Can you define a "paradox" to an average 12-year-old? Try saying your definition out loud, and compare it to this: "A *paradox* is something that inherently negates itself." Paradoxes exist because many things in the world have different levels of meaning, depending on the context. A simple example is - if you're (1) walking to the rear of a moving train or plane, you're also (2) moving forward (relative to the ground), and (3) spiralling around the sun as (4) the galaxy spins and (5) moves through space.

Notice how your mind reacts to the statement "I can move in five directions at once." Normal reactions to interpersonal paradoxes and double messages (like "I love you. Go away.") are confusion, and sometimes irritation and distrust.

A common class of paradoxes occurs with the normal human trait of *denials* - e.g. an addict swearing he or she does not use drugs or gamble compulsively, when the evidence says otherwise.

Knowledge of this curious reality is important in normal relationships, because without awareness of it, we're all vulnerable to a dynamic called a Be Spontaneous! paradox. The title says it all, for by definition - you can't demand that someone be spontaneous, because that can only come from within.


This dynamic manifests among people who aren't unaware of it and of their needs and behavior, in many ways. Their behaviors usually cause frustration, confusion, disorientation and "stress" - specially if the initiator denies or rationalizes their paradoxic behavior. ("You MUST trust me, because...")

The paradox occurs because we all long for certain responses in important other people that can only be given spontaneously - like love, trust, respect, honesty, patience, commitment, appreciation, loyalty, compassion, interest, empathy, humor, desire, and tolerance.

For example, if your spouse says "You have to respect me because I'm your mate!" that sets up an impossible expectation - because genuine respect can only be earned. If the receiver says "OK" and tries to manifest respect out of duty, fear, and/or guilt, the initiator can complain "You're only doing that because I asked you to, not because you *want* to." Things get even more confusing if the responder denies that.

The way out of this relationship snare is for people to (a) be aware of paradoxic expectations, and to (b) use win-win problem solving to get their mutual needs met. That might sound like person "A" saying "I need to feel more respected by you more often. Am I doing something that you don't respect?"

Person "B" says (if it's safe) "Yes. You're eating unhealthily, not exercising well, working too hard, sleeping too little, and ignoring your body. I have a hard time respecting you because your behavior says you don't respect yourself. I need you to
*want to* value yourself more - for *you,* not for me."

Notice the potential here for another Be Spontaneous!paradox: "B" could fruitlessly *demand* that "A" respect
herself more. Lose-lose.

If you accept this idea, then the next time someone doesn't meet your expectations, (or you don't meet theirs), check for a Be Spontaneous! paradox. Tell other important people about this dynamic, and help each other avoid them.

For more perspective, see the article on "30 Common Communication Blocks" (and what to do about them) at

Author's Bio: 

I have studied and taught relationship and communication skills professionally since 1979, and many years before that. I maintained a private family-systems tharapy practice near Chicago from 1981 through 2007, and offer what I've learned in a nonprofit educational Web site ( and six guidebooks published by I'm still learning!