Monday, September 16, 2019

The Math of Relationships II: Sometimes There Is No Right Answer

As a physicist, I love models. There's a certain beauty in capturing the essence of a phenomena, describing it in a super concise way. A model doesn't describe 100% of what's going on - it shouldn't be accurate in that sense - but it captures 80% of the core in 20% of the words/equations.
But sometimes I come across social dilemmas for which I do not have a good model or "rule of thumb" - they have to be judged on a case by case basis. When everyone are not exactly wrong but not exactly right either.
Let's dig into a few examples:

"Becoming a better partner"

Self improvement is perhaps the most admirable of aspirations. To be honest it's so admirable because it's an overarching concept containing many admirable sub-goals, and that's a good thing. The idea that I can become better than I am right now, both better at things and just a better person,  that it's possible to make the future better than the past via time, effort and will - is probably my most zealous belief.
And yet, sometimes the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.

One of the categories of "being a better person" is "being a better partner". Changing some behavior, doing more of what she likes, quieting a habit that was hurting the relationship etc. - we all do it to some extent. 
Sometimes it's just an extension of the "dressing up for a date" effect. We try to impress our partner - especially when the relationship is fresh - and being a little nicer and kinder than normal is just another form of putting our best foot forward. Hopefully that grows into being nicer and kinder on a regular basis - driven by genuine care and respect for the partner.
Sometimes it's more of an emotional conditioned response. For example, if every time you make a mess in the living room your partner gets really upset/annoyed/angry - it won't take long before messing up the living room is associated with the impending "punishment" of getting yelled at. The fear makes you tidy and neat.
Sometimes - at it's best - the relationship becomes a driving force for self improvement. Let's say you're smoking but want to quit. You've tried before but never followed through. If your smell or health degradation bothers your partner - you are now much more likely to actually quit, because you're doing it not just for yourself - but for both of you. When that happens I find it so beautiful - a true hallmark of a healthy relationship.
And sometimes - unfortunately - people lose themselves. They make so many changes, so many concessions, that the person they really are dissolves in the relationship. This is where stereotypes like the "whipped guy" and "clingy girl" come from.

Some give up a part of their core beliefs, living with a gnawing feeling of "wrongness" everyday. They are fairly easy to recognize. But sometimes there was no big clash, no core values were discarded "just to be with her". Sometimes it's just a long string of small changes - none of which are a big deal on their own. It can be as simple as "please be tidy", "please dress like this", "please shave like that", "please be available whenever I call" etc. etc. - and bit by bit a mask is constructed. They must "play" a different person within the relationship - who gradually becomes very different than who they are underneath the relationship mask. 
Perhaps the worst part is that the other partner is often not aware of the pain they're causing. They are not malicious masterminds that intentionally manipulate the "whipped" counterpart into becoming someone else - they just communicate their needs and wants and preferences, clearly and often. The mask grows out of love and good intentions, but eventually suffocates the real person underneath.

I've been on both sides of this issue. Trust me, it sucks for everyone - no matter if you're the suffocated or the suffocator.
So what's the answer?
Should we not change for our partner? Not be flexible or considerate, guarding our "true self"? Of course we should change! That's one of the fundamental rules for a healthy lasting relationship.
Should we not communicate our needs or wants, in fear of the change or sense of obligation it'll create in our partner? Of course we should communicate! That's literally the first thing marriage counselors will tell you.
The only advice I can offer is to be as attenuated as possible to yourself. Try to notice when you're pushing a square peg into a round hole, or when you are being pushed - and communicate your boundaries (preferably before the relationship feels like a chore...).

One of the most common "accidental suffocation" scenarios is:

In time of need

Being there when someone we care about needs help is considered one of the most "purely good" actions possible - "you're a true friend/loving partner". And it's true - for the most part. Even if we ignore the moral dilemma of how much help is too much (it might undermine the helped person's independence, individuality and confidence - like overbearing parents do), it's still not always that simple.

Do you remember the type of kids in kindergarten that were the first to cry or run to the teacher - no matter how small was their problem? And then there was the opposite type - the kids who were shut off, who never said anything to the teacher - let alone complain or demand help. Both were wrong, and a good educator taught the silent ones to speak up or ask for help and the loud ones to handle some of their problems on their own - or just suck it up.
Now that we've grown up, we don't have a teacher who cares if we cry - we go to our friends and loved ones when we are in need. Hopefully, the people you turn to have your back. They happily help you - grateful for the trust you've given them, and you truly appreciate them for it - never taking it for granted that they care. You all end up closer and happier than before. Hopefully.
When we are down, hurt, in pain, lost - we sometimes forget that there is a price our loved ones pay for being there for us. It might be obvious - the time and effort that they invest - or it may run deeper - the emotional or psychological price they pay. If they are holding our proverbial hand, then they are not at home with their family, they are not pushing their career forward, they are not having fun or resting. And that's ok - most people who care about you will happily take the deal, pay the price to be there for you - especially in time of need.

