Sorrytaliatory Cycle: “I owe you an apology or a scolding, I can’t tell which.”

Sorrytaliatory Cycle: “I owe you an apology or a scolding, I can’t tell which.”

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Sorrytaliatory Cycle: My mistake—no, yours—no, mine—no . . .

“Excuse me, my unfocused words. I was flying blind. If you can find it in your heart . . . if you’ve got one. . .”
“Shame,” by Randy Newman from the album “Bad Love”

Decision theory recognizes that any yes/no question entails the prospect of being right or wrong, and that means four possible outcomes: A right yes, a right no, a wrong yes, and a wrong no. Thus there are two ways to be wrong: Saying yes when the answer is no (called a false positive or Type I error) and saying no when the answer is yes (called a false negative or a Type II error).

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We’re all pretty good at reducing both types of error, at saying yes when we should say yes and no when we should say no. Indeed, all adaptation and learning is aimed at reducing wrong yeses and nos on life’s pressing questions.

It’s easier to minimize wrong yeses and nos when your situation is stable than when it’s changing. Think of wrong yeses as aiming too far left and wrong nos as aiming too far right: if the target is standing still you’ll hit it more often than if it’s moving. When it’s moving, you’re likely to shoot too far to either side of it.

Likewise when life-circumstances are in transition your ability to make the right decisions declines. When a child is in a teenage growth spurt, parents will over- and underestimate the child’s maturity a lot more than when the child is very young. Going through the reverse growth spurt from adulthood to senior citizenship, we over- and underestimate how old we are. Fast-moving targets and rapid transitions naturally mean more miscalculations.

Some rapid transitions are intrinsically disappointing, frustrating, and humiliating. When your child becomes surly, when your beloved loses interest, when your status is in decline, the losses are simply no fun. On top of that then, the increase in error that comes with aiming at a moving target adds insult to injury. When a partnership becomes strained on the way to estrangement, the strain is no fun, and it’s frustrating how often we misinterpret the changing relationship. After all, one of the joys of partnership is the ease you feel with the other person, the sense that you can do no wrong. As the partnership starts unraveling, it becomes hard to find the right words and actions, in part simply because the relationship is in rapid transition.

One effect of the adjustment by fits and starts to something both intrinsically disappointing and rapidly changing is what I’ll call the sorrytaliatory cycle—an oscillation between remorse and retaliation. On the yes/no question “Is it my fault things are suddenly so hard?” it’s easy to fall into an oscillation between strong yes and strong no responses. It’s my fault. No, it’s not—it’s his fault. We apologize and resent it. We lash out and regret it.

Sorrytaliatory cycles are the strained effort to draw new boundaries when the relationship is in transition, when you can’t tell where the boundaries belong and you wish you didn’t have to redraw them anyway.

Parents fall into sorrytaliatory cycles. Shocked and insulted by their child’s surly behavior, they lose their temper and in a fierce voice threaten to impose some draconian punishment. When they’ve calmed down or when the child bursts into tears, these parents feel remorse and apologize profusely, offering lavish concessions for having gone too far. Then, feeling taken advantage of all over again, they lash out once more.

Breakups, for me, have always been marked by at least the impulse toward sorrytaliatory cycling, and typically some acting on that impulse, which declines over time. I first noticed the pattern when my marriage ended ten years ago. I’d feel deep remorse for having manipulated my former wife, and then great resentment for the way I felt manipulated by her. At first, the sorrytaliatory cycles came hard and fast, then every month, then every few months. Then, noticing the pattern, I gave it a name. That in itself made for a very marked decrease in the cycle’s frequency and severity.

To name it is to tame it.