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Don't Do What I Do: How Getting Out Of Sync Can Help Relationships

"Whatever! Just leave me alone!"

Tammy stomps her feet up the stairs to the bedroom. A few moments later she slams the door, leaving for work. Jack is exasperated, angry and hurt. He wanted to rush outside and demand that Tammy treat him with respect. He imagined giving her the silent treatment until she apologized. But he knew this would prolong the fight and compound the resentment.

He goes upstairs, tidies their room and does her laundry. He arranges some flowers on their nightstand and goes to work.

Tammy gets home ragged from a long day, sneers at Jack briefly over the edge of her phone and goes upstairs knowing that her laundry needs to be done before work tomorrow morning. After a few moments she comes down the stairs sheepishly, with a gentleness on her face. "Did you do my laundry?"

"Yes," he says.

"And the flowers?"

"I know how stressful work has been. I feel bad about how things went this morning, and I thought they might cheer you up."

"They did. I am sorry."

"Me too."

What Jack did in this fictional scenario was difficult and counterintuitive. It could feel like giving up too much and setting yourself up for being taken advantage of. Why should he have to do something nice for Tammy? She was rude and she owed him an apology.

But it worked. He lost the battle in order to win the war. And in the end the couple joined around the fact that the stresses of life are the enemy, and they are on the same team.

The typical course of action would be for Tammy's cold behavior to lead to Jack being cold, which would in turn lead to even colder behavior by Tammy, and so on. Psychologists call this pattern complementarity, and there are two varieties. The first is that warmth begets warmth whereas coldness begets coldness, as in the case of Jack's initial impulse to give Tammy the silent treatment.

The second is that dominance begets submission whereas submission begets dominance. For instance, some clients submissively say to their therapists: "Doc, I just don't know what to do. I feel like I have tried everything and I am out of ideas. I sure hope you can help." The therapist might respond with complementarity: "I understand. I have some experience with clients like you and I think I can help. Let's start with some assessments to get a better idea about what is going on."

Alternatively, a dominant client might open with: "My problem is depression. I have been depressed before, and what I really need is someone who will listen — to give me a place to talk about my problems without trying to do too much." The complementary therapist might say, "It sounds like you have done a lot of thinking about this, and I am interested in learning more about your situation. I hope I can help."

Complementarity is generally natural and easy. If someone is nice to you, you tend to be nice back. If they're not nice, then why should you be? If someone seems to know what they are doing, it is natural to follow. And when you are in charge, it is easiest if others do what you say.

Noncomplementary behavior is more difficult, but sometimes it is the best choice. Jack's warm response to Tammy's coldness led to her apology, which is what he really wanted and would have been unlikely to receive with the silent treatment.

Research suggests that complementary behavior by therapists is good for building an alliance, which turns out to be really important for helping clients feel better. However, noncomplementary behavior is linked with clients' behavior change.

The submissive client may feel more comfortable with a therapist who tells him what to do. But if he is to learn how to be more assertive, he needs a therapist who will occasionally say: "You know, this is a time when I don't have an answer — you are going to have to figure it out for yourself." The client may become anxious and insecure, but ultimately may also learn to practice a new approach to solving life's problems.

Similarly, the dominant client might need a therapist who will sometimes say: "So you have always had the answers, but at the same time you are here because your solutions have not been working. Friends tell you that you are too bossy and critical, and your automatic response is that they need to be tougher. But I think sometimes they are right, and by shutting them down you are also shutting them out of your life. Then you don't get the support you need, and feel lonely and depressed."

This is a threatening thing for a dominant client to hear, but again, it is the kind of response that may help her see things a different way and change her behavior so that she is more likely to get her needs met.

Noncomplementarity is uncomfortable, can threaten relationships, and should be used with care. If you are always warm to a cold person, you can become a pushover. Meeting dominance with dominance can result in a fight, whereas being submissive with a submissive person can lead to inaction and boredom. Strategic interpersonal behavior in any form can feel manipulative and inauthentic.

However, in psychotherapy, the idea is that occasional, high-impact noncomplementary moments can have a positive impact in the context of a trusting relationship, and this principle generalizes to other relationships as well.

Christopher J. Hopwood is an associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University who researches noncomplementary behavior. NPR's Invisibilia podcast and show explores real-life experiments in noncomplementarity, including a Danish city where police embraced young Muslim residents who were becoming radicalized and a dinner party that was suddenly interrupted by a stranger.

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Christopher J. Hopwood