Competitive symmetric relationship

The Difference Between Symmetrical & Complementary Relationships

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Sarah Regan

August 15, 2020

mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

By Sarah Regan

mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.

August 15, 2020

Every couple has their idea of what's fair. From chores to family matters, many couples delegate and decide on who does what in the relationship. Couples often aspire toward an "equal" partnership, but what exactly that looks like depends on the couple in question.

According to couples' therapist Elizabeth Earnshaw, LMFT, nowadays couples usually fall into one of two categories: complementary or symmetrical. Here's what they both mean, plus whether one is more fair than the other.


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What is a complementary relationship?

A complementary relationship might look like what was considered more traditional for couples historically. According to Earnshaw, a complementary relationship is one where one person does X and the other does Y. Partners divide up responsibilities such that each person is in charge of a different aspect of their shared life together.

For example, in a traditional heterosexual relationship, the man would be the breadwinner in charge of earning and managing the money, while the woman would be the homemaker in charge of taking care of cooking, cleaning, and child care.

What is a symmetrical relationship?

In a symmetrical relationship, emphasis and importance is placed on equal effort from both partners in all areas, as opposed to each person doing something to complement the other.

"This means that both people are deciding to enter into relationships in which each person carries similar roles," Earnshaw explains. "Both partners work; both partners vocally agree to help with child-rearing and home care, etc."

Symmetrical relationships are becoming more popular nowadays, particularly as more women are becoming breadwinners in their households and more attention has been given to the unequal division of housework that leaves women with a disproportionate amount of domestic responsibilities even as they work the same number of hours as their partners.


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Is one better than the other?

According to Earnshaw, neither is healthier than the other.

"There is nothing superior about either relationship," she says. "Successful relationships can be created out of both complementary and symmetrical relationships as long as both people in the relationship are in true agreement about the arrangement. "

Problems arise, she says, when couples think they're experiencing one type of relationship, when the reality is different, or when they can't agree on which they want to be.

"Many 'modern' couples aspire to be in a symmetrical relationships, where each person is doing most of the work equally," she explains. "However, due to conditioning and lack of explicit conversations, they will often end up in complementary relationships. When this happens, it can lead to resentment and confusion. The same occurs in couples that state they would like a complementary relationship, when, in fact, one person truly wishes for a more symmetrical relationship."

Acknowledging invisible labor.

Even among people who outwardly claim they want a more equal relationship (i.e., a symmetrical relationship), women in heterosexual couples still end up saddled with the bulk of the household chores—particularly the invisible labor involved in keeping the household and relationship moving, sometimes referred to as the mental load.

The mental load refers to being the one in charge of managing who's in charge of what, overseeing tasks to make sure they get done, reminding the other person to get their share of the tasks done, and being the person who has to plan everything. It disproportionately falls on women and has been linked1 to negative health consequences.

In complementary relationships, Earnshaw notes that "couples could potentially find 'fairness' in [that] distribution of the mental load (i.e., women doing all of it)."

In symmetrical relationships, couples often divide up household chores and child care equally—but they forget to account for this mental load, mostly because as a culture we've simply socialized women to automatically take up this role and socialized men to not even register this invisible labor their partners are doing for them.

"There is a conscious agreement that things will be mostly equal," Earnshaw explains, but "it doesn't usually happen that way because women must learn to let the mental load muscle atrophy a bit, and men must learn to strengthen it. "


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The bottom line.

Neither symmetrical nor complementary relationships are inherently "better" than the other. What does matter is that you and your partner are in agreement about your roles and responsibilities in the relationship. In this case, Earnshaw says it's important that people are "continually explicit about their expectations in relationships and that they talk to each other frequently about whether the expectation is being met."

And as time goes on, remember that people and relationships change, and that's OK. "You might start a relationship believing that one relationship structure is best," she says, "and later find that it doesn't truly work for your lifestyle or fit within your values."

Once you identify both what kind of relationship you're in and which you actually want, you can start the conversation with your partner to figure out how to get where you want to be.

If fairness around the house is a problem in your relationship, here's our full guide to sharing the housework equally.


