PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Major League Miscommunication

06/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The contentious divorce of Frank and Jamie McCourt is very much in the news in Los Angeles. Married for 30 years, the McCourt's high-profile divorce settlement pivots on a rather surprising dispute: they cannot agree on which of them owns the Los Angeles Dodgers. Frank has been operating on the assumption that he owns the team, while Jamie's understanding is that half of it is hers and has been hers all along.

As sad as it is that any enduring partnership ends, lucky is the couple with marital problems like these. At stake in this squabble is a professional baseball team - a $700 million asset - replete with Manny Ramirez' contract and Chavez Ravine. So worry not for the McCourts. They are outrageously wealthy, with any number of recent stories and commentaries in the Los Angeles Times detailing their lavish creature comforts (daily visits from hairstylists), real estate holdings (seven homes, two on adjacent properties in Malibu), and luxurious travel arrangements (by private jet, with his most recent vacation costing $80,000, according to reports).

As difficult as it is for most of us wage-earners to imagine this lifestyle - the smaller bungalow in Malibu is used by Jamie only for managing laundry, according to Frank's attorney, while another home was used by Jamie only for swimming -- there are some crucial lessons to be learned here about the psychology of human intimacy.

Lesson One. In every intimate relationship, the partners operate on the basis of unstated assumptions. Leaving these assumptions unstated can be costly at times, but doing otherwise would be cumbersome. The trick is to know which issues can slide and which issues really require attention. Have you and your partner sat down to discuss who manages the Netflix account, or does this just happen in a catch-as-catch-can manner? No matter, as other things command our attention, and the costs of making a mistake are low. But even when the stakes are higher - and maybe especially then -- the necessary conversations do not always take place. Who among us has had explicit discussions of monogamy, or drug use, or religious differences, or whether you and your partner can take separate vacations? Most of the time we can operate pretty well without these conversations, but we have to recognize that these possible misunderstandings do lurk in the shadows of every relationship.

(If you have already inferred that similarity between partners - on race, wealth, education, and religion, values - is beneficial for relationships because it helps to overcome this very problem, then you are ahead of the game. Is it any wonder why matchmaking services focus on similarity?)

Lesson Two. If assumptions remain unstated, it follows that partners will see similar things in different ways. Were we snuggling, or was that sex? Was that a date, or was that a trip to the hardware store? Was that a heart-to-heart conversation, or were you just kvetching? If I take care of the kids while I am watching a game on TV, do I get credit for babysitting - or will you see that as personal time? Disagreements like these are the very fabric of all relationships, and partners in healthy couples know that shared perceptions are earned and not assumed.

Lesson Three. When unstated assumptions are violated, partners often have strong emotions. Some issues are so obvious to us that we do not even contemplate the possibility that our partner might disagree. "What do you mean you do not want to have a second child?!" "Of course my mom will move in with us after Dad dies - isn't that why we bought a house with a guest room?" "How could you loan your brother $5,000 without checking with me first?" These violated assumptions and the powerful emotions they provoke can be real threats to relationships, and they can force a reassessment of some basic views that both partners hold about the relationship and about one another.

Lesson Four. Partners' assumptions are usually biased in a self-serving direction. Study after study shows that neither of the two people in a relationship have unique access to truth and reality. Most of us are unconsciously motivated to believe that others see the world the way we see it, and most of us perceive the world in ways that makes us look good or advantaged somehow. "Of course I am part-owner of the Dodgers! How could you possibly see it otherwise?!" is not too far removed from "Of course we can take separate vacations! How could you possibly prevent me from having a reunion with my fraternity brothers in Las Vegas?"

Lesson Five. Communication matters in part because it allows partners to make constant adjustments about the hazy and amorphous reality that they share. You have read dozens of times that communication is important in good relationships. Why is that? It is because good communication, done well, involves partners checking in with one another about all manner of unstated issues that could erupt to disturb the relationship. Assumptions get checked, problems are averted. "Will you still have time to send in the tax returns? Remember I have that meeting in Pasadena." "Are you OK with me watching the game when your sister is here? Remember I mentioned it is the last game of the playoffs." "Was it just me, or did your mom seem upset with us about sending Jason to summer camp? Maybe we should check in with her." Healthy couples tend to have conversations that delve into the bigger issues, or they have the skills to regulate their emotions when violated assumptions bring these issues to the fore.

"A rich man," wrote W.C. Fields, "is nothing but a poor man with money," and so it must be: the comforts and resources might be greater among the wealthy but the same buggy perceptual apparatus is at work for all of us. And regardless of our income, when our relationships are thriving, we often do not want to rock the boat with difficult issues. Why bother talking about ownership over the Dodgers if our relationship is going so well? And yet, as they McCourts are learning, as difficult as it is to broach these topics, it is far harder to do so when the relationship starts to struggle and when the attorneys are called in to clear up the confusion.

Thomas Bradbury, PhD
Professor of Psychology, UCLA
April 16, 2010

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