Updated: Sep 9
Exploring our most precious relationships can be both helpful and humbling.
Helpful - because after stepping through, one realizes both the progress made and the progress still needed.
Humbling - because after stepping back, one appreciates our good fortune to have healthy relationships.
Those who frequent The Curiosity Vine likely appreciate we cover many topics. One of our goals is to connect the dots between multiple disciplines. In the case of relationships, this article includes a more personal dot-connecting theme.
This article is dedicated to my wife, family, and friends. I so appreciate how much we learn from each other. This article is also an admittedly geeky love letter to my wife, inspired by our 30th wedding anniversary.
I approach the relationship subject from three perspectives:
I have been married for about 30 years. I feel very fortunate for our loving relationship. My wife, Patti, has taught me much about joy and faith. Her joy is a beautiful product of her faith. We have four adult children and I have other impactful relationships.
I am deeply curious about neuroscience, behavioral economics, and psychology. My occupation as a Decision Scientist means brain science study is a necessary and enjoyable part of my work. We live in an amazing age in terms of brain insight growth. In the current age, the human race is quickly increasing our scientific understanding. [i]
I am a person of faith, with my faith grounding in Christianity. I study other world religions as well. In fact, I take great comfort in the knowledge that most world religions share time-tested beliefs concerning love, appreciation, empathy, and reconciliation. [ii]
This article is presented in the following sections:
Locus of Control and building a relationship gap
Framework to close the gap: Accelerating reconciliation
Current State - being right
Future State - being joyful
Conclusion - a call to be joyful
I have come to appreciate today's amazing convergence of religion, faith, and brain science. Many earlier wise people shared time-tested religious and faith-based understandings. [iii] My belief is that these people were often ahead of their time regarding brain understanding. In many ways, science has confirmed and sometimes helped to clarify the past wise writings of many world religious contributors. In a science dialogue from The Book of Joy [iv], Nobel laureates His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu expressed:
Too often we see spirituality and science as antagonistic forces, each with its hand at the other’s throat. Yet Archbishop Tutu has expressed his belief in the importance of what he calls “self-corroborating truth”—when many different fields of knowledge point to the same conclusion. Similarly, the Dalai Lama was adamant about the importance of making sure that this was not a Buddhist or Christian book, but a universal book supported not only by opinion or tradition but also by science.
When it comes to relationships, we can be our own enemies. It is the naturally occurring foibles and biases of our own brain processes that lead to challenges in our most precious relationships. Today’s science helps us better understand our brain operations impacting our relationships. In my experience, it is our faith that helps us navigate those biases, improve our relationships, and nourish our joy. This article offers a targeted glimpse. I offer a straightforward framework based on my research-informed understanding of our brain and a few key aspects of faith teachings. As a "dot-connector," my value is to bring together topics that, on the surface, may seem separate but do so in a way that provides a deeper understanding.
For this article, I am going to build on a concept with behavioral psychology and neuroscience-based support. That concept is "Locus of Control." I will then apply that understanding to a faith-supported framework to help us navigate and improve our relationships. My goal is to help us realize more joy in our relationships.
2. Locus of Control and building a relationship gap
In psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they, as opposed to external forces (beyond their influence), have control over the outcome of events in their lives. Locus of control is central to a commonly occurring cognitive bias known as "attribution bias," A person's "locus" is conceptualized as
Internal - a belief that one can control one's own life, or
External - a belief that life is controlled by outside factors which the person cannot influence, or that chance or fate controls their lives. [v]
Think of locus of control like a “You Are Here” pin on a map. Except, in this case, the map is a mental map of the degree to which you believe you control outcomes. We will discuss your unique mental map pin locating process. We observe that relationship participants can be at different “You Are Here” locations at the same time. We explore the impact of differing pin locations upon your most precious relationships. By the way, I will use both the singular “locus” and the plural “loci” when referring to one or many “pins on the map.”
