Relationship Ramblings

Here are some thoughts on relationships. I realize the irony of posting such musings, given that my audience consists mostly of happily dating, engaged, or married couples, and I am currently single. So clearly if anyone in this set doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to relationships, it’s me.

But then again, what is a weblog for, if not for unsubstantiated blabberings? I’ve got to do my part in making the Internet work, you know ;).

Okay, for the rest of this entry, I’m going use the pronoun “she” for the hypothetical significant other. I think “he” should apply just as well, as per your preference.

1. Resisting the Heisenberg Effect
If, upon meeting, the two of you don’t immediately hit it off, there is going to be some asymmetry; let’s say w.l.o.g. that she likes you more than you like her. The weird thing is that, even if you haven’t formed an opinion about her yet, chances are that if she likes you too much, you’ll be turned off. Essentially, she can like you a lot, or get you to like her, but not both, so for lack of a better name, I’m going to call this the Heisenberg Dating Effect.

This Effect sounds somewhat paradoxical, since after all, don’t you want to date someone who likes you a lot? Well… yes, but the reasoning goes something like this: “Well, I can tell she likes me a lot, and that’s unusual. If she likes me this much, she must think I’m a good catch, which means that I could probably do a lot better than dating her. So maybe she’s not so great after all.” You infer from her affection an admission of inferiority. I’m pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of the Effect (and you probably have too), and this thought process is remarkably subversive. It almost seems to happen on a biological level.

So what’s my point? My point is that the Heisenberg Dating Effect is a load of crap, and you should do everything you can to fight it. This is because in addition to the possibility that she’s “inferior” to you, there’s also the possiblity that she’s a better judge of personality and character than you are. She may like you more simply because it is more apparent to her than it is to you that the two of you would make a good couple (and this makes her, in my opinion, more desirable by far than the average girl). Since there isn’t an easy way to tell these possibilities apart, and since your other option is to buy into the Effect and assume her inferiority not because of any exhibited flaw, but simply because she likes you a lot, it’s in your best interest to keep as open a mind as possible.

In the end, the cost of an open-minded approach is that you may take a little longer to find out that she’s not the girl for you: big whoop. The benefit is that if she is, you win big because she’s already really into you, which is awesome.

2. Important factors in a successful relationship
Here are, roughly in order, what I think are the most important qualities a potential s.o. should have. Okay, this is where you can definitely call me out on my bullshit, but at least in my various failed relationships I hope I’ve managed to learn something ;). Of course, it only barely needs to be said that I certainly don’t think I’m anywhere near perfect in these categories, but they give me something to strive for.

Some people might say “rationality” or “reasonableness”, and those are good qualities, but they don’t quite encapsulate what I mean. When I say a sense of perspective, I mean an understanding of the magnitude of (perceived) transgressions and what they really imply, and a willingness to forgive easily when this magnitude is small. It appears to me that many relationships fail as the result of an accumulation of resentment over time: an aggregation of perceived slights and mistakes and irritations (and grudges) that just grow and grow.

Most of these slights really don’t matter, given what’s at stake, but it’s very easy for them to clutter up your head with mental baggage, obscuring the real strengths of the relationship. A person with really good perspective is able to quickly and accurately decide when something occurs whether it’s worth bringing up with the s.o., or whether it should just be discarded, because in the scope of things, it really doesn’t matter. [Edit: A prerequisite to this behavior is a willingness to communicate and discuss problems openly, a quality that is itself so primarily important that I didn’t even think to include it in this list.]

This seems like a simple thing but I think it’s surprisingly hard to get right (I’m definitely still working on it). Since whatever relationship you’re in is bound to be imperfect (and if not — you lucky bastard), there will always be mistakes made and expectations that are not met. Maybe figuring out which failures matter and which don’t is an art (but hopfeully one that, like most forms of art, can improve with practice); whatever the case, having perspective kicks ass.

This may not apply to everyone, but I happen to like genuinely nice people. [Edit: By nice I don’t mean “inoffensive”; I mean “kind”.]

