The Personality Distortion Field in Relationships

There has been a lot of talk about the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ ‘reality distortion field’ — the idea that he was so extremely charismatic that he could bend people’s opinions to confirm to his wishes when he was near them.

A similar thing occurs in relationships. As I relate in “Whose Rules Are We Playing By?”, it’s generally true that one partner in the relationship is a little more firm in their personal reality, and therefore gets to set the rules by which the partnership operates.

One way to look at this phenomenon is to see the early dating and getting-to-know-you period as really a battle of the wills (seduction and pick-up-artis lingo calls this ‘frame control’, which itself is language borrowed from the political and media realm.) There are a few things in play here:

  1. Who is more sure that they are right and, at the same time, better able to convince other people that they are right?
  2. Who cares less and is more easily able to cancel dates, hold back physically, be emotionally distant?

A very common pattern in human relationships is that as one partner retreats, the other advances — physically and emotionally. The person who has initiated the pull back is typically seen as more ‘in control’ even if they are completely unable to help themselves, that is, if their ‘pulling back’ is an unconscious pattern caused by fear of being hurt by intimate contact (quite often the case).

As a man, I spent many years refining my distant / avoidant behavior, maintaining control of the frame, being absolutely certain of my reality, and in this way screening hard for women who would accept this and go along with it. Now I have to say, there’s a certain type of woman that will go along with this behavior. There’s an entirely different type of woman who behaves this way herself. It’s been fascinating to be on both sides of this behavior, to get a complete understanding of it from all angles. A lot of guys have played the hard-to-get card or the I-chase-hard card, but you don’t really master these dynamics until you’ve played both sides to the hilt.

During the dating period, the question of whose reality are we living in, and who is conforming to whom, is pretty fluid and open. That’s part of the dance that makes dating so fun (or annoying, depending on who you ask).

Once you’ve settled down into a relationship, the pattern is pretty well established. Who is running the relationship? Who is the alpha? Who has a stronger ‘reality distortion field’ (RDF)? The RDF, by the way, is what allows one partner to literally change the other partner’s mind, to get them to go along with crazy plans, to get them to accept otherwise-ridiculous scenarios, basically on the strength of charisma, power of will, perceived attractiveness, and fear of loss.

This is plain to see, by the way, when you meet a new couple. Hang out with them for a couple of hours and it’s pretty clear who wears the pants in the relationship, and who is more afraid of loss. It can be a fun game to play if you’re out with friends meeting lots of couples.

The point of all this is to be aware, and to be intentional. Are you willing to accept the subordinate role for the sake of a relationship? Are you willing to maybe push yourself out of your comfort zone, and assert yourself more strongly (this is scariest in a relationship, because it entails big risk)?

This may seem a little reductionist or manipulative or single-minded. I will say that the healthiest, most admirable relationships are those in which there is constant struggle for control of the frame and the reality. Or rather, I should say, the male partner has a slightly stronger reality, but the female partner is always fighting for it, and sometimes wins — temporarily.

Have you seen this dynamic in effect? What role do you usually play?


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