19 July, 2008


Location: essential places
Mood: awake

But do relationships really fit into the same architecture of measuring value as other "possessions"? I decide to buy a different car, for a number of measurable reasons, and there are absolute concrete realities that drive the decision. Defensible. But people are not as easily definable. And unlike inanimate objects, which are only capable of being (grammatically) just that - "objects" - people are also subjects. The laws of physics do not apply. Every action need not necessarily have an equal and opposite reaction. In fact, you never know what you're gonna get.

There are so many different variables. And there are no rules.

When talking about perceived value, it is difficult to just look at a laundry list of "what does this relationship do for me?" or "how does this interaction enrich my life?" because there can be greater issues that go beyond the answers to those questions. When I buy a new guitar, I might think "This is really cool" or "This will provide me with an inexpensive backup to my main guitar" or "This is a tone that I wanted, but didn't previously have" or even, sometimes, "I am kind of down right now, and I think if I get myself this new thing, the novelty and reward will raise my spirits, ever so slightly".

The only consequences to balance those with are things, maybe, such as "Well, do I really need to spend another $300 on another guitar?" or "Am I just trying to fill up an empty space with more possessions?" or "I sure am stockpiling a rather needlessly large collection of instruments". But in the end, it's just a couple of cubic feet of space, a few nice dinners worth of cash, and maybe an emotional bandaid that doesn't stick to my skin, or heal my wound. But that's it. Over and done with, and it is just a possession in the end, like any other piece of wood, metal, plastic, stone, or cloth.

But people are different. You weigh the consequences with a friend, and you have your entire identity up in the air. Because not only is it the question of "What do I get from this?" but it is also an ongoing examination of "Who am I because of this?" I don't believe in a soul, per se, but metaphorically, what we give to each person in our lives is a piece of the proverbial soul. And we are defined, both internally and externally by these connections we make. They impact us. They push us. They pull us. It is unavoidable. When deciding the value of another person in our lives, we have to look not only at the 1 on 1 relationship, but also on how it affects all other relationships. It's a giant network. And I almost want to think of this massive tangle of human interconnections like an elaborate clockwork (orange) where the movement, addition, or removal of a single cog results in a complete reordering of the machine.

The challenge is to have any window into your own machine. Can you see what the movement, addition, or removal of this piece will be? Sometimes it is impossible, of course. You meet a new romantic interest, of whom you know very little. And you elect to insert them - perhaps blindly - into this churning, whirring, buzzing organism that is your social network and psyche - and you just wait and see what breaks. And I don't say that cynically. It is a reality, though. As much as anything, I strongly believe, the success of a relationship is defined by the absence of its failure, and the absence of a significant disruption to the inner workings of the big machine.

And as you know, there are a million ways a machine can break.

When I was briefly engaged to Irina, whom just about everyone knew was not good for me, one major sticking point I had was that it required a complete dismantling of my machine (I tried to think of another Russian name to use instead of hers, but I think I also know people by just about every other common Russian name, and I honestly cannot be bothered to perform this extremely transparent editorial operation). I needed to willingly sever, or allow to rot, many connections that were part of the core machinery of my world. The biggest of these, of course, was Edna. And in my little value balancing act, at that time, I went along with it. It made sense at the time, because I had just exited a relationship with Edna, so I did feel that I should be trying to replace that gear with a new one. But there was a case where looking at the machine while you're standing inside of it, leads to a different conclusion than when you are standing aside and observing the machine.

And in the end, though there were a million reasons why that relationship needed to be discarded, the first "revelation" I had when I realized that Irina and I were not going to be okay, was that "At least I can be friends with Edna again". And there was the valuation that took into account the entire system as a whole. That balancing act. I lost something, but I got something else, and that something else was part of the core.

I wonder can our core even change? Are we, at the root, defined in a fixed manner? Maybe we are, and any divergence or digression from that path is just an indication of self-deception or denial, or perhaps a noble attempt to wear a different hat. I had a friend, whom I think I have given a pseudonym elsewhere, but I can't remember what it was, so I will just refer to her now as Ellen - and Ellen loved the saying "Wherever you go, there you are". She also loved to say "Small dogs often notice me in the street" so I am not sure we need to pay too much heed to her wise sayings (though, I think the latter actually is a statement that comes from the DSM-IV test for paranoid schizophrenia, which she found amusing).

Anyway, Ellen's point was that no matter what you do, you can't escape yourself.

I am on a tangent here.

Back to the point.

