Monday, February 17, 2020

Relationship Math III: When Equal Isn't Fair

Imagine a young couple. The guy, who likes movies, wants to take his partner out to a movie theater tonight. The gal (which is the female form of 'guy' - in case you didn't know :)) doesn't like movies or movie theaters, and doesn't want to go.
Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the guy's pleasure from their date (if it will happen) is about as strong as the gals displeasure from the same event (Movie: guy +5, gal -5). The gal does like wall climbing, but unfortunately the guy hates it (Wall: guy -5, gal +5). So what should they do? 

In a perfect world they wouldn't do either, and find a common hobby that would make them both super happy (Fairy-tale: guy +9000, gal +9000). Some people like the same things, or find that perfect date activity - and I'm very happy for them - but often it doesn't really work this way. People don't just choose to change what they like and who they are to better fit the partner (actually sometimes they try - and it's horrible). 

A more realistic and common (in healthy respectful relationships) option would be a compromise. They can divide their evenings equally: half the time do what he wants (movie), half the time do what she wants (wall). What could be more fair? 
Perhaps if movie dates were super important to the guy and the gal didn't suffer as much (Movie: guy +10, gal -2we would suggest some different proportion. 
Note that they'd have to be honest and have no manipulative intentions for such considerations to work - otherwise the guy could say it's +1000000 important for him to watch movies and -1000000 to climb walls - effectively rendering her feelings and desires irrelevant. Not seeing her - only seeing how big is his need.
Don't be that person...

But the story doesn't end here. Imagine the gal's preferred past time is not for them to go climb walls together, but to do nothing. Spend the evening separately. 
"That's weird", you might think, "what kind of a date night is that?". "Doesn't she want to see him? Doesn't she love him?" etc. etc.
Maybe, but usually that's wrong. 
You see, the gal really likes learning, improving and advancing her career. 
Or maybe she likes seeing more of her friends. 
Or maybe she's a gamer.
Or maybe she just likes more alone time than the guy.

If we follow the same line of reasoning as above, since there is no date, we can probably write: Home: guy 0, gal 0 - right? Seems like a legitimate past time - with a  sum of 0 satisfaction to guy+gal - just like the other options - hence should be done 50% of the time. We shouldn't frown upon the possibility that spending more time separately is at the very least fair.
Actually, it's even better.
For the gal, spending time on her own interests is very satisfying, and the guy doesn't have to endure anything he doesn't like: Home: guy 0, gal +5. That's already better than any "compromise-date".

FAQ1: "But Michael, you have a false assumption. The guy wants to be with the gal, he will miss her and be sad that she prefers coding (or whatever) in her free time instead of being with him. Hence guy -5 or maybe even guy -50"

Let's break it down into 2 aspects: emotional and practical.
Practically, the guy has an opportunity to do something he likes - maybe watch the movie on his own or with some friends. Perhaps it's not as satisfying for him as Movie, but it's still nice - definitely better than nothing: Home: guy +3, gal +5An amazing date night. So amazing, in fact, that if the guy asks for a 50-50 equal time division between Movie and Home - that would be unfair to the gal.
If the guy is incapable of doing anything of value without the gal then there is something wrong - and it smells like unhealthy dependence.
Emotionally, it is good and reasonable that the guy enjoys being with the gal, especially when they are doing what he likes to do. It makes sense that he would prefer Movie over Home. But, and it's a crucial distinction, if the guy feels -5 or god forbid -50 whenever he doesn't get what he wants - that's extremely unhealthy and somewhat childish. Besides, usually the real reason for a -50 is not the immediate effect ("I miss her tonight") but some underlying triggers/traumas/insecurities ("she doesn't love me anymore"). That's a symptom of deeper issues in the relationship or in the guy himself - which are bigger and more important than pastime selection and must be resolved (either fixing it or breaking up) - but it would be unjust to include them in our math. His -50 insecurity - though completely authentic - once again effectively renders her feelings and desires irrelevant. Not seeing her - only seeing how big is his need.
Don't be that person...

