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Since it’s impossible to avoid either relevant or irrelevant emotional influences altogether, is there anything we can do to keep relationships from deteriorating this way?

One simple piece of advice I’d offer is to pick a partner who would make this downward spiral less likely. But how do you do this? Of course, you can avail yourself of hundreds of compatibility tests, from astrological to statistical, but I think that all you need is a river, a canoe, and two paddles. Whenever I go canoeing, I see couples arguing as they unintentionally run aground or get hung up on a rock. Canoeing looks easier than it is, and that may be why it quickly brings couples to the brink of battle.

Arguments occur far less frequently when I meet a couple for drinks or go to their home for dinner, and it isn’t just because they are trying to be on their best behavior (after all, why wouldn’t a couple also try to be on good behavior on the river?). I think it has to do with the well-established patterns of behavior people have for their normal, day-to-day activities (arguing vehemently at the table in front of strangers is pretty much a no-no in most families).

But when you’re on a river, the situation is largely new. There isn’t a clear protocol. The river is unpredictable, and canoes tend to drift and turn in ways you don’t anticipate. (This situation is very much like life, which is full of new and surprising stresses and roadblocks.) There’s also a fuzzy kind of division of labor between the front and back (or bow and stern, if you want to be technical). This context offers plenty of opportunities to establish and observe fresh patterns of behavior.

So if you’re half of a couple, what happens when you go canoeing? Do you or your partner start blaming each other every time the canoe seems to misbehave (“Didn’t you see that rock?”)? Do you get into a huge battle that ends with one or both of you jumping overboard, swimming to shore, and not speaking for an hour? Or, when you hit a rock, do you work together trying to figure out who should do what, and get along as best you can?

This means that before committing to any long-term relationship you should first explore your joint behavior in environments that don’t have well-defined social protocols (for example, I think that couples should plan their weddings before they decide to marry and go ahead with the marriage only if they still like each other). It also means that it is worthwhile to keep an eye open for deteriorating patterns of behavior. When we observe early-warning signs, we should take swift action to correct an undesirable course before the unfortunate patterns of dealing with each other fully develop.

Dan Ariely, The Upside Of Irrationality (2010)


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