as automated robotic systems (potentially cars, medical care, household appliances). We may not see such systems for decades, but current pioneering research on expert systems is likely to be interested in how human relationships are modeled.
People conventionally assess and explain human relationships’ successes or failures by examining behavior patterns, such as honesty, respectfulness, listening, integrity, and other constructive exchanges. But it’s not that simple. Different personality types (which themselves may be attracted to either similar or opposite types) may demand that these expressions are both offered and received in different proportions to one another, and at different times. And this doesn’t even take into account power structures — social hierarchies, such as family, work, government, and other physical or symbolic degrees of authority. Navigating these interactions is almost a futile exercise in chaos theory.
Even relationships between “equals” — such as those in a romantic relationship, at least in most advanced western societies — have their own set of unique challenges, which is often lost or confused if there are pre-existing inequities between people, such as finances, career, education, or creative talents. Further strains may include psychological traumas, personal tragedies, family histories, mental dysfunctions or physical handicaps. Inequalities are not necessarily bad for a relationship — in fact, many people come together because of them (or use them to enhance bonding). Indeed, defining, let alone and maintaining, a sense of equality is highly subjective, and a couple’s ability to reach agreement on how and where boundaries lie is part of the challenge.
One measurement of the success of a relationship is whether both parties consider themselves to be content, fulfilled, productive, enriched, etc. With it comes trust and a greater willingness to engage in future unknown (or unpredictable) endeavors. Interestingly, studies show that individuals rate their own level of happiness most highly when they view the relationship as though it were an independent entity of its own. How people learn to build and maintain a relationship varies among cultures, but a common element for those who self-describe their relationships as positive focus less on themselves or their partner directly, but that of the relationship. When asked about their partner’s best attributes, few use adjectives, such as “honest” or “respectful,” etc. Instead, they say things more holistically and abstractly, such as, “They contribute to the relationship.”
This may feel like a distinction without a difference, but it matters when establishing a cognitive framework. When people are in a “happy” relationship, their behaviors are more natural; many use the expression “effortless.” By contrast, relationships in trouble describe incompatibilities at very fundamental levels, including differences in values, tastes, styles, and temperaments. When such people attempt to remedy a struggling relationship, some engage in “behavior modification” therapies, also known as CBT (cognitive behavior therapy). Here, professionals advise couples to modify behaviors to be more accommodating to the other person (or even the relationship). But this simplistic approach tends to be short-sighted because behaviors tend to follow what people intuitively understand about themselves and their partners. If one doesn’t understand the other person, attempting to accommodate them by parroting canned behaviors has a tendency to backfire. One must first understand the underlying conceptual frameworks for how people think about relationships holistically first, otherwise nothing is learned. Scripted phrases are merely a rote set of actions that does not engage the more permanent, long-term cognitive learning process.
To draw a simple analogy, someone without a sense of humor is unlikely to be a successful stand up comic. You can give an unfunny person scripted jokes, but humans have an innate sensibility for authenticity — if the person doesn’t understand why a given joke may be funny, it won’t be delivered in a manner that “clicks” with the audience. And the problem perpetuates with failure: Recovering from a failed performance is hard without more scripts to use as backup, and there can’t be an infinite supply of scripts. If instead, the “comedian” is given sufficient background on a topic, where they can learn about the subtle, possibly paradoxical nuances of a familiar experience — such as how a person unfamiliar with cooking attempts to make a bake a cake — the so-called “comic” will have a better holistic understanding of the topic, making it more likely they can deliver an authentic-sounding monologue.
A similar paradigm is needed for entering into and maintaining romantic relationships. One must begin with at least a basic understanding of certain core principles that are involved in relationships.
This is not to suggest that relationships are entirely intuitive. Even with a basic understanding of principles, actions still require technique, just as a comedian needs to perfect timing, tone and delivery. Even couples that express “effortlessness” were found to have gone through a series of stages where they needed to work together to reveal the hidden aspects about each other before they could finally solidify that long-term bond. (And these may include intermittent periods of conflict.)
Learning these fundamental, basic elements of human engagement are the Five Cs: Communication, Commitment, Compassion, Compatibility, and Chemistry. These core tenets combine with other personality traits that shape personality profiles, which then influence behaviors, which are ultimately expressed in actions (statements and deeds).
How people compartmentalize the different modules of their relationship within a cognitive framework reveals models by which better relationships are formed. If we can understand that, we can then extrapolate each component and consider applying certain heuristics appropriately for optimal outcomes.
Communication is about effectively articulating thoughts in such a way that the other person understands them as intended. Obviously, this is a two-way street; one’s partner has a responsibility in interpreting expressions with minimal bias towards self-interest. This simplistic definition is not intended to imply such a talent is easy. Quite the opposite — years of trials and errors are required to master this skill, and achievement is an arbitrary and abstract endpoint. Therefore, it should be regarded more as an aspiration: the goal of communicating constructively, with an eye towards achieving a better understanding of one’s partner. Communication is a tool to navigate towards resolution.