People may perceive varying loci of control along a continuum. Individuals and cultures may have different propensities for a locus of control. As a cultural example, Americans generally experience a more individualistic culture compared to other countries. As such, Americans may skew more toward the internal locus of control. Naturally, this is a generalization about Americans, certainly some Americans may feel they have less control.
But your culturally-based locus of control is only a starting point. Situations significantly impact one's locus of control mindset at the time perception is made. Different levels of uncertainty between situations may cause an individual to have a situationally dependent locus of control. Also, how we perceive risk impacts our locus of control. A higher “loss aversion” often causes a higher emphasis or "weight" to be placed on a particular situation, thus impacting one's locus of control. In behavioral economics, an individual's situational dependence is more generally known as "framing." [vi]
However, and this is where the relationship challenges could emerge, people tend to assign differing loci of control-originated perceptions based on identical relationship situations. In identical situations, it is natural to associate:
Positive outcomes with an Internal Locus of Control. (i.e., “My good actions caused this positive outcome”), or
Negative outcomes with an External Locus of Control. (i.e., “The actions of my partner caused this negative outcome”)
So, it is natural for us to overweight the good stuff we bring to a relationship situation (internal locus of control) and at the same time overweight the bad stuff our partner brings to the same situation. Strangely enough, this is the natural, default setting of our brain.
As a logical identity, in the same relationship situation, you cannot have it both ways. What the individuals actually bring to the situation must exist at a single point on the causality spectrum. Thus, there is a gap between the actual situation and one's perceived psychology-based locus of control. The gap or variability from actual is also known as a cognitive bias. [vii] This suggests that in most normal relationship disagreements, our perception of the wrongness of the other person gets overplayed, and our perception of our own righteousness gets overplayed. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Significantly, in the relationship context, our diverging individual cognitive biases may worsen the relationship challenge.
The next graphic demonstrates our perception gaps of the identical situation but with differing loci of control.
The relative size of the boxes indicates the emotional weight of the perception. A stronger emotional weight relates to a bigger box and a weaker emotional weight relates to a smaller box.
The color of the box is the emotional context of the perception. Green is a positive perception and red is a negative perception.
The icon figures are the two different partner originators of the perceptions.
For example, the groom's "box a" represents a larger positive emotion. This is how the groom perceives their own effort. At the same time, the bride's "box a" represents a smaller positive emotion. This is how the bride perceives the groom's effort. You may follow this approach to interpret the other boxes as well. The point is that between each partner, the perceived size (emotional weight) of each corresponding box is different. Rationally, the actual size and color of the same box at the same time must be the same. The truth lies at a single point somewhere in the middle. Thus, differing individual locus of control cause an attribution bias that creates differing individual perceptions by the bride and groom.
As you can imagine, left unchecked, this locus of control-based bias may be harmful to a relationship. It requires us to take active measures to overcome this bias. Over time, a persistently unchecked attribution bias brought on by our locus of control may lead to confirmation bias [viii]. Confirmation bias is arguably the most significant cognitive bias impacting our cognition, how we process information, and perceive the world. In the case of a relationship, confirmation bias is when we cherry-pick and overweight the negative bad stuff to justify a negative narrative for our partner. Even though, quite likely, there is much good stuff of which to be appreciative. This negative narrative will decrease the speed at which we reconcile. It will decrease our joy nourishment.
A persistent biased negative narrative creates a bad habit. Habits have a way of hardening. As a metaphor, bad habits may become like an almost permanent “scheduled withdrawal from our joy bank account.” Bad habits are sneaky because they feel normal. As such, bad habits are even more challenging to overcome. It is best to avoid bad habits altogether.
Generally, our faith and good common sense teach us that both appreciation and empathy are critical to reconciling relationship issues. In many ways, appreciation and empathy, along with the willingness to reconcile differences are foundational elements of our love for each other. By properly navigating our locus of control, we can better manage the effects of our cognitive biases [ix] and have more joy nourishment in our most significant relationships. Next, I discuss how our faith plays a key role in navigating our cognitive biases and accelerating our reconciliation.
