Why Relationships Are So Difficult

Why Relationships Are So Difficult

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On any given day, 1.6 million of us are blogging, 27 million are tweeting, and 1.5 billion are posting on Facebook. We’re emailing during meetings, texting during lectures, and talking on our cell phones as we tackle rush-hour traffic. We spend much of our day making deals and dates –– and the reason we do all of this is both simple and profound: we have to socialize in order to get the jobs of life done. As I detailed in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Human Nature Review and in my book, The Origins of Minds, the “first law of human psychology is the second law of thermodynamics.” In other words, being alive is an ongoing search for energy — and our intelligence system evolved to make sure we get what we need. For humans, this means creating and building relationships. And if we are going to create what we might honestly call “conscious relationships” — let alone create a world without endless wars and where 16,000 children no longer starve each day — we need to step behind the curtain and understand the fundamental motivations that drive these relationships.

We need to acknowledge what we are up against so that we can become truly caring people. Our problem is not the “satanic entities” of our religious mythologies. And the solution is not in New Age philosophies that propagate the belief that if we simply focus on the positive, the negative will go away. The problem is rooted in our self-delusional nature — at the very core of our minds. The fundamental issue is this: whether we’re head over heels in love, embroiled in a battle with our boss, creating a religious community, or waging war, it’s because we’ve been primed over evolutionary time to be players in the “human biological marketplace” — buyers and sellers of ourselves as cooperative partners and competitors in the game of life.

Here is a brief guide to how that basic marketplace develops.

Natural-Born Competitors

In the womb, you were engaged in your first struggle for survival, and you didn’t necessarily play fair. In this seemingly sacrosanct place, you negotiated hard for more nutritional goods than your mother was prepared to offer you, and you struck bio-energetic bargains that she couldn’t refuse. Why? Because energy is life and without it, we die. So whenever two or more of us siphon off of the same limited energy supply, a competition begins.

The initial bio-energetic deal we have with our mother is purely physiological: a transfer of her own energetic resources to us through the placenta. Although this may appear to be a selfless gift, the arrangement evolved because it serves our mother’s genetic agenda. She is provisioning her own genes — packaged in fetal form — with the goods they’ll need to make it through the gestational period. But there are limits to a mother’s largesse: she needs to reserve enough of her energetic resources to sustain her own existence and provide for future offspring. The fetus, however, has other plans. Evolution has equipped it with the capacity to siphon off more of its mother’s energetic goods than her system is genetically programmed to give. And so a maternal-fetal conflict ensues — an energetic tug-of-war that results from a 50 percent difference between the genetic interests of the parties. Seen through the clear lens of energetic principles, our relationship to our first and most generous cooperator in life is as a stealth competitor.

Here’s how it starts: Cells derived from the fetus’ hormonal system, called trophoblasts, invade the wall of the mother’s uterus, lining her blood vessels with fat cells so that they can’t constrict when signaled by the mother’s system to do so. Once these “supply lines” have been fashioned, the fetus can directly tap the mother’s blood supply and increase the mother’s blood pressure, boosting the flow of bio-energetic goods to the fetus. Next the fetus begins injecting its own hormones into the mother’s blood supply to inhibit the effects of insulin and raise the mother’s blood-sugar level, providing the fetus with a greater concentration of the sweet nutrient. But of course, if the mother’s blood-sugar level gets too high, she’ll develop gestational diabetes. And so, even in this most cooperative of relationships — one in which the survival of each of the participants depends on that of the other — the deal can go badly for both if the fetus gets too greedy.

The Hormonal Ties That Bind

After birth, most mothers keep supplying their infants with energetic resources, and they embark on a long-term venture together — an extended period of parental energetic investment that exceeds that of any other animal. The mother has already invested a huge amount of energy in bringing her child into the world. And now she faces a breast-feeding period that could last as long four years, all while she strives to sustain her own existence.

Once her child is born, a mother could refuse to continue serving as a volunteer energy delivery system (at least in theory), but this rarely happens. Why? Mother Nature’s little helper, the powerful hormone oxytocin, prompts her feelings of maternal love. Released in the perinatal period, oxytocin induces the feelings of maternal love that motivate her nurturing behavior. And so she keeps on giving.

