Human Interaction has Rhythms

"Stressed Mother with Baby" by Bhakti2
“Stressed Mother with Baby” by Bhakti2

Most of my week with my (20 month-old) son has been fantastic this week. He’s started to put words together to describe things that interest him (“bottle-water”, “blue car!”) Yesterday I took him out to my barber’s for a haircut and bought him Lunch while we were out, he was able to sit in a chair on his own, and eat his sandwich without me cutting it up for him. He sat almost perfectly still for the barber on a booster seat while he got a haircut. He uses the ASL sign for “please” almost every time he asks me for something. We have played, cuddled, and gone on adventures together… but then there was this morning.

This morning, the boy nearly broke a quadcopter that I let him handle I trust him with my aircraft because he is normally gentle and listens when I ask him to stop doing something. He insisted on leaning against a window screen (which is against our established rules), and when I told him to stop, he kicked the screen hard enough to tear it at the edge. He then head-butted me when I moved him away from the screen. He threw food, and a drink cup at me, he hit the cat, threw a rubber duck into my (not empty) coffee cup – and using a stepping-stool – started dragging things off of the kitchen counter and turning appliances on. Naturally, he had epic fits when I put an end to any of it. My polite, clever, and cooperative son turned into a hellish little brat.

And I was not surprised.

Every day this week, I have encouraged my son to do new things: To use his signs (and words) more effectively; to climb into his car seat on his own; to eat more like an adult; to sit like a big boy; to help me in the kitchen. I have let him try and do new things. That meant that I was letting him expand his boundaries.

Our boundaries in intimate relationships often have to change as the relationship matures. With your kids, this is obvious: you have to let kids explore and do more as their capabilities expand, or you will stunt their growth. It is also true of many other relationships: in friendships, when you ask favours, grant them, let people in on secrets, or try new activities together, your boundaries are going to shift. In romantic relationships, every milestone, from the second date to the first time you have sex, from the first time you say “I love you” to cohabiting and celebrating holidays together, all come with major shifts in boundaries.

Even seemingly straightforward relationships like coworkers have shifting boundaries as projects come and go and people change positions.

But boundaries are what makes us comfortable with other people. When boundaries shift, we immediately feel insecure. We no longer know what the rules are. It is an uncomfortable position to be in. Our natural instinct is to test those boundaries until we get push-back; to see just how far we are allowed to go with the other person.

The end result is that whenever we do something kind for people, there is a chance that the will feed their need for clear boundaries with a test. This might be a little extra rudeness, a show of ingratitude, trying to take advantage of our generosity, feelings of suspicion about the kind thing we did, a request for even more.

This is a primal urge for human beings. It is a core part of our status-seeking mechanism. It takes extraordinary self-awareness to understand why we feel the need to repay kindness by acting like a bit of a jerk.

It creates a very predictable pattern in human interactions:

  • Person A opens up a boundary by doing something kind for Person B.
  • Person B is grateful at first.
  • Person B begins to feel insecure, they need to know where they stand with Person A.
  • Person B finds a way to push Person A with some minor obnoxious behaviour.
  • Person A pushes back on Person B.
  • Person B feels like they know where they stand, and can finally relax.
  • Person A now has to decide how they feel about Person B’s test they might have to test Person B back.

Thankfully, cultures provide all kinds of schema for doing this in a safe, acceptable manner. For example, when a man opens up about a personal problem with a friend, there is a whole system of teasing (“joshing”) that lets that friend test boundaries without making the man opening up feel betrayed or insulted. Pillow talk offers lovers a way to tease and test each other without hurting each other’s feelings Young girls have a who system of mutually expected secret-sharing that gives them a means of creating “fair” feeling interactions. Systems of gift-sharing and reciprocity are all there to provide ways of constructively dealing with the problems of shifting boundaries… Or they put kind actions into a context where the boundaries are preestablished.

Systems of etiquette usually include particular ways of saying thank you and you’re welcome that are designed to minimize the discomfort as well.

  • The most friction we experience happens in social dynamics where we don’t have these schema in place:
  • When we deal with small children (who are still learning their schema)
  • In sexual relationships (where we have so radically changed the rules and context that old schema just aren’t working)
  • In many all-male spaces (where the schema have been lost.)

When one or both people don’t have the necessary schema or the necesary self-awareness to understand these natural rhythms, we can end up inadvertently hurting or offending one another. It takes a great deal of self-awareness to identify when you are feeling an impulse to test someone who has just opened up their boundaries to you. And it takes incredible patience to see why other people seem to be ungrateful, or determined to ruin good patterns and intimate moments.

If you remember that the natural human impulse when we open up to another is for them to try and figure out what they are allowed to do now, it can really help you be more forgiving (and less surprised) when other people behave like jerks.