3. Framework to close the gap: Accelerating reconciliation
In this section, we will step through a typical relationship's more challenging "locus of control"-impacted current state and present the means to achieve a more joyful future state. This may not be your exact current state, but I expect you will find some application to your relationships. The future state will build toward quicker reconciliation and more relationship-enabled joy. We will reference religion and our faith as core aspects of the reconciliation framework.
I am reminded of a high-impact resolution made by Ric Elias. Mr. Elias was a first-row passenger of U.S. Airways Flight 1549. [x] This is the now famous flight piloted by Captain Chelsea "Sully" Sullenberger. It landed on the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. The episode is commonly known as "The Miracle on the Hudson." For 3 minutes, Mr. Elias was completely convinced he was going to die. He prayed. Plus he made a resolution to his wife and young family should he live. He committed that:
"I no longer try to be right; I choose to be happy."
Mr. Elias and all the passengers walked away from this flight unharmed. Mr. Elias was given the opportunity to make good on his family's joy commitment. In my view, being happy and nourishing joy are individually-owned choices. [xi] No one can do it but you. That is, we can choose to reconcile, choose appreciation and empathy, and choose not to be right. Mr. Elias was fortunate. He was given a new lease on life after being sure he was going to die. The rest of us do not have such a strong commitment device. Most of us just have to work on it, with the faith that it is the right thing to do to achieve joy.
Current State - “I want to be right”
First, let us discuss a potential current state. Perhaps this is the current state you wish to improve but find the necessary change challenging.
Our current state is characterized by:
Holding on to old stuff;
Anger escalation too often;
Using the past to justify doing the wrong thing in the present;
Slow to appreciate;
Slow to empathize;
Slow to reconcile.
By the way, you may recognize the first and third dot points in relation to 1 Corinthians 13 of the Holy Bible. I value this "Love is...." verse because it gives love advice "via negativa." That is, Corinthians tells us what not to do to achieve joy. I generally find “what not to do” instructions more effective than prescriptive instructions. In this case, the Corinthians verse says: "Love keeps no record of wrongs." Sadly, most people keep records of wrongs all the time. It is our nature. As suggested earlier, not following Corinthians likely increases the confirmation bias associated with our locus of control. In our notes, we provide a reference to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor and her “Four Character” framework. Her framework identifies the neurological source of our struggle to follow the Corinthians and our nature to be a recorder of wrongs. [xii]
Notice the last 3 dot points. Appreciation and empathy are the 2 key elements of our love for each other. We may love because we appreciate each other for our wonderful qualities and we may empathize with each other, especially if the other does something we do not like. Appreciation is for the good stuff, which helps us empathize with the bad stuff. By the way, I generally assume all relationships have some bad stuff. I assume relationship bad stuff is unavoidable. Think of the last time you had an argument with your partner. Did you quickly and fully reconcile? Or perhaps, did the feelings of the argument seem to linger for days or even weeks? Perhaps you do not recall an argument but feel there are lingering issues that are not reconciled. The current state is that lingering state.
This framework describes the current state, with the undesired outcome being a longer time to reconcile.
When a relationship challenge occurs, reconciliation is critical. Almost all world religions agree. [xiii] As an example, in the Catholic religion, reconciliation is so sacred that it is found in one of the 7 holy sacraments. Also, remember that empathic and appreciative actions occurred in the past. It is our past actions that ultimately may be appreciated or empathized with. However, reconciliation occurs in the fleeting present. In order to reconcile now, it requires a history of active empathy and appreciation. The future then reveals the effectiveness of the reconciliation.
Critically, immediately following a disagreement, the speed and quality of our reconciliation are revealed. In the not desired current state, a typical joy delay-causing negative narrative may be:
“You were wrong, I’m right, I remember when the bad thing happened” or
"I don’t trust you; you are a bad parent; you are a bad person.”