FAQ2: "Michael, I respect you, but this whole debate is stupid. What are these crappy guy +5, gal -5 dates? All my dates are Epic Date: guy +10, gal +10. Yes, like in the fairy-tale you mentioned before. Why would we ever do anything that one of us doesn't really want to do?"

First - I'm happy for you, hypothetical reader, I really am.  
Second - as you've probably guessed - we are using the movie date example as a toy problem. We're actually talking about any decision in the relationship that affects both partners and has to do with time or other resource allocation (from family dinners to who's doing the dishes). Usually if you are in a relationship and don't ever compromise at all you are either extremely lucky (and your partner is your clone) or an extreme asshole...
Third - you are actually on to something. If we assume a healthy relationship of 2 stable, self-sufficient people, we saw above that the Home option sets a pretty high bar for any Date option. Partners have to be at least as satisfying as independent life.

FAQ3: "I don't get it. If it's so great for them to Home - why should they ever meet? Why are they together?"

Great question. 
First of all, perhaps they shouldn't.
But let's dig deeper. Note that we made a hidden assumption - that the values of a specific evening pastime do not depend on other choices - like what the couple did the night before. That is false. The guy probably doesn't actually want to Movie each and every evening (even the tastiest pizza will kill you eventually if that's the only thing you eat). The gal probably does want to spend time with the guy as well, and if they wouldn't meet for a couple of weeks would probably miss him and even a movie night would become valuable just to see him (Rare Movie: guy +10, gal +2).
A more realistic model would be to imagine the values we assert to pastimes as the values under the chosen time allocation. So if every other night they go to the movies it would be Movie: guy +5, gal -5 ; Home: guy +3, gal +5 (and the 50-50 choice doesn't make sense), but if they only meet once a week the values might be Movie: guy +8, gal -1 ; Home: guy +2, gal +4 (still doesn't seem like a good deal for the gal), and once every 2 weeks could be Rare Movie: guy +10, gal +2 ; Home: guy +2, gal +4.
Yes, that does mean that the rational conclusion in this (simplified) case would be for them to have a low-intensity relationship. If, for example, the guy wants a more total commitment or ownership - and the level she can give without unhealthy self-sacrifice is not enough - it's completely legitimate, and he should break up.

In general, when considering whether you should be in a certain relationship at all - remember to consider not only whether it does more good than bad, more pleasure than pain, more love than anger - but also the opportunity cost of everything you're giving up to make room for it in your life. It better be worth it. Don't be in a relationship because "that's what you're supposed to do", or out of inertia. It's destructive for everyone involved. A decade ago I used to be that person.
Don't be that person...

So far we've seen the advantage of self-sufficiency over compromise in strictly practical terms - the average reward is just higher. But there is an additional, moral, argument for us to view Home as a superior option: Freedom is better than Compulsion.

Imagine we weren't talking about watching movies but about having sex. The guy wants it every day, the gal doesn't. At least not today/not yet/not as frequently. Would we suggest an "equal 50-50 division"? Of course not.
No one may assert their right over your body if you do not wish it, then why would they have moral grounds to assert their power over your time?
Not 50% of it and not 1%. 

Every meeting and interaction is, at its core, a transaction between the people involved. They invest time, resources, emotional energy - and hope to receive in return fun, intimacy, love, support etc. Like every other transaction - it can only be fair if it's done out of the free will and choice of both parties. 
At a grocery store you would not demand a discount just because that's your wish or your need - not 50% of the time and not 1%. You can ask for one as a favor, perhaps explaining that you can't afford shopping in this store otherwise (equivalent to the guy saying he cannot be in a rare-movie relationship), but the shopkeeper has full right to accept or refuse - both practically (the goods are theirs) and morally (no one should feel entitled to a favor).

