Putting work into relationships: a metaphor

I believe in relationships being good and worthwhile over a given period of time. If relationship ends, that doesn’t mean it failed. If it continues, that doesn’t mean it succeeded.

People talk about how relationships are hard and require work and sacrifice and effort, and also about how relationships should be easy and shouldn’t feel like work and if you’re spending a lot of effort it’s a bad sign, and sometimes people say both at once, and it’s just very confusing. I know from personal experience that both are true, usually at the same time, and have struggled with this. I finally came up with a metaphor I like.

A good relationship is like water flowing downhill. It just kind of happens. It feels natural. Sometimes you’ll come to a sandy patch, or a block of some kind, and you’ll have to wade through it or push past it, and that can be hard and a lot of effort and sometimes just really, really painful. But even as you do it, it should still feel like you’re going in the obvious direction. Like the hard, painful parts of the work are temporary, and even as they happen, it feels natural to work on it and put that effort in because that’s the direction you’re going anyway.

The kind of work that’s not a good sign is if you feel like you’re trying to push against the current. If being with someone doesn’t feel like the most natural, obvious thing in the world – even when things are hard or you’re going through a rough patch – maybe that’s not the right person to be spending time with right now.

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A catagorization system for different types of getting upset

As someone with a chronic mental illness, I have developed a habit of fact checking my reactions to things rather than just accepting them. When trying to explain to a friend why he wasn’t responsible if I get surly or even burst into tears on low mood days, we eventually came up with a cool little grid thing:

Reasonable / Unreasonable

Predictable / Unpredictable

If his actions provoked a strong emotional response, identifying which quadrant it fit into would help a lot with knowing how to handle it, and what to do in the future.

Reasonable + Predictable

Typical human response. Examples include being angry at someone who is obviously insulting you, being happy when you win a prize or get good news, being sad and maybe crying when a pet dies.

Reasonable + Unpredictable

This usually has to do with moods, or associations. If a relative is ill, mentioning that relative might make you very upset because it remind you of all the negative feelings of stress and worry that are associated with that subject. But without knowing the details of your life and circumstances, the person talking would really have no way to predict that that particular thing would set you off.

Unreasonable + Predictable

Unreasonable isn’t meant as a judgement here. If the term strikes you as too judgemental, you can mentally swap it for something along the lines of “feelings or reactions that do not accurately reflect or have to potential to usefully alter the state of the outside world”, which is the idea I’m trying to get at when I say “unreasonable”.

An example of an unreasonable but predictable negative reaction from my life: I pretty much hate centipedes. I have never been (and never expect to be) harmed by one of these bugs in any way. I can’t think of even one semi-realistic situation where my fear of centipedes could be a useful or positive reaction or improve my life in any way. Seems pretty unreasonable to me. And it’s extremely predictable: show me a picture, or worse yet a live one, and I will react badly, more or less every time.

Another type of unreasonable but predictable reactions is based on some specific factor, like hunger. Hungry grumpiness is pretty common, and pretty easy to predict, but usually doesn’t have much to do with anything in the real world, aside from the hungry person’s need for a sandwich.

Unreasonable + Unpredictable

If I’m having a low mood day, and something just happens to set me off, that’s the kind of thing I mean. Or if I’m thinking about something that makes me upset, and then someone says something innocuous that I react badly to.

Designing my life so that path of least resistance leads to accomplishing my goals.

Introduction: I’ve been reading this really interesting book on happiness and it’s got me thinking about design decisions and making my life easier. I’ve spent a long time and a lot of energy in the past running my head into walls trying to accomplish goals despite feeling terrible while doing it, and have done a lot of damage to myself in the process. Since then, I’ve worked hard to see myself in a different light, deconstruct my goals to figure out what I actually want (as opposed to what I think will get me what I want), and rebuild my life in a way that actually works.

Part of this was the realisation that I don’t function when I’m unhappy. People talk about “doing things you don’t want to do”, and I just … don’t. I have a lot of experience shoving myself at a problem and being absolutely stuck fast because I don’t actually want to be working on it. But when I want something, I am willing to go to all kinds of lengths to do it.

NB that “wanting to do something” does not mean “finding it pleasant”. The aforementioned book on happiness describes this distinction really well, but the idea at its most basic is that for something to be enjoyable, it has to generate either pleasure or purpose, but not necessarily both. I find this idea super fascinating and can go into more detail if anyone wants me to – let me know.

Content: So the idea that I’m playing with right now is: how can I design my life so that achieving the things I care most about (almost) always lies upon the path of least resistance – that is to say, I want to set up my thought patterns and circumstances such that if I will automatically end up doing things that I care about and living a life that feels valuable, without having to put in a lot of emotional and mental energy into changing directions all the time. Looked at through the lens of akrasia,* I’m trying to make it so that what I want at any given moment in the short term will lead into to my long terms goals. I don’t want to use up willpower when I don’t have to.

*The link leads to a blog post run by (and advertising) a service called Beeminder, but this isn’t actually a plug for that service. My feeling on Beeminder lie somewhere in the realms of “mixed” and/or “neutral”. So why link to them instead of wikipedia? They’re the ones who introduced me to the term “akrasia”, which has been very useful to have, so I figured I’d give credit where credit is due.

In order to redesign anything, the first step is to look at the current situation: what’s working, what’s not working, what do I want to happen? I’ve been making a mental inventory of places where my stated desires don’t line up well with my moment-to-moment actions, and thinking about how I can bring those things into better alignment.

Example: I love my family, and value them a lot. My childhood was not exactly idyllic, but even with all the fucked-up that it included, one thing I’ve never questioned is that they love me and want the best for me. My siblings and I have amazing relationships, but my relationship with my parents and extended family has been a little rockier. For this example, my mother is an amazing woman, and I want to want to spend a lot of time with her, but sometimes I don’t actually want to spend time with her in the moment. So I’ve been thinking about where that disconnect is taking place.

My intention/goal is to have a close relationship with my mum, where we talk frequently (maybe a few times a week) and both feel positive about our interactions and our relationship. Some times I’ll think of calling her and decide against it, and the emotion that usually

Our best interactions involve talking about ideas and sharing information and theories, especially about psychology and human behaviour. Our worst interactions usually involve us talking directly past each other about interpersonal stuff, or not being properly aware of each other’s needs and hurting each other in an attempt to get our own needs met.

So my goal is to increase positive interactions and decrease negative interactions. I could wait and say more and never post this, but my friend said to post it even though it’s terrible and even played me a motivation video, so I AM JUST DOING IT. I’m so sorry, friends.