Instead, a fast effective reconciliation will change the narrative. Such as:
“I’m sorry, I understand how I may have hurt you.”
“Let me share how I heard you.”
When transitioning to a future state, we should consider:
Past: Individually, we own our perception, good or bad.
Future: Together, we share the meaning of our future.
The question: How do we create a loving future?
Future State - “I want joy”
In the future state, we are now focused on accelerating the quality of the reconciliation process. Our goal is to create a more loving and joyful future. Our future state is characterized by:
Let stuff go;
Anger sometimes, deescalate quickly;
Don’t use the past to justify doing the wrong thing in the present;
Fast to appreciate;
Fast to empathize;
Fast to reconcile.
Notice this time, we are aligned with 1 Corinthians 13. This is also critical to decreasing the confirmation bias associated with our locus of control. This is an important point: Good relationship habits are built from behaviors suggested in this future state framework. Joy is enabled by our good relationship habits. Our behaviors allow us to let stuff go and accelerates the loving qualities of empathy and appreciation. Our red-ish negative feelings are still valid, but our internal narrative has changed:
“It is hard! I know I can be right, but I would rather love.”
“Let go, I trust our shared Faith, I appreciate and empathize.”
Also, notice the big difference in the future state framework. The time to reconcile, as noted in the red-ish, future block has significantly decreased. This framework describes the future state, with the outcome being an accelerated time to reconcile. Moving forward, the target future state narrative is:
“I’m sorry, I understand how I may have hurt you.”
“I seek to understand, appreciate and empathize.”
“I trust you will hear me”
“Let me share how I heard you.”
“Let’s work together.”
Also, by changing our narrative, we are changing our habits. While it may take time to build your joy-nourishing outcomes, the good news is that: 1) good habits are being reinforced and written; and 2) any existing, hardened habits are being softened, reduced, and rewritten.
Most of us greatly desire to be joyful in our lives. We wish to be joyful with our most precious relationships. Disagreements happen sometimes. It is human nature. The key is, to have an intentional and reasonably aligned reconciliation process with your partner. The future state framework presented in this article is consistent with psychology, neuroscience, and world religion. I have been practicing (not always perfectly!) this framework with my wife for the last 30 years. I can say from first-hand experience that it is not always easy. Life gets busy, priorities seem to shift. Our emotions can get the best of us. As such, the success of this process framework is about progress, not perfection. It helps us avoid those hardening habits in our most precious relationships. The effort is its own reward!
Ric Elias committed to his joy and family reconciliation after he was faced with the unthinkable…. perishing in a plane crash. Most of us do not have this extraordinary opportunity. However, with a little effort and humility, we all may commit to relationship-based joy long before facing death!
A special thanks:
To friend and psychologist Dr. William (Bill) Clarke. Bill provided feedback for the framework design. Any errors or omissions are certainly on me.
To neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor for sharing her epic brain journey as a result of a stroke. Her “4-Character” brain model is an important part of this article.
To Delaine Mazich for sharing her inspiring joy experience. She provided an extraordinary example of working to achieve joy after the loss of a child.
To my firm, Definitive Business Solutions. We provide technology solutions to help organizations and individuals make the best decisions. In the spirit of reconciliation, Definitive provides decision science and behavioral science-enabled tools to help people come together in a productive way.
To many others whose wisdom has informed this article.
To my incredible wife, thanks for an amazing 30 years and your joy commitment.
[i] For a quick brain primer, including authors and references, please see:
Hulett, Our Brain Model, The Curiosity Vine, 2020
For an introduction to one of our significant neuro process-enabled social behaviors, please see:
Hulett, Origins of our tribal nature, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[ii] For a compendium of how world religions share common beliefs via scripture, please see:
Wilson, World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, 1991
[iii] N.N. Taleb considers long-term religious principles as part of tail risk management. Tail risk management is the proper risk management of very unlikely, uncertain events, like 1) a death in the family, 2) a natural disaster, 3) a pandemic, or 4) a financial meltdown. Long-term religious principles exist because they work and have stood the test of time.…. like the Golden Rule.
