In every love relationship I’ve ever had, my partner and I sooner or later discover a way in which we are quicksand to each other. You know how with quicksand the more you try to save yourself the faster you sink? It’s like that, only we do it to each other.

Here’s an example of how it works: When I feel stress I tend to want to talk, to work things out, and being unable to do it can cause me more stress. If my partner is someone who prefers quiet when stressed and gets more stressed when deprived of the quiet she wants, all is well until it isn’t. Whatever thing-little or big, real or imagined-causes the initial stress will make me want to talk more and my partner to talk less. My talk causes her more stress, which makes her want to talk still less. Her silence causes me more stress, which makes me want to talk still more. The more she does what she thinks will improve her situation (silence) the more she sinks into the stress of my reaction (talk) and vice versa.

Such reciprocal quicksands take many forms. They’re like wheels that become increasingly wobbly the more out of true they are. For example, if one partner is even slightly more into the other, the imbalance can grow. Alan wants more time with Beth. The less Beth is available the more Alan worries that he’s losing her. The more anxious Alan gets, the less time Beth wants to spend with him. They’re fine so long as nothing triggers an imbalance, but once it does, the problem snowballs, accelerating an accumulation of difficulty.

Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup

Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup


The technical name for these reciprocal quicksands is positive feedback loops. I prefer to call them amplifying feedback loops, because people tend to think of positive as good, and these feedback loops can as easily be bad as good. We call the bad ones vicious cycles and the good ones virtuous cycles.

As the story goes, when someone asked Einstein what he considered the universe’s most amazing phenomenon, he instantly replied, “Compound interest.” He wasn’t merely talking finance. Compound interest, broadly defined, is what we call it when a system’s product is capable of producing more product and is fed back into the system. Thus if the money in your bank account makes money that gets added into the bank account, the system overall will generate money at an accelerating rate. Similarly, my partner’s stress and my stress being fed back into our relationship to generate more stress would be an example of compound interest on stress. Population booms (kids making kids), autocatalysis (catalysts making more catalysts), avalanches (sliding snow making more snow slide), the rich getting richer (profits making profits), the poor getting poorer (disadvantage breeding disadvantage)-these are all examples of systems with compound interest and the resulting amplifying feedback loops.

We don’t pay these feedback loops nearly enough attention. In couples, how they’re attended to can make or break the relationship. Many relationships end simply because the couple never expected to have such feedback loops. They assume that good relationships don’t have them, so the loop means their chemistry is bad.

Many relationships end because one partner misinterprets the loop as the other partner’s fault and failing. For example, that’s what I’d be doing if I were to say to my partner, “When I’m already feeling stressed you seem to go out of your way to cause me greater stress. You must have it in for me. I don’t have this problem with other people, so it must be you.”

Many end because the other partner feels unjustly blamed. And many end with both partners blaming each other for the feedback loop that formed between them.

Indeed, many partnerships should end because their feedback loops have gone totally out of control. Sometimes the chemistry really is insurmountably bad. But often a little preventive maintenance would have tamed the loop before it got out of hand, saving the partners a lot of waste and grief. Here are a few loop-management tips:

1. Don’t panic, it’s organic: Einstein says “compound interest” and the husband and wife look at each other in panic: “Was he spying on us? How else could he have known?” The positive feedback loops caused by compounding interest are everywhere, inevitable in any partnership-and not just love relationships, either. So don’t panic if you happen to find one in your partnership. All it means is that you’ve been together long enough to have stepped on the trigger once or twice. And yes, these feedback loops really are organic. Origins-of-life researchers conclude that positive feedback loops are even implicated in the emergence of life from non-life.

2. Drive all blames to one: That’s a line from Tibetan Lojon meditation practice (as espoused by Pema Chodron). It means the root causes of any and all particular problems are woven indelibly into the whole fabric of life, the human condition, even the living condition. If Einstein and the origins-of-life researchers are right, then drive all blames to positive feedback loops themselves. Your positive feedback loop is neither your own nor your partner’s fault. Because such loops are by their nature self-perpetuating, neither of you need be blamed as the perpetrator. So when you refer to your loop, use an endearing yet diminutive name, one that makes it sound like your copy of what is standard issue to all relationships. Call it your pet loop. Say, “we’re playing our song.”

