The Broken Window Theory of Personal Relationships

Go to any down-in-the-heels, crime-ridden, poverty-stricken inner city and you are certain to find one thing. Lots and lots of broken windows. Most of these broken windows will be in abandoned buildings, where no one appears to care and no one seems to be affected. Windows don’t break on their own, someone picked up a rock and winged it. It’s fun. If you’ve never done it, try it. Try it on your own window. Please don’t do it on an abandoned building. Even though it may appear that no one is affected, people are.

The presence of broken windows, besides just looking bad and being a safety hazard with all that shattered glass around, signals that no one cares about the neighborhood. They advertise that minor laws can be broken with impunity. Someone else’s property can be damaged and no one will stop you, they say. Broken windows proclaim you can do what you want, whatever feels good, because the consequences don’t matter. There are no consequences. There’s no reason to be restrained, no cause for self-discipline, no rationale for the delay of gratification. Pick up whatever rock you want and chuck it. It’s fun.

The presence of broken windows can have a profound impact on the psychological health and social functioning of everyone in the area, but you would never know that if you looked at the priorities of many police departments in many cities. They’re more interested in going after the big crimes: murder, grand larceny, kidnapping, rape; not in hassling kids chucking stones. However, it is those very kids chucking stones who grow up to be murderers, thieves, kidnappers, and rapists when no one intervenes when they commit the petty crimes. It is for that reason that many of the smartest police departments have chosen to focus on quality-of-life issues, like vandalism, littering, fare-dodging, and loud music, as well as major crimes. There is some evidence to believe that it makes a big difference.

Some people have credited the broken window theory of community policing for the dramatic turn-around that occurred in crime statistics over the past few years. Some others have blamed it for the poor relations that police departments have with the people they serve, people who are sick of being hassled and criminalized over trivial stuff.

The broken window theory has fallen into some disrepute as it’s used to justify stop and frisk police tactics, vigilantism, and as a cover for the blatant harvesting of fines. Then there are the critics who question the methodology of the studies that draw a link between broken window policing and the drop in crime. Nonetheless, I believe we can learn from the broken window theory, both in its application and misapplication, even if we are only people in personal relationships, and not people charged with the law and order of great cities.

If you were to apply the broken window theory to your personal relationships, you would pay attention to the small annoyances before they get a chance to fester and corrode. If you let the little things go and then go all ape shit over the big things, then you can learn from the broken window theory. Learn to intervene, earlier, before you lose it. Talk to your partner about what bothers you. Show respect, admiration, and express gratitude. Practice simple civility.

However, if you go after the small annoyances with the same assertiveness that you address the larger issues, then you’re doing it wrong. In the same way that a police officer must deal with a murderer differently than a vandal, you should complain about infidelity differently than, say, the toilet seat. One requires decisive action. The other, nuance, discretion, forgiveness, and mercy. If the police are perceived as coming down too hard on the vandal, or you are perceived as complaining too much, you both alienate the very people you are trying to enlist.

There is a second misapplication of the broken window theory to look out for. It is not the kid chucking rocks through windows that starts a neighborhood on its decline. He is only creating the symbol of that decline. The decline started when the building became abandoned in the first place, when the business relocated, when the banks redlined loans, when realtors busted blocks, when landlords stopped making repairs. Is anyone intervening then? Does anyone stop and frisk people in business suits? If not, then why go all fascist when a kid picks up a stone? Why does the kid get probation, when the board of directors gets a raise?

Similarly, in your personal relationships, that thing you are so annoyed about is seldom the beginning of the annoying chain of events. If you are angry that he doesn’t put the toilet seat down for you, do you put it up for him? You do stuff, too. If you are wondering if there are things you do that are part of the problem, there are. If you’re still wondering what they are, ask your partner. He or she will know better than you.

The broken window theory teaches us that small things matter, that there are consequences to our actions; both when we break a window and when we make a complaint.

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