When conflicts arise, agreement isn’t the goal. Resolution is. This is an important distinction, because mere agreement is a form of temporary cease fire, a deferral of the underlying dispute for another time. Conversely, “resolution” has finality — it assures peace over a longer period of time, while also contributing to growth. Note that resolution does not require agreement — people can still differ on superficialities in a dispute while still coming to resolution on more fundamental principles.
A common example is spending time alone or together, or being a “morning person” or “night person.” These differences between couples can cause friction when one party is outside of their comfort zone. Two people can “agree” on ways to avoid conflict, but true “resolution” involves a deeper understanding of which issues are important to them, and being mindful and conscientious about them in daily interactions. Protocols that just avoid conflict are often destined to failure because they lack foundational root motivations.
People often erroneously feel that being “open” and “accepting” are all part of communication. In practice, people who posture “openness” are more looking to express an artificial goodwill to keep the discussion positive, but such patterns tend to be shallow and transparent; ie., inauthentic. To truly be open, one must actually follow the other person’s reasoning to understand how they draw conclusions, even if one doesn’t agree with them. As it happens, either partner may have faulty reasoning, so the exercise may be fraught with speed bumps along the way. (And yes, someone can be solely “at fault” in a dispute, and it takes particularly strong individuals to be willing to accept being entirely wrong in any given case.) Still, it’s discovering and remedying these problems that become an essential part of communication, leading to a constructive way to build the relationship. All of this can be learned in much the same way that new paradigms of understanding are attained when broaching new and complex subjects. Using this kind of language to characterize learning may help in this larger understanding.
One byproduct of resolution often implies “change” by either or both parties. This can be particularly difficult because change itself can trigger cognitive dissonance: One often associates the “need to change” as another way of saying, “I was wrong.” And this leads to a downward spiral of recrimination: Being wrong implies fault, which thereby implies faulty character. And one’s “character” lies at the root of one’s self-identity and self-esteem. Once again, to agree to “change” something about oneself, or to admit being wrong in a situation, risks one becoming subservient to the other — as if a debt was owed that can never be repaid. These “blame game” dysfunctions further accelerate and accentuate a downward spiral.
In reality, change is healthy for the relationship, and should be recognized and rewarded as such. This can be accomplished through communication in combination with compassion and expressions of commitment. A stated desire to care for the other party contributes to the overarching thesis of the relationship. To put a positive spin on it, “change” is akin to “learning.” Indeed, several studies show that even one partner can set the stage for this sort of positive reinforcement, and the other partner follows suit.
Commitment is a frame of mind: A commitment-minded person is one who doesn’t think about giving up a task before its completion or resolution. Whether it’s a job, school, a hobby or any other project, a commitment is a mindset that allows someone to complete a goal. Yes, some tasks can get rough and uncomfortable, and one’s level of commitment often dictates whether they can work through those challenges.
The role of commitment in a relationship is not so much that both people have the same level of commitment towards one another, only that their respective commitment profiles are acceptable by the other. When both feel comfortable with whatever that equilibrium is, it’s usually evident by virtue of a healthy relationship.
Someone who doesn’t value a relationship (relative to other things in life, such as career, hobbies, or other interests) is not likely to work through a disagreement with a partner that needs more equilibrium. On the other hand, such a person may do fine if their partner is comfortable with such conditions. In such cases, these individuals are more likely to be more independent in their lives. For this reasons, traits such as excessively low or high self-esteem, while not regarded as “positive,” people with these traits can still be in healthy relationships when paired with a partner whose personality is accommodative. The phrase “opposites attract” applies here.
On the other hand, “birds of feather flock together” also comes to mind. People who are “fiercely independent” may find a relationship satisfactory with another like-minded person. The same is true for highly needy people who may have a difficult time being alone, or who demand considerable attention from their partners. In either case, there’s no dysfunction in being under-committed or overly-committed. It’s whether each person’s individual level of commitment is satisfactory to the other.
The scariest part of commitment is its implication of permanence. Most who use the term “commitment” towards their partners have confessed they were initially resistant to stating it, even though they had felt strongly towards that commitment before having done so. Commitment and trust are almost interchangeable in this context. As Hemingway famously said, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” By the same token, making a commitment to someone is often the best way to realize it was the right choice.
Disagreements will happen, but these are opportunities to gauge communication, compassion and commitment to reach resolution, which itself builds the fortress of commitment. If one is inclined to terminate a potential relationship at the first sign of trouble — or rather, before both parties have had a chance to learn and adapt to the other — they are less likely to make long-term commitments.
Compassion is also a frame of mind. It is more than just having a sense of another person. That’s empathy, which is the ability to sense others —e.g., reading body language, sensing emotional changes, and realizing how one’s own behaviors affect the other person. This is important, but compassion goes to the next level — it stimulates an emotional bonding that translates into tangible actions.
Whenever relationships don’t work, it’s almost always that either or both partners are not looking at the other person’s point of view and appreciating the backstory on how and why they feel as they do. Such an investment of emotional attention and willingness requires compassion. It’s at this point that a circular dependency kicks in: To make the investment of compassion, one usually relies on a sense of commitment (both offered and received). And one doesn’t feel a desire (or need) to express commitment without seeing evidence of compassion.