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Sarah Regan

mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.

1 Sources


Symmetrical and Complementary Relationships

In the 1960s, a team of theorists and psychologists at the Mental Research Institute (MRI) in Palo Alto, California started to study communication in families in a new way. This team recognized that self-reinforcing and self-correcting feedback loops occur in many fields, including neurology, evolutionary biology and even mechanical and electrical systems. Such systems constantly adjust themselves. A good example is the thermostat in your house. When the thermostat registers that the temperature falls, the furnace kicks on until the house heats up. When the desired temperature is reached, the thermostat lets the furnace know it can shut off. And around and around it goes.

They applied those observations to psychology, suggesting that as people in families communicate with each other, they respond in similar feedback loops. Individuals, they found, not only react to each other but also react to each other’s reactions. This leads the first person or group to react to those reactions and so forth in an endless communication loop.

A well known example is the “pursuer-distance” relationship of some couples. When pursuers feel there is too much space between them and a partner, they pursue. If the distancers feel they are being crowded, they distance in order to get some space. If the distancer distances too much, the pursuer again pursues. And around and around it goes.

To describe their new understanding of family dynamics, they adopted the term cybernetics. This word was originally used in the 40’s by Norbert Weiner who defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.”

The MRI team identified two types of feedback loops: Symmetrical – where people respond to each other in similar ways and Complementary – where one person yields to or supports the other. Neither is more “correct” than the other. When expressed in healthy ways, either type of feedback loop results in growth and positive change. But, if not checked by cultural norms or positive values, the communication loop can get out of control and become unhealthy and destructive.

The team went on to more clearly specify healthy as well as unhealthy ways that symmetrical or complementary relationships can work.

In healthy symmetrical relationships, the two parties mirror each other. One person’s success gets celebrated (respected, admired) from the other who then works to be equally successful who then gets celebrated (respected, admired) for their success and so forth. An unhealthy example of symmetry would be of two siblings who are brutally competitive with each other. Neither can rest in their anxiety to always be on top. Each spends his life anxiously looking over his shoulder to see whether his brother is besting him and renewing his own efforts to be best and first.

In healthy complementary relationships, the pattern of each person’s behavior fits or is complementary to the other. Sometimes this is expressed as a division of labor where one person takes on a project while the other provides support for that person’s success which makes the other person more successful which is then supported by the other. Both recognize and appreciate the other’s contribution to the project. An unhealthy complementarity can be seen in couples where one person dominates disrespects and controls the other and the other person responds by becoming more and more passively the victim.

For a more thorough explanation of these communication patterns, see Watzlawick, Beavin and Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies and Paradoxes, Norton Books, 1967.

Some of the most brilliant and innovative thinkers in psychology at the time, including such luminaries as Gregory Bateson, Paul Watzlawick,Richard Fisch, Jules Riskin,Virginia Satir,Salvador Minuchin,R.D. Laing,Irvin D. Yalom,Jay Haley and Cloe Madanes were drawn to Palo Alto to engage in the research and to learn from each other. Their experimental and innovative work forms the basis of much of what we do in family therapy today.

Why? Because the work at Palo Alto was a seismic shift in thinking. Cybernetics asked us to stop looking at problematic behaviors of individuals in a family and instead to consider the family as a “system,” an organic and ecological whole whose members are in constant communication with and reaction to each other.

Treatment necessarily then moved from treating each individual to treating the communication within the system as a whole. Yes, the field of family therapy has evolved and changed over the last 50+ years. But I think it’s important that we not forget key principles from this early work.

Why Remember Cybernetics:

It reminds us that neither pattern is the “right” way to set up a relationship.

It’s only human to believe that the way we have chosen to structure our own relationship is best. But there are many healthy ways (both symmetrical and complementary) for people to be in a significant or married relationship. Whether the therapist is in a more complementary marriage of bread-winner and homemaker or in a more symmetrical relationship based on egalitarian principles, it is not his or her job to promote what works for them. It’s the therapist’s job to look for the health or potential for health in a couple’s unique pattern of relating and to help them strengthen it.

It is non-judgmental.