FAQ4: "Ok Michael. I get it. You're right. But what do you suggest? Never do anything I don't fully feel like doing? Wouldn't that be selfish/not seeing my partner?"

When you buy flowers for your partner, you invest resources for no other reason than to make the partner happy (assuming they like flowers - personally I prefer pizza as a romantic gesture :)). That's not an act of self-sacrifice on the altar of their expectations or needs - it's a voluntary transaction that you've chosen to make:
thought + money -> partner happiness
If your partner demanded flowers, by claiming "you never do anything nice" or "the neighbor's partner gets flowers every week" etc. the transaction becomes:
guilt + fear -> flowers
Which sucks for everyone involved...

In a healthy, rational relationship, when the gal chooses to Movie it's as if she's buying the guy flowers - investing herself to do something nice for her partner. The decision should be hers, done out of her free will, with her at the steering wheel. And that's beautiful. 
This is what I suggest. A world where people give to their loved ones out of their free will, and their loved ones appreciate it - not demanding, feeling entitled to sacrifice or taking it for granted.

FAQ5: "Yes, that is beautiful. But Michael, you always preach for action and personal responsibility - if I shouldn't ask my partner for stuff doesn't it mean I'm losing a big part of my influence over the relationship?"

Well, if "influence over the relationship" actually means "power over my partner" - then yes you will lose some it and that's a good thing. But, assuming we're talking about a healthy and fair relationship, then you still have a lot of influence even if you never feel entitled. 
First, communicating your wants and preferences is still very important and positive - it let's your partner know what are the most cost-efficient ways they can invest resources into your happiness (pizza, not flowers). It still has to be their choice to do something with that knowledge but cost-efficiency is good for everyone in the long run.
(unless you measure your partner's love by how much pain they are able to endure for you. Don't be that person...)
Second, you can try to be better at "receiving favors". Back in high school I learned that lending support is not easy - and I should be appreciative of the friends who did. I should also be easier to support. Take only what I really need, no more. Show my gratitude during and after the fact. Spread the load over time and over people. Strive to get back on my own feet. And of course - when the day comes - return the favor.
The same concept can work for any sacrifice or compromise you receive. Do your best to make Movie: guy +5, gal -3 instead of -5. Show how good it felt to get those flowers. Try to do the same for your partner - not due to a "debt" that you must now repay, but because you love them and appreciate the effort they put into the relationship.

Remember, giving a gift feels better than paying taxes.

Until next time, may people choose to spend time with you out of their selfish desire.


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  1. sorry for having the gall to do this, but, uh, the word you're talking about is "gal" and not "gall". the first one refers to a woman, the second one refers to.....bile, like in "gallbladder".

    great post, otherwise! :)

    with the way you describe it, my instinct would be to try and get the "happiness" score of both participants as high as possible while remaining very close; or alternatively, to get the sum of happinesses as high as possible, if the partner who "loses out" on this deal is expected to receive greater happiness from other sources. this would be a little bit ethically and emotionally weird, but it would make sense if it's possible to create cycles of happiness-increasing within society - for example, if guy loves watching movies with somebody, gal loves reading books, and third person (goyle?) is a writer who loves writing but needs movie-watching friends for inspiration. pretty bad example, but the idea here is that each person in the chain gives a lot of satisfaction to the next one, getting a high sum total.

    another note I want to add is that there are different kinds of happiness and satisfaction - the joy you get from watching a movie is not the same as the joy of cuddling with them or playing games with them or exchanging flowers; many people like to be satisfied on multiple metrics (e.g. you can simplify it to romantic satisfaction, sexual satisfaction, friendly satisfaction, mental satisfaction).

    1. Thanks for the gal/l correction! Fixed it.
      The whole model is obviously super simplistic - satisfaction differs between areas and over time - so the exact math is of course much more complex.
      The more-than-two idea is interesting. Perhaps we should discuss the math of polyamory? Communal living?