Women with high levels of oxytocin continue to breast-feed longer than women with lower levels of the hormone. They also feel a stronger attachment to their children and a greater sense of calm, as well as lower levels of anxiety and lower blood pressure. Many scientists now believe that oxytocin and another hormone, vasopressin, are the “bonding hormones,” the chemical signals that result in the formation of alliances — the infrastructure of our social behavior.

The Parent-Offspring Conflict

A woman’s firstborn child carries half of her genes, but so will all of her subsequent children. Her optimal genetic strategy is to wean her firstborn as soon as possible so that she has the opportunity to double her genetic investment by having another child. And now the firstborn has a problem. Although he would derive a genetic benefit from the birth of a sibling (it would carry 50 percent of his genes), it comes at too great a cost — the loss of nature’s free lunch, mother’s milk. This sets the stage for another relationship battle: parent-offspring conflict. The conflict between a mother and her infant over when to wean can go on for weeks or months, with the child throwing tantrums and the mother feeling guilty for withholding access to her breast. For most of us, this is the first energy negotiation that we’re going to lose, and we’re not going to be happy about it.

A Rival Is Born

After a mother has weaned her first child, she is much more likely to conceive another. But as soon as she does, another genetic conflict begins ramping up: sibling rivalry. Full siblings share about 50 percent of their genetic material, which is the basis for a fairly strong cooperative bond. But there remains a 50 percent genetic difference between them. As a result, siblings tend to compete with each other for the parents’ finite energetic goods, both emotional and financial. Sharing does not come naturally to any of us; it has to be taught to us and vigorously reinforced over months and sometimes years. And so fights break out between siblings over who gets what toy, who gets to ride in the front seat of the car, and who gets the last cookie. But just as conflict between siblings is fueled by genetic disparity, cooperation between them is fueled by genetic similarity. Once siblings become independent of the parents, their rivalry usually subsides, and their cooperative relationship remains or even deepens. And sometimes, the brother who once stole your catcher’s mitt gives you one of his kidneys and saves your life.

Gearing Up for the Greater Market

Before we can begin to negotiate in the greater human biological market, we need a mind that’s up to the task. We need to be able to represent critical information about our self and the major players in our life, including a running tally of the energetic costs and the benefits of our interactions with them. We aren’t born with a representational mapping of the social world. In the primal economy of the womb, the only person with whom we needed to transact business was our mother, and our dealings with her were, for the most part, already dialed in by evolved physiological mechanisms. Our immature neocortex had no need to navigate us through a biological marketplace or negotiate with potential collaborators and competitors. As an infant, our primary cooperator (our mother, father, or other caretaker) controlled our social and physical environment to the best of his or her ability and negotiated all of our deals for us. But eventually we began interacting with others — siblings, neighbors, extended family members — and accruing our initial market experiences. As we steered a course through these encounters, our neocortex developed customized representations of the distinguishing features of our social interactions, preparing us to be our own negotiative agents.

Bootstrapping off of our suckling reflex and its neural machinery, our brain began developing neural representations of various behaviors and objects that our mother helped us to associate with nursing. This broadened our behavioral repertoire, enabling us to take milk from a bottle and then from a cup. At the same time, we began to develop neural network representations of each of the important people in our life and our relationship to them. Eventually, we developed representations about what they liked and disliked; whom they valued and didn’t value; what they knew of their own world and what we thought they knew of ours. On the basis of these representations, we developed increasingly complex “mental theories” of the contents of their minds that enabled us to begin negotiating with them.

At the same time, our brain was creating a customized functional map of the social world. It created representations of the relative positioning of the individuals in our life on various dimensions (who’s better at playing games? Who’ll let me stay up late?), as well as representations of the relationships between these individuals (who’s friends with whom? Who’s angry with whom?). It formed representations that enabled us to guess how the players in our world might behave in different situations and how the consequences of their behavior might affect our life. And it recorded the ongoing changes in our relationships with these players as a function of their history, as well as various market factors (such as the birth of a sibling; death of a grandparent; the achievements, disgraces, and endearments of the players; and so on). With each event the energetic accountancy of our relationships changed, and so did our mental ledger. By the time we left the sheltered “mini-market” of our family for the greater market of elementary school, the complexity of our social representational map was impressive — and it was about to increase by an order of magnitude.