When exactly is this time of need? Let's say you broke up with a long-time partner. It'll probably affect you for months to come. Your loved ones will hopefully pay more attention to you during that period, probably call and visit you more often, lend their shoulder for you to cry on. But not everyday - right? A rough patch is not a concentrated event, even if each day something else goes wrong. No one person can carry your weight every day - or even every week. And it would be wrong of us to expect or demand it from someone - especially if we care and love them as much as they love us. Good people will usually keep giving, trying to hold us up as long and as much as they can - without much regard to the accumulating damage to their own lives and well-being. Until they break down. 
It's like over-exploitation of a piece of land for agriculture. You can extract more yield for a while but it'll become barren.
Don't over-exploit your loved ones.

Ok, so what should we do? Should we keep our pain to ourselves - feeling guilty for being a burden? No. I've been there and I can attest - it really sucks.
Should we turn down our friends if they need us too often? If they "have a huge crisis twice per day"? Probably also no - since they probably don't understand that you feel used, and for them each crisis may feel real.
If you are the supporter - try to find a way to keep your friend feeling safe, not alone, not abandoned. But keep yourself safe and healthy at the same time. Perhaps involve others to help your friend as well. Perhaps suggest professional help. Being there for a loved one should not become your second job. You are not a support character in their life, you have your own.
If you are the supported - try to be appreciative and respectful of the effort and availability of your friends. Perhaps try "spreading the load" over several loved ones. But don't feel guilty for not being perfect, having problems and asking for help.
In any case, it's a delicate balancing act - despite everyone's good intentions. If you're good at this - please teach me how...

Ignorance is bliss?

Imagine a scenario where you and your friend are unpacking boxes in your new apartment. All of a sudden you drop a heavy book on your toe. You curse while hopping on one leg all the way to the fridge to get some ice. Your friend could have helped you but - just your luck - he just stepped out for a phone call. When he gets back, sees you're in pain and asks what happened, you complain about the book, about your clumsiness, about the packing of that box - but you do not complain about your friend, obviously. 
Now imagine the same scenario but instead of being outside when the book hits your toe, your friend is right there next to you. When he sees you in pain he doesn't rush to your help or bring you ice. Whether he starts laughing, berates you for your clumsiness or just stands there with his arms folded - you would probably say something like "what the fuck man?". As most of us would. 
Note - the end result for you is the same: you limp and hop to the fridge by yourself. But from an emotional perspective it matters a great deal whether he didn't know you are in need or he knew and still didn't help. 
This scenario is intentionally exaggerated - I don't think anyone would just stand and look at you in pain - but we really do put a lot of emphasis on the distinction: "didn't know" vs. "didn't care".

Let's say you've done something that upset your partner. Unfortunately, they've decided not to openly communicate their feelings. Perhaps as a form of the infantile "if you don't know what you did wrong then I'm not going to tell you". Perhaps because they want to raise the issue in a calmer state. Perhaps because they don't trust you to react well, and are afraid that sharing will only make things worse. Perhaps, and it's super impressive when that's the case, they are not certain that their emotional reaction is warranted or timely - and want to shield you from it until they can figure out whether there even is a real issue to bring up.
The irony is that if you aren't aware of what's happening, you're often better off. If your partner is holding things inside for a good reason - then knowing will either make you worried and you'll quietly suffer until they do explain what's wrong, or force the issue and corner them into sharing - even though it's probably not the right time and place. If they're being intentionally vague about the reason but clearly push in your face how angry they are - then they don't deserve the response anyway. 
The exception is if they are afraid to say anything because they feel you won't really listen/care/give room for their emotions - then showing that you see their distress and want to hear them out, even insist on it, is the right thing to do. But once they do share - you really have to make sure you actually listen and care and don't dismiss them.

Things get even more complex if you know something that you weren't told, and they know that you know. Recently I had a situation similar to the previous paragraph. I wasn't sharing a certain pain because I didn't feel I'll be accepted, I feared my emotions will be dismissed. It didn't help that at the time I wasn't even sure myself whether I'm "making it up". I suspected she knew I was hurt, and maybe even understood part of the reason.
But she didn't ask about it. She didn't ask what's wrong or how I feel. 
And I didn't tell her.
I guess we were both expecting the other to make the first move.
But neither of us did. And we were both worse off for it.
If I thought she doesn't see or understand, I wouldn't be insulted by her apparent lack of interest, perhaps even brought up the topic myself. And she would listen, because despite how I felt at the moment, she actually does care - she just didn't show it in a way I could see.

So what should we do? Ignore our empathy? Our gut feeling telling us something is not right? "Play dumb" so they don't know you know? Personally I value knowledge and honesty too highly to believe in these solutions. The only thing I can do is be aware of the complexities and paradoxes in each situation.

Unlike most of my articles, there is no strong conclusion or call to action. The only takeaway is to always try to look at the story from all sides.

Until next time, may you navigate the sea of details into the safe harbor of clarity.


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1 comment:

  1. This speaks to me deeply, I have some feeling to do.
    BTW I can't find the subscription box