To hear this term is to presume something positive. It implies that things fit with one another, get along, are nice.

Yet in the field of psychology, complementary behavior may not always be as helpful as it sounds.  It means you respond back to someone in the same way they did to you.  For example, if someone yells at you, you yell at them.

By comparison, non-complementary behavior is responding to someone in a different way from which they acted towards you.  It is often harder, but according to Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History, it is a primary means by which so much good comes into the world.  

The classic example of non-complementary behavior is the Christian ideal of “turning the other cheek.” We can also see its positive effects through the non-violent protests of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others. 

In our daily lives, non-complementary behavior is tricky. Two personal cases in point. 

On a recent bike ride, my youngest daughter had an epic meltdown. She was tired, hungry and completely irrational.  At one point, she stopped abruptly, dropped her bike and began screaming and crying as she set off on a dead sprint running away from us. She seemed possessed. 

Complementary behavior would mean that I too would become unhinged, screaming at her, making a scene etc.  Resisting that urge (which was not easy once I caught up to her), I tried to practice non-complementary behavior. When she yelled, I spoke calmly.  When she lashed out at me, I was compassionate.  As Ezra Klein points out in his interview with Bregman, it is more natural to practice non-complementary behavior with our children than it is with others – including our partners or spouse.  Why?

For example, I attended a family funeral recently where I was to deliver the eulogy. I had my mask in my pocket but upon noticing that no one else was wearing one, opted to practice complementary behavior, and did not wear one either. Non-complementary behavior would have been doing what I knew to be right – and perhaps by doing so would have made it easier for others to follow suit.  Non-complementary behavior is an exercise in strength and courage, both of which I was lacking in this situation.

Complementary behavior is “to respond in kind,” when ironically our actions are not kind at all.  If the response to being disrespected is to treat that person with disrespect, then none is better for the exchange. When anger is met with anger, war not peace follows.  To borrow another biblical reference, “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”  Yet it is all too easy to mirror the behaviors of others, even while we abhor that behavior when we see it. 

What if instead, our response to destructive behavior was to build. Or when we hear words of hate, we respond by speaking words of love. 

Complementary may sound good, but non-complementary actually is good – for you, for them, for everyone.

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