Schoolyard Knocks to Self-Esteem

A comprehensive mental map of our social world — the biological marketplace in our mind — would be of little use if it didn’t contain a virtual representation of our “self.” This self-representation arises from the neural records of our experiences. It guides our passage through the markets of life, informing us about our behavioral strengths and weaknesses and positioning us appropriately. We can look in the mirror and say affirmations all day, but it is the outcomes of our experiences in the world that determine our self-representation and its index of our self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t simply a characteristic that we try to manipulate in order to feel better; it’s our mind’s estimation of our ability to succeed in specific situations in the future, based on how we did in similar situations in the past. Our level of self-esteem aims us at a negotiating level in the social world where we are likely to meet with success. As adults, it informs us of which employment positions we might have a chance of landing and which potential mates might be interested in us. It prevents us from wasting our time and energy in trying to sell ourselves at too high or low a level. And as children, it influenced our decisions on which of the other kids we might want to approach for friendship and whether we should bother trying out for the school play. It is our agent in the market of life, and it pitches us where it can sell us.

From the time we were born until the time we entered school, most of us had very good self-esteem because we’d experienced so much positive feedback for our behavior. Of course, we got this feedback from our parents and grandparents — people who stood to benefit if or when our inflated self-esteem ultimately landed us a ranking position in the social world. So we regularly heard things like “You’re so cute!” and “You’re so smart!” and “You’re so (fill in the blank with some positive attribute)!” — and this abundant praise all but drowned out the occasional reprimand from a parent or snide remark from a sibling. But whenever we enter a new market, the value estimations we accrued in the old one are no longer good predictors of our value. So imagine the shock to our systems when we enter the greater biological marketplace of school and find ourselves on a playground full of children who think that they are “the best.” This schoolyard status upset and the competition that usually ensues is the reason why children so often taunt one another. Status in a biological market is a relative measure, and putting down someone else makes us feel that our own status is higher by comparison. Of course, it’s a short-term fix, a low-power strategy that usually backfires. Children soon learn that those who call others names are the ones to be pitied — and avoided as potential cooperators.

Sexual Maturation in the Market

Adolescence is a tumultuous time, physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally. We go through a major metamorphosis in preparation for the mating market. The part of our intelligence system that regulates our passage through the life span (the life history regulatory system) moves all the goal posts on us at the same time that it’s morphing our bodies and minds so they can carry us into the new end zone. As a child, our primary objective was to acquire as much parental investment as possible and use it for our growth. As an adolescent, we straddle two markets. We begin to negotiate the extra-familial market in order to acquire some of our own resources (even if it’s only getting rides from one of our friends instead of being chauffeured by a parent), and we continue to acquire as much parental investment as we can get — without forfeiting too much of our freedom to get it. We direct some of this energy toward the sexual maturation of our body, some toward the acquisition of gender-specific skills (which we’ll need once we’ve entered the mating market), and some toward jostling for position in the social hierarchy of our peers. And we pay acute attention to the status cues that inform us about which of our peers and potential mates are most likely to succeed in the markets of life, which are likely to fail, and where we stand in the lineup.

In many traditional cultures, adolescent boys spend their time and energy learning to build shelters and hunt, as well as engaging in physical competitions — cooperative and competitive activities that will hone the skills they’ll need to support and protect a family. Girls usually direct their attention and energy to learning how to care for children, identify plants, and prepare foods — predominantly cooperative activities that will prepare them to raise children and nurture a family. And in most of these cultures, girls also will learn how to lure and please a mate and how to successfully compete for a good one. In traditional cultures in which the women bring home significant energetic resources, as well as in developed cultures where women work outside the home, there is a blurring of these gender-skill boundaries. And of course, there are cultural differences — adolescents in the Silicon Valley will learn to write computer code instead of learning how to carve dart guns or where to forage for roots. But in general, boys will still participate in more daring physical activities than girls in order to develop their physical prowess, and girls will still concern themselves more than boys with their appearance; in other words, they’ll expend their energy developing those characteristics that are valued by their respective pools of potential mates. And girls will form cliques, and boys will join teams or gangs, and they’ll compete within these cooperative groups and between them, positioning themselves for the mating game.

