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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Love and broken windows

Y'know, it's way easier to be nice to people you don't know than people you do. To be more specific, it's hardest to be nice to the people with whom you have the most contact: friends, family, lovers and loved ones.

Think about it. It's not too difficult to get a refreshing splash of "Hey, I'm a nice person" just by holding the door open for someone. If someone on the street drops a glove, the rush of "done good" is sweet and easy. Yet the people to whom you are closest, the ones with whom you share the greatest portions of your time, are frequently the same people for whom it requires a significant summoning of moral fiber in order to be as nice in such simple ways.

Granted, we tend to take those closest to us for granted, but there's more to it than that. Since our loved ones are, well, loved, we must be emotionally open to them. How could you possibly say you love someone if you're not open to that person, if your feelings aren't exposed and accessible to the person you consider special enough to love?

By opening our inner selves to those to whom we feel the closest, we make ourselves more receptive, and more accessible, to those people's emotions. This is a good thing, since it helps to reinforce the closeness through a positive feedback loop (assuming these people are as open to us).

This is also a bad thing. By opening up, we also expose ourselves to the everyday, casual acts of inconsideration, to the unconsidered emotional responses of our loved ones -- and on a continuing basis. Just like it's easier to be nice to people you don't know, it's also much, much harder to be hurt by them.

Of course, the more we know someone, the more open we are to them, and the more time we spend with them, the more these seemingly inconsequential trifles of misbehaviour add up. It's not even nickels and dimes -- more like pennies and ha'pennies, but they still can build into an overwhelming mountain of loose change. Or loose words and actions.

So, as some wise wag once spoke, "familiarity breeds contempt". Of course, it also begets a closeness, fondness, and interdependence that sometimes borders on the symbiotic. Yet that build up of tiny slights still weighs heavily on the camel's back, and the sheer, unwieldy mass of it can make the smaller kindnesses seem like too much work for the payoff. A low return on investment, or ROI, if you will.

So why do most people bother to try for the little things in their close relationships, when the payoff seems swallowed by the start-up costs? What makes people strive to overcome the inertia of their bulky bits of baggage, so that they might perform the small niceties for those they love?

It's a lot like the "broken window" theory espoused by those who strive to resist urban decay. Basically, the idea is that the rates of lesser crimes remain higher, and can even escalate, in areas where broken windows are not replaced in rarely occupied buildings (such as warehouses, vacant shops and empty homes). Studies have proven that, when the windows get repaired soon after they are broken (along with the other minor but obvious repairs like paint and trim), the crime rates drop -- rather significantly, in fact. To be succinct, fixing the small things has a direct impact on the goal of fixing the big problems.

Theorists suggest that a lot of this has to do with civic or neighbourly pride. When the area you live in looks nicer, you're less inclined to want to do bad things in it. Also, people are happier.

Bringing this back to small kindnesses, we can apply the same thinking to the question of why people in relationships try despite the weight on their shoulders. The answer is that if the niceties are not maintained, even strived for, then the relationship, like the neighbourhood, will decay. Also, people will be less happy.

Happy Valentines Day, everyone. Go hug somebody -- and maybe hold the door open for them, too.



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