When it comes to relationships, and decisions, and feelings, and our own valuations, it is really difficult to decide when to communicate, what to communicate, how to communicate, and how much to communicate. And again there are no rules. If I were to follow every impulse I have on a day-to-day basis, I would be perceived as having multiple personalities. There is a certain need to "be with the feelings" before expressing them. We cannot just be so direct. In all relationships, but especially romantic ones, it is fairly important for partners to feel safe with one another. And that requires creating a positive environment where you can trust that you're not hanging on by a thread. In my most recently ended relationship, one major disservice I did to her with my directness and honesty was that I put her on incredibly unstable ground. By telling her I was afraid of the complexity of the situation, I put her eternally in a defensive position. She knew I was scared. She knew I had one foot on the floor, or out-the-door, or whatever. She knew that our position as a couple was tenuous. And all that did was to make our position as a couple more tenuous. Now, I don't think that was the "death" of the relationship, because there were a lot of reasons why it was not going to work in the long run - but there are certain times where it might be better to keep things inside. That's all I'm saying. Keep some things inside, until you've sorted them out. Because if you say "I'm not sure this is going to work out" and then it turns out that you were just having a bad day, then you've done damage to that special safe place that is your romantic bubble. And it's really hard to reinflate a balloon once there is a hole in it - it's never as strong, and the air will keep leaking out of it.

That's not to say you should never bring anything up in a relationship, until you're packing your bags and walking out the door - because that is bad too. But perhaps a rule of thumb would be to sit with the feelings until you believe there is an action that can be taken. Until you are ready to describe the problem, and have the talk, and figure out what type of resolution there could be. If it's just an uneasy feeling, but not actionable, then what can you really do with it?

Not too long ago, I created what I call "the three month rule" for relationships. I decided I would give anything, or just about anything, 3 months. But if at the end of 3 months, there were more problems than there were positives - or rather - if there were not far more positives than negatives - then "the end". Door closed. Onward. And it is almost something you can say to one another and be up front. I really like you! Let's give this 3 months, and see where we are then! If things are going very well, then you both know it, and the 3 months is not a "deadline". If things are kind of a constant struggle, then, well, no surprises when the 90 day mark arrives. It's not like I have had a whole bunch of 3 month relationships, though. But it's a good mental model to have. It is easy to get comfortable with someone because it is better than being alone, and then next thing you know, you're at 3 months, 6 months, a year. And you're not really fulfilled, but you're at a year, and now it would be kind of ridiculous to just end it because you are comfortable together. By a year, you've probably moved in together, so it starts to become a logistical mess to get out of it. So you stay. And things get a little more distant. But it becomes 2 years. And now you've bought a car together. Or adopted a cat together. Or gone on trips together and built memories that you will always associate with one another. Now, ending it would lead to pain - because you associate part of your intrinsic identity with the other person. And now, if you end it, you have the painful logistics of dividing up the loot. And figuring out who gets the cat. And visitation rights. So you stay in it. For 3 years. And then, much like graduate school, you're at the point where no matter how bad things are, or how much it is not measuring up to "how you hoped it would be", you have to keep going because you've invested way too much to bail now. You are officially at that point, where to leave would be construed by you, your friends, and your family, as "a failure". So you stay. And you stay. And you stay. While other opportunities pass visibly, or invisibly by you.

Not that I'm trying to sound cynical :)

But this is why I like the 3 month checkpoint. At 3 months, you probably don't live together. You probably haven't adopted cats or babies together. You probably haven't left too many CD's or bathroom products at each others' houses. And your friends will say "It's good that you got out of it quickly". And you can't resent the person for "wasting your time". And even if you think, hope, or know that you're in love, you can still convince yourself "it was probably just lust" because true love takes time, right? And 3 months is nothing. A quarter of a year. 90 days. One season. Three one-thousandths of a lifetime (wow... it sounds even briefer, when you put it that way!)

But what about friendships... how do we even measure those? It's so different. We usually only get to have one romantic partner at a time. But we can have as many friends as we want to have. And how do we decide who becomes closer, who stays at arm's length, who we confide in? Does all of this just happen, or is there a conscious point where the person crosses from one category to another?

I have friend lists on Facebook that I defined for the purposes of setting different privacy settings, though I haven't fully implemented that. I described these categories as: Inner Circle, Middle Ground, Outer Bounds. And it was interesting to categorize people into these groups. It is especially interesting because which category you are in has nothing whatsoever to do with how long I've known you, or how often I see you. But I have little difficulty putting people into these buckets. But what defines the buckets?

Maybe I will tell you about that in my next blog...

1 comment:

  1. Inman Wheelright21 July, 2008 07:54

    It's not that there are no rules, it's that there are so many and you have to make them all up yourself based on societal cues which is, when stressful, the balancing of the opposing pull of doing what is right with what is easy and fun and enjoyable. When the relationship is good, there is no conflict and it is just go, go, go. Then you only feel caution here and there that you are getting in too deep too fast, or that you're not falling the way the other person is and so you don't want to maybe hurt them, and so on.

    If you have no conscience (i.e., if you are a full-blown sociopath), you can be as lascivious as you want, but your life will lack meaning; you will surely live out the end of your days lonely and bereft. Or you can try to guilt somebody into taking care of you (that's what kids are for, if you have enough of them).

    If you can find somebody that you love who loves you and who can also be your best friend, then you should have enough to survive.