“....religion exists to enforce tail risk management across generations, as its binary and unconditional rules are easy to teach and enforce. We have [The human race has] survived in spite of tail risks; our survival cannot be that random.”
Taleb, Skin In The Game, 2018
[iv] Dalai Lama XIV, Tutu, Abrams, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, 2016
[vi] For a nice explanation of behavioral economics and the "framing" concept, please see:
Witynski, Behavioral economics, explained, University of Chicago News, 2022
[vii] Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, and Olivier Sibony (2021) Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment. The authors do a nice job explaining the difference between bias and noise. A related and shorter explanation is provided in:
Hulett, Good decision-making and financial services: The surprising impact of bias and noise, The Curiosity Vine, 2021.
[viii] Editors, Confirmation bias, Wikipedia, 2022
Please note that I do not usually reference Wikipedia. In this case, the Wikipedia article is well researched and well supported.
[ix] In the following article, I discuss our brain’s neurotransmitter operations and define “neurodiversity” to describe our unique neurotransmitter “mixing” to form unique perceptions. It is our neurodiversity that creates our unique cognitive biases and the opportunity for faith to help us navigate those biases.
Hulett, Origins of our tribal nature, The Curiosity Vine, 2022
[x] Elias, 3 things I learned while my plane crashed, TED Talk, 2011
[xi] Many thesauruses show "happy" and "joy" as synonyms. However, like many words, once one digs into definitions, nuanced differences tend to appear. The way I think about the difference between "joy" and "happy" is much the way an economist thinks about the difference between "stock" and "flow" or an accountant thinks about the difference between a "balance sheet” and an "income statement.”
"Happiness" is like a "flow." It generally happens as the result of an activity. It is often temporary, associated with the timing of the activity. Listening to music makes me happy. Being with my family makes me happy.
"Joy" is like a "stock." It is like a sink or a store of value. “Joy” is more permanent. Think of it like the cumulative value of a savings account that we periodically make joy-nourishing deposits. While "happiness" may be temporary, "joy" tends to build or diminish like a store of value. Being “happy” today is like an investment in future “joy.” For this article, we provide a framework to help us invest in our long-term joy.
Delaine Mazich faces the unthinkable, she lost her college age son about a year ago. She describes “joy” somewhat differently. She considers “joy” as a constant. A constant that is provided by her faith. She describes being drawn to friends that nourish her joy. My wife is part of Delaine’s inner faith circle. I am humbled by her joy and willingness to share.
[xii] For a nice description of our "anti-corinthian" nature, see our article describing neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor's "4-character" model. This is an apt description based on the limbic system, cerebral cortex, and the 2 brain hemispheres. Our anti-corinthian nature is generally found in our character 2. I named my character 2 "Anthony."
In the 4-character model, character 1 is the source of critical information, for good and bad. It is our character 2 that is our “negative emotion” and protective character. Character 2 naturally leverages character 1’s treasure trove of negative historical information. Left unchecked, character 2 will go down a rabbit hole, continuing to assemble negative information. Character 2 has no sense of severity nuance. To character 2, it is “all bad.” When it comes to relationships, character 2 is a source of our negative confirmation bias about our partner. It is what makes our partner’s red-ish box seem bigger than it really is.
Hulett, The anatomy of choice - learning from a brain explorer, The Curiosity Vine, 2021.
[xiii] Most world religions encourage us to live for others. For world religion forgiveness and reconciliation scripture examples, see the "Forgiveness and Reconciliation" section on page 701:
Wilson, World Scripture: A Comparative Anthology of Sacred Texts, 1991