The Mating Game

We are the end products of billions of years of reproductive success, and this didn’t happen by accident. Over the course of our evolutionary history, intense selection pressures honed the neural mechanisms that gave rise to our mating psychology. Of course, women and men look for very different things in a mate. Like everything else in the realm of human psychology and behavior, these mechanisms have been crafted in such a way as to increase the energetic benefit we’re likely to receive (in this case, reproductive success) and decrease the amount of energy we need to expend to get it. In sexed species like humans, the cost/benefit/risk equations of reproductive behavior are very different for males and females. And this is why, at least for heterosexual humans, “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

For a man, the obligatory energetic investment in offspring is trivial — a few moments of time and a few drops of sperm. But in the early Pleistocene era, the children resulting from short-term matings (read: one-night stands) would have had a difficult time surviving to a viable age of reproduction. As a consequence, a man’s best reproductive “strategy” is two-pronged: 1) engage in one or more sequential long-term relationships with women who are both young and beautiful (characteristics that correlate with fertility and health) as well as chaste, so as to avoid spending energetic resources raising children that might not be yours; then invest in these women and their offspring; and 2) engage in as many low-cost, short-term matings with other women as is practically possible.

In contrast, a woman’s obligatory investment in offspring is enormous: a nine-month gestation period, labor, birth, and lactation for up to four years for a single child. Once a woman is pregnant, additional matings aren’t going to yield her any more offspring, and that will be the case until she’s stopped nursing. So her reproductive potential is maximized by being discriminating in the selection of a partner, selecting someone who is willing and able to provide for her and her offspring, as well as to protect them. This means selecting a man who has high status, good earning potential, and physical prowess, as well as one who is emotionally faithful and committed.

Given the differences between the mating psychologies of men and women (not to mention the frustration both genders might experience in trying to find all the requisite goods for a long-term relationship in one person), it’s not surprising that mating relationships can be challenging. One obvious point of conflict between male and female mating proclivities is sexual fidelity. In light of the seductively large reproductive advantage a man might derive from an extra-relationship fling (i.e., a child carrying his genes that he won’t have to support), men are more likely than women to be sexually unfaithful. But a nontrivial percentage of women also cheat, most often with physically attractive men who aren’t the “marrying kind” — and usually while maintaining their long-term relationship with a good provider. And infidelity — even the mere suspicion of infidelity — can be volatile.

Jealousy is an emotion that evolved to protect the energetic investment we’ve made in a mate. Women are less concerned with sexual infidelity than they are with emotional infidelity, because if a man develops an emotional interest in another woman — falls in love and bonds with her — he might divert resources to her that would otherwise remain at home. In the worst-case scenario, he would leave home to be with the other woman. Men, on the other hand, are much more concerned about their mate having a sexual affair than an emotional interest in another man, because of the extreme energetic costs they would incur by rearing children that don’t carry their own genes. The genetic stakes of infidelity are as high as they get, so it’s not surprising that sexual jealousy often results in spousal abuse and can sometimes even be fatal. We humans take our energetic investments seriously.

Costs and Benefits

Here’s the bottom line: human behavior is driven by a need to acquire energetic resources — biological and social. Money, a fairly recent human invention, can be used to negotiate for both. Our relationships — as individuals, groups, and nations — are regulated by our energetic exchanges and influenced by fluctuations in the greater marketplace in which those relationships take place. The feelings that we have for one another are reflections of the neural accountings of our energetic relationship. Sometimes these are based on factors that are intrinsic to the other person (such as the similarity of our genetic profiles or their attractiveness to us); sometimes they’re a function of the individual’s behavior; and sometimes they arise from some idiosyncrasy of their interactions with us. But none of us voluntarily sustain relationships that aren’t serving our purposes, directly or indirectly, not even the most saintly among us (consider the recently canonized Mother Teresa who was raised to believe that her service to others was a demonstration of her love for Christ and that her demonstrated love of Christ would ensure her place in the kingdom of heaven).

Our self-centered nature is our “original sin” — the congenital blight on our divine nature. Priests and rabbis and imams have implored us to purge ourselves of our selfish tendencies through rites and rituals and prayers, just as Eastern spiritual leaders have beseeched us to re-focus our concern for our own needs to those of others as the way to alleviate our own suffering and that of all humanity. But these religious and spiritual approaches have been around for thousands of years and have yet to effect large-scale change in the way we humans manage our selfish tendencies. I think it’s time for a new approach to the problem — an approach based on a fearless assessment of ourselves and our nature within a broader and more comprehensive energetic framework; one that factors all forms of life and our natural environment into the equation and aligns with the principled energetic flow of the universe, rather than one that swims against its formidable currents.

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