Phase Transition in Relationships

What is a “phase transition” and how does it apply to relationships?

A phase transition is what Michael J. Mauboussin refers to in his book Think Twice, when talking about the millennium bridge “failure” or design flaw. The bridge was designed and built with a flaw that when 165 people walked across, it became extremely unstable oscillating from side to side. However with only 10 people less on the bridge, the movement was not so noticeable. It was this phase of adding just 10 people that created this noticeable and extreme phase transition.

Other examples of a phase transition in nature is the transition of water into its various states, we could use the analogy of the “straw that broke the camel’s back”, or “the last straw”.

Well, we all know that this happens in relationships also, don’t we. How many times have we heard the loud and unpleasant screech, “I’m sick of this”. Five times previously and we haven”t  heard a peep, but just one more time and bam! we’re in trouble.

Phase transitions are used to explain and predict catastrophic failure that can occur such as an economist might use for the stock market.

I guess anyone that has been separated or divorced will be aware of a phase transition. One day you are there and the next day you’re not, and you wonder how did it get to this point without you realising you were headed for the fall.

So, what caused the phase transition of the millennium bridge? Simple. As the bridge began to sway, the people on it widened their strides to counter the oscillation. They did this in unison, with the oscillation, which created even more side-ward motion until it became extreme.

It was their “coordinated behaviour” or lack of diversity in movement that created the problem in the system (and the design that did not prepare for the failure). It is the same lack of diversity that can occur in a relations, that can eventually tip it over into a phase transition. The failure to speak up and inject diverse thinking into the relationship, instead of securing the relationship, can in actual fact set it up for a catastrophic failure, over time.

How we inject and receive our diverse view points, so that our dissent is accepted, is what Rethink Perfect is about.

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