Describing a pattern of communication that the couple or family has fallen into removes the idea that someone is to blame for the problems. Rather, everyone has become stuck in a pattern that is causing pain and everyone is, however unwittingly, reinforcing it.

It short circuits the idea that someone started it.

When thinking cybernetically, it is impossible to figure out who started a problem interaction. It is understood that, yes, someone did something that triggered someone else but it’s pointless to go digging through history for that moment. The fact is that a person can only be triggered if they have a sensitivity to whatever the other person does and the person doing the triggering may not have any idea that they are setting off something in the partner. It’s more helpful to look at the circularity of their interaction and help everyone involved understand it and decide how to change it.

It puts the couple (or family members) on the same team.

Having established the no one is to blame and that who or what started it doesn’t matter, it is easier to help the couple or family members stop fighting with each other and instead to turn their attention to mutually solving the problem.

It changes the goal of treatment from fixing an individual to fixing a pattern.

When people are reacting to each other’s reactions to each other’s reactions, the goal becomes to intrude on the cycle, not to define the problem as the need to fix one or more person’s “issues” Often this mindset has an interesting effect. The couple or family does work on changing their communication pattern. But, it also reduces the defensiveness of individuals and makes each more open to working on their particular concerns.

Will there be competition under communism? (about A. Tsvetkov's article)

Aleksey Tsvetkov published the chapter "Repeat the Revolution" from his new book, on Snob (!) and here.

Fully agreeing with the criticism of capitalism and the need to move towards a communist society, I would like to discuss some points. In addition, the question of what equality is from the point of view of communication theory and logical types seems to be extremely important.
Here is the quote that seemed the most controversial:

« Communism is a gradual transition of people from competitive to symbiotic relationships. The condition for such a transition is a sufficient complication of production, the growth of their productivity and, as a result, the complication of people's thinking, the growth of their culture, including political. Such conditions are achieved precisely as a result of intense competition between people at the market stage. What are the main concerns about communism? The transition from competition to symbiosis will necessarily “spoil the breed”, not in the racist sense, of course, but in the sense that qualitative selection will disappear and, therefore, the overall quality of life will fall, “average down”, incentives to complicate life will begin to melt and reign. stagnation, entropy will win in the form of indifference of imitators. The technical and cultural basis of a non-competitive society will collapse. This means that competition between people on the way to a classless and non-commodity world must be preserved, taking other forms. Competition is the main engine in the fight against entropy. It's just that competition should lose all connection with the level of consumption and with access to the public good (the product of common labor). It is not market competition that must win. It is quite possible that in the communist perspective, the competition of people in science, love, sports, sophistication and altruism of behavior, artistry of speech, professionalism, etc. will, on the contrary, increase, and the well-deserved attention of others will become its incentive. Then the communist society is a society of competition of authorities with an economic symbiosis of citizens. This is a society of altruistic competition, where everyone wants to outdo others in their usefulness to these others, and this desire replaces religious and metaphysical self-justifications for everyone. The prototype of communist competition is the current collection of likes, non-material rewards (not to be confused with school grades issued by authorized and authoritarian expert teachers ). "

It is not entirely clear what is meant in this context by a symbiotic relationship as opposed to a competitive one.
Gregory Bateson proposed to consider two main types of human relationships - symmetrical and complementary. Competition is, of course, a symmetrical relationship.
G. Bateson's definition: “ If in binary relations the behavior of subjects A and B is considered (by both) as similar and is connected in such a way that the strengthening of this type of behavior by agent A stimulates its strengthening in agent B and vice versa, then the relationship is "symmetrical" towards this type of behavior. If, on the contrary, the behavior of A and B is dissimilar, but mutually consistent (as, for example, voyeurism is consistent with exhibitionism) and is related in such a way that an increase in behavior A stimulates an increase in consistent behavior B, then the relationship is "complementary" with respect to this type of behavior .
Typical examples of simple symmetrical relationships: the arms race, the desire to "be no worse than neighbors", athletics, boxing, etc. Typical examples of complementary relationships: dominance/submission, sadism/masochism, caring/addiction, voyeurism/exhibitionism, etc."
. ("Cybernetics of the Self: The Theory of Alcoholism"). Bateson called the progressive changes in certain directions schismogenesis (from the Latin "schizis" - splitting).0005 Symmetrical relationships form similar traits (“aggression versus aggression”, “strength versus strength”, “suspicion versus suspicion”, “wealth versus wealth”, “conspicuous consumption versus conspicuous consumption”), the differences seem to be minimized and play an insignificant role. An important note - in such relations we are not talking about equality, but about the struggle for dominance, for primacy.
Symmetrical relationships, if they consistently develop and are not interrupted by one of the parties, can lead to serious conflicts, to the destruction of relations, which can be observed, for example, in families if they constantly fight over who is “in charge”.

