freestocks.org, used with permission
Source: freestocks.org, used with permission

As Valentine’s Day approaches, men and women across the world will be reflecting on their romantic relationship, and how it can be enhanced, enriched and improved.

Sadly, many romantic relationships flounder on minor misunderstandings, which can often escalate into full-scale crisis. These misunderstandings may be diminished, through enhancing what is known in social science as inter-subjectivity.

Inter-subjectivity

Inter-subjectivity refers to the ability to deeply understand the subjective experience of another person. This includes recognizing that the human mind often wonders through time.

The mind can be directed at people, places and events far away in the past or envisioned far in the future. In other words, minds may be conscious of things unrelated to the present moment.

Inter-subjectivity can be enhanced through thoughtful consideration of the distinction between internal events and external events.

Examples of external events are interpersonal interactions or happenings witnessed in the outside world in the here and now. Internal events include vivid memories from the past or day-dreams about the future.  

Comprehending the difference between internal and external events, and the interaction between the two, may be essential to understanding mood or behavioral changes in a romantic partner. Such changes can occur in light of an overwhelming internal event, which by definition may not be visible or easily comprehensible to another.

Individual Frameworks of Meaning

Internal events can be provoked by a variety of stimuli. For example, mild external events can precipitate severe internal events. This stems from a psychological truism that each individual perceives and reacts to objects, situations and events differently.

For example, a backfiring car may be meaningless to a construction engineer, but may provoke a stressful internal reaction in someone who witnessed battle as a child.

In fact, there is a complex relationship between everyday experiences and the internal world. Everyday experiences are generally interpreted through individual frameworks of meaning, which can heavily influence the internal world.

These frameworks can structure a loose action-reaction relationship in the human mind. An external event is the action and the individual reacts with an internal event.

For example, a man who has experienced repeated romantic betrayal may possess a framework that configures around a belief that women cannot be trusted. When a new romantic relationship begins, a mild event such as the partner arriving late for a date (the action), can provoke a maladaptive internal event, with the man imagining the worst regarding the lateness (the reaction).

Was she seeing another man? Was she on the Internet arranging dates? Is she leading a double-life? The internal event may be severe, even if the external event was not, as the action-reaction interact idiosyncratically.

Catastrophizing

The differential role of internal and external events explains why circumstances that may seem insignificant to one romantic partner maybe potentially catastrophic for the other.

For example, prolonged eye contact from a romantic partner is an external event. This will provoke a pleasing internal event in most individuals, but others (for example, victims of intimate partner violence) may find it threatening or disturbing.

Those vulnerable to catastrophic internal events may identify and avoid threats (or potential threats) to escape perceived negative consequences. This can be incapacitating; for example the person who refuses to commit to a blossoming romantic relationship because they imagine betrayal or abandonment in the future.

In these cases, dysfunctional individual frameworks can prevent growth and learning.

Promoting Empathy

In short, moods and behaviors are constantly affected by internal and external events. Awareness of this complex interplay can enhance inter-subjectivity. Knowing that the subjective experience of partners is heavily coloured by internal events can prevent misunderstandings about the nature or origin of any mood or behavioral changes.

Inter-subjectivity can promote true and deep empathy between two humans; bringing greater health, happiness and humanity to romantic relationships.

Remember this, as Valentine’s Day approaches.

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