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How a Simple Children's Game Explains Relationships

A 3-factor understanding of what makes love soar or sour.

This post is in response to
Is Gratitude the Antidote to Relationship Failure?
(c) fotosearch
Source: (c) fotosearch

As a couples therapist, and also in my Power of Two books and online marriage education program, I teach three essential relationship skill sets: anger management, effective communication/conflict resolution, and positivity.

Which of these three areas is most fundamental to building a positive relationship? All of them are vital. So here’s my hypothesis about their relative importance. This trio of factors form a three-part circular-causation phenomenon.

A children's game illustrates this kind of relationship between three factors. When I was a kid we called it Paper, Stone and Scissors. My grandson calls it Rock, Paper, Scissors. Same game. See Wikipedia for a lovely chart that illustrates it.

Paper, Stone and Scissors ... Rock, Paper, Scissors

In this game, players count to three. Each player then shoots out their hand with it formed into one of three options:

  • palm-open (paper),
  • palm closed in a fist (stone) or
  • palm open with two fingers out in a V (scissors).

Paper wins over stone, rock breaks (and therefore triumphs over) scissors, and scissors cuts (and therefore beats) paper.

So it is in relationships.

Positivity trumps skills.

Positivity invites a return of positivity. As a result, even if people don’t quite know collaborative dialogue and conflict resolution skills, goodwill is likely to prevail whenever they interact.

Skills trump anger.

Skills prevent a person from saying things in a manner that is unintentionally provocative. Expressing your concerns with an “I statement” for instance is a simple skill that can eliminate much needless irritation in relationships. Similarly, starting your responses to what others say with “Yes…” instead of “But” or, equally problematic, “Yes, but…” also prevents anger from rising up in the person with whom you are conversing.

Anger trumps positivity.

You can be nice over and over, and at the same time just one anger outburst and the person on whom you have dumped your frustrations is likely to no longer will feel positive toward you for a long long time. Even occasional sarcastic digs will be enough to erase weeks or months of positive gratitude and other positives that you have been expressing prior to, and after, your hostile comment. Better to learn how to stop arguing.

Circular causality and the trio of positivity, cooperative communication and conflict resolution skills, and anger.

All three elements of the paper, stone and scissors of relationships matter, for better or for worse.

Increase positivity, and everyone spontaneous rediscovers the best of their communication and conflict resolution skills...which leads to all participants being more able to sustain a calm emotion zone and therefore ever more positivity and ...

Increase your collaborative communication skill also will upgrade invite improvement in all three. That's a spiral toward ever-betterment.

Here's the for worse part. Anger can downgrade any one of the other two factors. Anger puts a relationship at risk for spiraling downward.

So the moral of the story is...

Good vibes, effective collaborative communication skills, and consistently non-angry emotions create a reliable trio. Together they can sustain lifelong positive personal partnerships, excellent business relationships, parenting in a manner that raises happy, emotionally healthy and well-prepared-for-adulthood kids, and, let's hope, an ever-better world.



(c) Susan Heitler, PhD
Source: (c) Susan Heitler, PhD

Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, specializes in relationship rescue. Dr. Heitler is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teach not-yet-married, married, and divorced folks the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.

Click here for a free Power of Two relationship quiz.

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