Complementary relationships form differences that grow over time. The simplest example: one side is dominant, the other is subordinate; active - passive, etc. In complementary relationships, there is an asymmetric distribution of power. An important characteristic of such relations is that the roles are rigidly fixed and relations (communication) are carried out according to the same scheme. The development of such relationships can also lead to conflicts and dissatisfaction - both parties begin to feel deprived of their freedom; on the one hand, for example, a feeling of helplessness is growing, the other is increasing its power and influence.
Schismogenesis, respectively, is divided into symmetrical and complementary.
In one case, for example, the struggle for power is constantly growing, in the other - dominance and submission.

Both types of relationships (patterns) can be a good counterbalance to each other. To think that any one type of relationship is “better” and you need to get rid of another is not entirely true. In harmonious relationships, both patterns are present, one of which replaces the other. If there is no healthy competition in the relationship at all, they can become boring, but if it all comes down to fighting, then this is the path to the destruction of the relationship. Violent conflicts of interest may be resolved by compromise or agreement; the impasse of complementary schismogenesis can be revived by healthy competition. In families, for example, in some matters the wife may be the leader, in others - the husband, in the third - everything is decided jointly.
Thus, for a healthy relationship, it is better to combine both patterns, in different proportions, taking into account different situations and contexts.

But how do you “switch” different types of relationships?
To do this, you need to have an idea about the informational (transmitting) and command aspects of human communication. The command aspect of communication determines the relationship between people.
Messages "There will be no increase in salary" and "Don't even think about raising your salary!" have approximately the same information content, but define relationships in different ways, especially if they are accompanied by non-verbal signals (gestures, intonations - imperious, in this case).
The command aspect of communication is also called metacommunication, that is, communication about communication (relationships). Misunderstanding and confusion of different levels of communication leads to many serious problems, one of which is double bind, which happens all the time and everywhere. The simplest examples of metacommunication are: “This is an order”, “I am in charge”, “This is a joke”, “This is a metaphor”. The relationship, as already mentioned, can be expressed non-verbally, it can also be understood from the context in which the communication takes place.
All these complex aspects of relationships are rarely fully realized. In turn, communication traps and paradoxes make it extremely difficult to understand the levels of communication, which can lead to almost hopeless situations.

"Healthy" relationships are characterized by the fact that they are more understandable for all of their participants, they always have the opportunity for metacommunication, the opportunity to discuss relationships and change them. The team aspect in a healthy relationship recedes into the background. On the contrary, “sick” relationships are characterized by a constant and intensifying struggle for the nature of the relationship (which, by the way, is often conducted unconsciously, under the guise of any disputes, for example), and the informational aspect fades into the background.

Now we can return to symmetrical and complementary relationships and ask ourselves, which of these two types of relationships implies equality? A very important question for the left-oriented thinker!
With complementary relationships, initially there is no equality, with symmetrical relationships there is a constant struggle for supremacy.
The point is that "equality" is just a concept of another boolean type.
One can speak of equality in a situation where it is possible for all participants in a relationship to move from one type of relationship to another. And, of course, everyone has the opportunity to discuss relationships and the possibility of changing them, that is, to metacommunicate. At the same time, there is no getting stuck in fixed roles and rigid constantly repeating patterns, there is no schismogenesis, which entails an increase in conflicts and enmity. No one is tied "forever and forever" to the roles of leader and follower, master and slave, strong and weak, active and passive, etc.
If we return here to the question of building a communist society, then communism must create an economic basis for equality, understood in this way. There will be no economic dependence and need, everyone will have equal access to the means of production, there will be no classes ... It makes no sense to list here the well-known main provisions of the communist project.

