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Relational Entropy and what to do about it

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relational entropy - The catholic Weekly
Couple exchanging a present. Photo: Pexels.

It’s the second law of thermodynamics and we use the term regularly in ordinary conversation. But what does entropy have to do with relationships?

Entropy is defined as “a process of degradation or running down, or a trend to disorder.” In thermodynamics, there’s this idea that in order to resist, or reverse, the effects of entropy, one has to input energy.

We see entropy in action when the grandkids come over: if we don’t constantly put in energy picking up discarded toys and chunks of food off the floor, by end of day our house looks like a tornado has been through it.

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Presently, the toddler girls are obsessed with cutting paper. Despite the convenience of a waste-paper basket placed under their busy hands, their clippings rarely make it in. Because that would take additional energy and they are fully invested in making those fingers work the scissors.

What’s this got to do with relationships? It turns out that “relational entropy” is actually a thing and people do research on it.

Relational entropy is “the tendency of interpersonal relationships to shift from a state of order to one of disorder over time.” Studies of friendships and how they change over time show that when they are neglected, they decay.

Friendships need attention if they are to be maintained. If we haven’t spoken to that high school buddy in 20 years, it’s not really an active friendship.

Our past is littered with beautiful friends with whom we haven’t spoken in decades. That’s not a judgement, just a statement of reality—the reality of entropy.

But it’s not just friendships; it’s also marriages that suffer from relational entropy. We do. You do. Every marriage is afflicted by the laws of entropy.

Relational Entropy: the natural tendency of relationship systems to move from a state of order to disorder. We could translate this into relational units by substituting “order to disorder” with “intimacy to disconnection.”

It takes intentional energy to avoid this trend. That’s why we talk so often about “intentional marriage.” It’s another way of saying: we need to put in relational energy to resist (or reverse) the effects of relational entropy.

So many marriages break down, not from conflict but because they just drift apart. We mistakenly think marriages don’t take energy because our love felt so effortless at the beginning; we just assumed that maintaining it wouldn’t need effort.

Yet, the truth is, our love at the beginning wasn’t effortless. It just felt that way because we enjoyed each other so much. When something (like falling in love) is fun, we don’t notice the effort. It feels more like play than work.

This principle applies to lots of things: learning to read, play an instrument, mastering a sport or a new skill. When we get good at it, it’s fun and the effort we put in doesn’t feel like work.

So what does this mean for our marriage? We need to constantly be putting energy into our relationship; leaning in, making small daily gestures to express love and appreciation.

It’s the small, easy-to-do things, rather than the occasional grand gesture, which sets up a “way of life” in which intimacy and trust flourish. Once established, relational order takes less effort to maintain, and we enjoy each other more.

Our marriages are all subject to relational entropy; it’s just how the universe works. Don’t let the second law of thermodynamics get the better of your marriage and chose order over chaos.

Francine & Byron Pirola are co-founders of www.smartloving.org.

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