3. What starts it is not what causes it: People naturally assume that what starts a problem is what causes the problem, but that assumption doesn’t apply to feedback loops. The force it takes to pull the trigger is not the force that propels the bullet. You have to have a gun to produce a bullet’s force from that minor tug on a bit of metal, and you have to have a feedback loop for whatever triggers it to turn into a big force. If you blame yourself or each other for the drama a feedback loop generates, your feedback loops will breed other feedback loops. The most common offspring bred by any feedback loop within in a partnership is an escalating argument about what started the loop. For instance, if under stress I want to talk more and my partner wants to talk less, we could end up shifting the fight to the question of who made the mistake that started our fight. She might say it started when I imposed some comment on her. I might say it started when she didn’t reply to me. We both think the other person is recording the start wrong. But since the loop-like all feedback loops-is an intrinsically hair-trigger phenomenon, it hardly matters what started it.

4. To name it is to tame it: After you and your partner have stepped on the trigger and been spun out on the loop a few times, you may begin to recognize the pattern. Together, in some relaxed period when you’re not in the loop or anywhere near it, see if you can collaboratively identify the loop itself. Adopt a neutral, systems-level approach, describing it more the way you would describe a machine than the way you would describe each other’s personal choices. Employ the power of neutral thinking. Set the subtle psychodynamics aside. Don’t psychoanalyze each other. (For example, avoid things like “in the loop you do X because your mother was such a cold person.”) Describe it as “there’s a reciprocal relationship between thing A doing X and thing B doing Y.” Don’t focus on which of you starts it. Keep in mind that it’s very hard to stay out of blaming each other for what is really the loop’s fault.

5. Preventives and dampers: After you’ve got a decent description of your pet loop, the next question is how to damp it down. Here, get creative but above all pragmatic. Think about ways to keep from triggering it, ways to defuse triggers, ways to keep from feeling tempted to trigger it, ways to break the cycle even temporarily (taking an hour apart, for example) so as to slow its escalation, and ways to dampen it once it’s in full swing. Try to make this as collaborative a conversation as possible. If one person is engineering the whole solution, it’s hard for both people to feel real buy-in. Call in a third party if necessary. And above all, watch out for the temptation to fall into the loop while trying to design ways to avoid falling into it. Beware as always of loaded language. And be realistic. This is no time for moralizing talk about what one should do if one were perfectly reasonable. Deal with the people you are and not the people you wish you were. Scale your ambitions appropriately. In my experience a sign that a relationship is on its last legs is when my partner and I are spending increasing amounts of time making pledges to be some different way “from now on.” It’s not easy or reliable to consistently override your own gut with some pledge like “from now on I’ll appreciate you more” (see Gumming).

6. Patience but not too much: Love is an investment, a pledge to a slow-update rate on reevaluating your commitment. It’s important to invest the necessary time to give your relationship its best shot at success. At its best, the unspoken partnership agreement would include a clause committing you both to Inevitable Feedback Loop Management Duty. Unwillingness to invest the requisite time is often evidence of lack of commitment, or of unrealistic expectations that it’s possible to have a partnership without having its accompanying feedback loops.

Still, if you find yourself in the loops too often-if your tools for prevention and dampening aren’t up to the task of limiting them, and if you find they’re not worth it, patience can become a vice instead of a virtue. The more often one falls into a bad habit the easier it is to fall into it. I’ve been in relationships in which by the end we were spending more time in our rut than out of it. In those cases, my ex and I are both glad we finally broke away. If you’re spending too much time in a rut, find another partner who brings out less quicksand in you and affords you less quicksand to sink into. How much is too much, of course, remains an open question.