Thus, the solution to the “problem of competition” is not to redirect it in the “necessary” direction, but in understanding the complexity of the communication process, in a systematic approach to it. The point here is in the very possibility of “switching” between types of relationships and roles, in the ability to manage communication processes, and not in following any particular pattern.
Another important issue is a paradigm shift and progress towards systemic thinking, in which the world appears not as a set of isolated elements and phenomena, but society as a set of isolated individuals-atoms striving to satisfy only their personal interests (asystemic thinking), but involves a shift from parts to wholes, from objects to relationships, from content to patterns. In relation to the human community, the systemic paradigm implies a deep understanding of the complexity and multiplicity of relationships between its members.

Many social psychologists and psychotherapists have written about the consequences of the prevalence of competition in relationships. The contemporary German psychotherapist Klaus Vopel even debunked the "four myths of the anti-competitionists." K. Fopel is also known as a developer and promoter of interactive games based on cooperation, trust and partnership.
Among the myths exposed by Fopel: Myth 1. Competition is an inevitable companion of life, it is inherent in human nature; Myth 2. Competition brings out the best in people and reveals their hidden potential. We could not achieve anything without competition.
Fopel shows how fruitful (in all respects, including character building) relationships can be based on cooperation, and how problematic relationships based on competition. In addition, cooperation does not mean conflict-free, emphasizes the German psychologist. “True cooperation leads to the fact that everyone makes his own contribution, everyone has his own opinion. On the basis of positive relations, what can conditionally be called a “constructive conflict” grows, the resolution of which is not associated with issues of victory or defeat; such "conflicts" do not irritate, but teach. Similar ideas are expressed by the Canadian psychologist T. Orlik, speaking about the "usefulness of games without losers."

Therefore, there is absolutely no need to try to artificially transfer the competitive relations formed under capitalism into a future society based on other principles. It makes no sense to drag into the future a language formed by a dying socio-economic formation. Competition is very "dear" to liberals, and someone considers it to be something like the law of universal gravitation, and not a social construct (historical social relations), but this is just one of the points of view (with which we do not agree). It is also difficult for us to agree that competition is “the main engine in the fight against entropy”.

The thesis that the complication of production, thinking, culture, etc. is due to intense competition is also extremely doubtful. There are any number of examples of how intense competition can contribute precisely to primitivization, stereotyping and depersonalization.
K. Fopel: “rivalry depersonalizes us. After all, competition can only exist when everyone recognizes the same values ​​and strives for the same goals according to the same rules. This leads to the fact that individuality is relegated to the background, from which, naturally, creative activity also suffers. Creative activity inherently presupposes the diversity of people, the originality of their thoughts and the willingness to question the expediency of decisions already taken. Nor is it surprising that rivalry fuels conflict. In the case of constant competition, we are not dealing with courageous heroes, but with cautious, obedient people. If a person holds values ​​that go beyond impersonality, then he is usually very skeptical about the idea of ​​​​rivalry.
As for the complication of our economy, culture, relations and psychology, it is unlikely that such complex processes could occur only thanks to such a completely simple mechanism as competition. Complex problems require complex explanation and complex thinking.

P.S. According to the text of Alexei Tsvetkov, there are still questions. It is not entirely clear what “qualitative selection” is (it’s not even just him, just terms, the meaning of which, to put it mildly, is not very clear, a great many), why it will disappear under communism and defeat indifference, etc.

Literature (with links)

Fopel K. On competition and cooperation

Orlik T. On the benefits of games without losers

Relationship types and logical types - community materials Practice of the ecology of mind . "Objects or relations"?

Watzlawick P., Bivin D., Jackson D. Pragmatics of Human Communications: Exploring Interaction Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes

G. Bateson's Proceedings:
Ecology of mind: Selected articles on anthropology, psychiatry and epistemology
Nature and mind. necessary unity.
Cybernetics I: Theory of alcoholism.

