Friction 101: the minor irritations you didn’t know you were experiencing and how to deal with them

The purpose of this post is to introduce the concept of friction.

Friction is not a fight, but it could turn into one. Friction is the little moments that aren’t really anything, but that can slowly grind on you. It’s relationship plaque; a little bit is easily scraped off but it can build and harden over time.

We’re all familiar with those irritating interactions with our partners that hint a fight could be around the corner. It’s when we tell ourselves, if I don’t let this slide, or if I pull at that thread, things could get unpleasant

Anyone who has tried to use face recognition to unlock their phone only for it to fail, or who has been forced into an ill-timed software update knows the feeling I’m describing. It’s the nano second in which something doesn’t work as well as it’s supposed to. It’s working, just not seamlessly.

In the context of a relationship, friction is the minor irritations you didn’t know you were experiencing. The unkind tone. The nagging. The unwelcome commentary. The crumbs sprinkled on the kitchen counter you just wiped cleaned. The growing pile of papers on the dinner table. The time between you calling and your partner replying.

Every couple experiences friction, but most don’t realize it’s happening. 

At what point in my relationship will friction set in?

I assumed friction developed only in a long term relationship. I was wrong. Friction is present in the early days of a relationship too, but our tolerance for it is much higher then so it’s imperceivable in the beginning. 

Take, for example, a third date. You’ve made a reservation. You can’t be seated until your entire party arrives. Your date shows up twenty minutes late. Your table has been given away. This is friction, but you don’t notice or care because your date is gorgeous, apologetic, and oh shit, they just touched your arm. You decide to take a romantic pre-dinner stroll down the street together to find another restaurant. 
My theory is that friction is a constant, whether we’re on a third date, or our third anniversary. Our tolerance for friction is what changes over time (as our tolerance decreases we notice friction more). The mathematically complex chart below shows friction as the red horizontal line.

Time and tolerance have an inverse relationship (green downward-sloping line).  Our tolerance is high when we’re first dating, so we’re unphased when our date shows up late, but as time passes, we find ourselves becoming more and more irritated by our partner’s tardiness. The intersection between friction and tolerance is the moment we first notice friction in our relationship. The shaded area is all the friction that follows (which we now see). 

How to deal with friction

Like most conflicts, the best way to resolve it is to first identify when it’s happening. Many of the couples I’ve interviewed were able to report several instances of friction within days (if not minutes) of having the concept explained to them. These are couples who didn’t think they were experiencing any friction. What’s even more interesting is that they were often able to catch themselves in the moment, which, in and of itself, eliminated some of the bad feelings. This makes perfect sense because we know that labeling a negative emotion causes that emotion to decrease in intensity.

Labeling friction is helpful for a couple of reasons. First, it will cause you to think about whether or not the bad feelings are warranted. It’s possible they are, and that’s ok too, but pausing to consider it is the important part. 

“Creating new patterns of mutual self-awareness and affirmation of the […] is the key to improving our relational dynamics.” – Esther Perel, Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author.

Second, labeling those little unpleasant moments as “friction” gives us language to describe our experience. This gives us a sense of power and control over it. 

Note: When I say “label it”, I mean identify it for yourself. There’s no need to tell your partner about each instance of friction you experience.

See if you notice moments of friction

Since this is just an introductory post about friction, I won’t go into detailed examples of it, but I’ll give you a few tiny ones below. For now, see if you notice the moments of friction in your relationship. If you do, label it, and move on. If the friction has hardened into a plaque, then it might be worth addressing with your partner (using a kind tone, of course).

Little examples of friction:

  • Your partner using your bath towel instead of their own, everyday.
  • Tripping over your partner’s tool box in the middle of the living room.
  • Getting ready to load the dishwasher only to find it has been filled to the brim with dirty dishes the night before but not turned on. 
  • The moment you settle onto the sofa to relax with a cold beer and a Netflix documentary and your partner walks in to ask you for help folding laundry.

MURDER. Am I right?


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