But this perception is not Real (in the Lacanian sense of the word). Compassion is a “frame of mind,” in that people naturally develop this sense as a byproduct of the human condition. The degree in which they may use or suppress this instinct is often rooted in psychological biases at another level, beyond the scope of this paper.
As such, compassion is difficult to artificially stimulate between people who can sense authenticity. While one can certainly become skilled at the practice of psychological sleight of hand — to pretend to be compassionate — the practice risks giving an inauthentic expression.
There’s also confirmation bias, where one simply has it set in their minds that they are being victimized by their partner. (Those with strong personalities are often accused of such behaviors.) It’s also invariably the case that each side thinks they are considering the other person’s side, but it’s the other side that doesn’t recognize them. This is an important aspect to conflict resolution because compatibility is a very important factor in the equation. At the end of the day, true and authentic compassion usually results in less conflict during disagreements and a shorter path to resolution.
Compatibility is relatively straightforward. Similar tastes, lifestyles, political or religious views, etc. This doesn’t suggest that two people have the same tastes or agree all the time — it’s more about the compatibility of ideas. People with dominant personalities often seek submissive partners (and vice versa). Such is the case with compatibility — sometimes opposites attract.
Evaluating the degree of compatibility is obviously highly subjective, and therefore difficult to measure. The key to getting a realistic perspective on compatibility is understanding your own sense of what is important to you. Younger people are more elastic and resilient, often finding new experiences exhilarating, bringing them closer to their partners with whom they’ve shared those experiences. By contrast, studies show that older people become more set in their ways, have established their personal identities, and are less eager to change for the benefit of another, yet paradoxically expect potential partners to meld into their lives. One study cited a couple in their 50s who’d been together for 30 years. The man said, “When we were young, we grew together; and when we’re much older, it’ll be fine to just be together.”
While sharing big-picture values and histories may be a good foundation for many couples, it’s the Tuesday and Thursday evenings that are better forecasting tools for how well people get along on a day-to-day basis. Special events don’t draw out people’s normal, natural behaviors, especially when they don’t know each other well enough. In a survey, one subject said, “If you can see a movie and have a good, stimulating discussion — regardless of whether you agree on your reviews — then this is a sign of strong compatibility. If you are deeply moved by a film and your partner is not, then there is a potential for incompatibility.”
Compatibility is not binary, it’s a spectrum. And areas of incompatibility do not necessarily imply anything bad. Compassion and Commitment come into play during these experiences, expressed by Communication.
Chemistry is the wildcard: “Sometimes, you just have to be around the other person because they simply turn you on.” This isn’t necessarily always sexual. Even doing the dishes together can be bonding and even arousing for some. Of course, the opposite can happen, that you can’t stand being around someone, and you just don’t know why, even if you share other Cs. Working partners, “friends” and other daily activities between people can find good relationships because four of the five Cs work out, but chemistry is required to spark romance. The reason “chemistry” is the wildcard is because it can trump all the other C’s. That is, people may remain together for this humanistic urge, despite their lack of functional patterns that the other Cs usually predict.
The problem with chemistry is its inconsistency, especially in the beginning of a relationship. One may feel strongly about someone at first, but differently a week later, or under a different set of conditions. And of course, vice versa — people find their chemistry grows stronger as other aspects of a relationship develop. This latter case has been the basis for the “friends first” theory, where the best relationships are those that start out as friends. While this is romantic, its main rationale was that entering into a physical/romantic relationship with someone too soon may create more emotional trauma if the relationship ends early once the deeper elements emerge. While there certainly is benefit to averting heartache, statistically, this rationale doesn’t hold up. The likelihood of entering into a “successful” long-term relationship is equally possible in either case. One could argue that ruling out one of these options reduces the likelihood of finding such a relationship by 50%.
This is why dating is hard — people often place a disproportionate weighting on the initial chemistry reading (in either direction), failing to recognize that a second chance often yields a very different read. Too many relationships end prematurely because time wasn’t given to see where the chemistry between people stabilizes. This volatility is largely because the other Cs need experiences to reveal themselves. As people find other common areas of compatibility and their communication styles are scintillating, chemistry has a tendency to grow.
The Five Cs are intended to illustrate basic fundamental traits that, taken as a whole, determine relationship outcomes. Each of the Cs are not binary in nature; they lie along a spectrum, and can even rise and fall temporally, like the graph of an audio equalizer as the music thumps. Experiences between people are required to see where averages fall, where dividing lines between partners emerge. When evaluating prospective partners, or working through challenging times in an established relationship, simply focusing on actions and words as guides to either form or repair a relationship is too simplistic. People will almost always instinctively react to real time stimuli using intuitive, natural responses, which are those found in the Five Cs. While no relationship is perfect, the best relationships are those where people are willing to allow themselves to stretch just a bit for the benefit of the relationship. The willingness to change is what resolves conflicts and results in a stronger bi-directional bond. This is a process that requires commitment and communication, but whose motivations are rooted in a shared feeling of compassion for the other, a compatibility of livelihood, and an underlying chemistry.