Article by Psychologists Against Capitalism: Psychology and Psychoanalysis of Competitive Relations.

Tags: Bateson, Watzlawick, anti-capitalism, competition, Marxism, systems approach Topic 1: Competition in the business system.
Competition in the life of nature and human society. Biological prerequisites for competition in the business system. Competitive advantages of business entities (SPB). Competitive advantages and competitive business environment. Evaluation of the competitive advantages of SPB by their partners and rivals. Social value of St. Petersburg. Competitive goals and competitive goal-setting SPB. Signs of modern competition.

Topic 2: Competitive potential of business entities. Entrepreneurial competitiveness. System of competitive actions.
Competitive potential of SPB, differences between resource and competitive potential. Formal and real competitiveness of St. Petersburg. Types of competitive actions. Directions of competitive actions. Maneuverability of competitive actions. Price and non-price methods of competition. Competitive forces of St. Petersburg. Forms of competitive actions.

Topic 3: Competitive positioning of SPB.
Competitive positions and competitive positioning SPB. Approaches to the quantitative determination of the competitive positions of business entities used in countering the dominance of individual competitors and the monopolization of product markets. Objective limiters of dominant competitive positioning, competitive forces of contractors, consumers and direct rivals. State and international antimonopoly barriers to competitive positioning. Ensuring the sustainability of competitive actions and competitive positions of business entities in conditions of uncertainty, competitive risk.

Topic 4: Competitive behavior in the business system. Competitive Strategies of St. Petersburg.
Competitive motivation of business entities. Strategic goal-setting of competitive actions, strategic conditions for competitive behavior. Strategic management of competitive actions. Strategic stereotypes of competitive behavior. Strategic competitive positions. Formats of competitive behavior strategies. The strategy of mechanical monopolization. Strategy of integrating consolidation. Strategies for simple and disintegrating disengagement. Business isolation strategy. Strategy of cooperative solidarity. Compromise strategy. Types of competitive status of business entities.

Topic 5: Tactics of competitive behavior of SPB.
Tactical competitive threats. Techniques, models and manners of competitive behavior of business entities. Tactical maneuvering in business. Offensive models of tactics of competitive behavior. Tactical models of interception. Tactical models of concentrated offensive. Models of double, multi-purpose, frontal and flank offensive. Defensive model of competitive behavior. Models of competitive behavior of business entities that separate offensive tactics from defense tactics. Techniques and models of distracting competitive behavior. Objective and subjective tactical determinants of the strength of competitive behavior of business entities. Strength and intensity of competitive behavior tactics.

Topic 6: Competitive situations in business.
Models and types of competitive situations, symmetrical and asymmetric competitive situations, the principle of market lead. Types of competitive situations. Synchronization paradox of situational competitive behavior, Casus belli in competitive struggle. Intelligence and counterintelligence as tools to reduce tactical risks and manage competitive situations.

Topic 7. Role functions and role status of competitors.
Competitive centrism, theatrical analogies of competitive rivalry. Features of the formation of the role functions of the SPB. Role functions of debutants. Role function of conditional debutants. Role functions of companies at the time of business maturity. Adaptive-adaptive role function of SPB. The guaranteeing (providing) role function of the SPB. Business entities with displaced role stereotypes. Role status of business entities, absolute and relative leadership in competition. Entrepreneurial business entities that have claims to leadership and their characteristics. Features pure leadership contenders, adventurous and bluffing leadership contenders. Extras and business outsiders. Features of the performance of role functions by companies in market sectors with different degrees of maturity.

Topic 8. Development of the theory of competition.
Formation and evolution of views on competition in economics before the 20th century. Studies of competition at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries and in the first third of the 20th century. Modern views on competition in the theories of foreign economists. Development of views on competition in the Soviet period of the modern history of Russia. Formation of the modern theory of competition in Russia.

Topic 9. Competition in the Russian economy.
The evolution of competitive relations in the Russian economy in the pre-October period.

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