A. Determining niceness
The trick is in figuring out if the girl you’re interested in is genuinely nice, or just nice to you (or whomever) in a Machiavellian sense because she thinks she can gain from it. This is an important distinction, first because in some sense I like people who are universally nice (this just appeals to me as a character trait), and second as a matter of self-interest: so she’s nice to you now because she wants to date you, but you don’t want her to turn into a selfish hag at some point just because she figures out that she doesn’t have to be nice to you anymore.

Now this is a nontrivial problem to solve, since if she’s interested in you, she’ll be nice to you no matter whether she’s genuine or a Machiavelli. The key is to observe how she treats other people — specifically other girls (since she might be trying to play other guys the way she might be playing you). You need to gather two data points:

1. How does she treat other girls when there are guys around?
This situation is telling because those other girls are essentially competition, and a self-serving girl has no reason to be nice to them. This is easy to observe in a social setting.

2. How does she treat other girls when there are no guys around?
Ahh, so the problem with just taking data point #1 is that some girls are sneaky, and are nice to other girls when there are guys around, because it makes them seem nice, and hence more appealing. Tricky! I know this firsthand on the guy side, as I have encountered a number of guys who are nice to me when there are girls present, but wouldn’t give me the time of day otherwise, which pisses me off. Anyway, this is a much harder data point to obtain, as you need an informant of the opposite sex, but it can be done.

I’m pretty sure that if both of these tests turn out well, she’s genuinely nice.

B. Parity of niceness
I’m beginning to learn that niceness is a bit more complicated than it seems at first glance. Specifically, if you are interested in minimizing long-term resentment, you might want to make sure you that you’re both the same type of nice. Okay, it sounds like I am crazy, but let me explain. Among nice people there are essentially two kinds, which I can perhaps illustrate with this hypothetical situation:

Say you are having dinner a friend’s house, and you’ve all finished eating. Your friend goes into the kitchen and starts doing the dishes while the rest of you sit in the living room, sipping your drinks. What do you do?

Nice Person Type A will contentedly sit in the living room, having a good time, because he knows that when he has his own dinner party, he will happily do the dishes while everyone else socializes. Nice Person Type B will feel compelled to help out in the kitchen, simply because he cannot sit around while a friend is cleaning up. (Asshole Person Type C will sit around and have a good time, because he knows he’ll never return the favor.) Anyway, both of these behaviors are reasonable, and I won’t presume to say which is better. But this is really a valid distinction (in my observation), and the problem is that while Type As get along great (tit-for-tat) and Type Bs get along great too (both help out in each other’s kitchens), a Type A/Type B relationship will continuously build up resentment, since B will help A out, but feel resentful when A doesn’t offer to help B out. Generalize this to most everyday activities, and you have a problem.

I think it takes a person with a lot of perspective to overcome a Type A/Type B relationship.

Being interesting/interested
Second only to resentment in relationship-killing prowess is boredom. This is the kind of thing where you wake up one morning and realize that you have absolutely nothing to say to your s.o. (… the kind of stuff that happens all the time in John Irving and John Updike books.) You know everything there is to know, you’ve done everything there is do to, etc. This can be fatal.

My friend Sach (about whom I will write in another entry soon) is a veteran of a very long-term relationship, and he has a number of cool ideas about sustaining interest. I’m trying to get him to start a blog, though, so I will not repeat any of those ideas here.

My own thoughts, however, lead me to suggest the following important qualities. To stave off boredom, you naturally want your s.o. to be interesting: a good conversationalist, perhaps funny, knowledgeable, and outgoing (when it’s necessary to be outgoing, like at a party). We all know about this. However, I think an overlooked but related quality is being interested: it can be far more rewarding if your s.o. is curious about the world, about the things you do, about new activities, and so on, than if she’s just just interesting. This is because anybody, no matter how interesting, can only generate ideas at some limited rate, whereas if you’re interested, there are zillions of things in the world around you waiting to be explored.

I am running out of steam here, so I’m too lazy to discuss this further, but hopefully what I said sounds plausible :).

Superficial factors; deal-breakers
These you all know about: looks, sense of humor (except as above), intelligence (I argue why here), etc. Some are deal-breakers (depending on your preference), by which I mean if the potential s.o. is lacking in these qualities, she’s a goner. E.g. if she’s really ugly, or really dumb, sorry. Others are more flexible: perhaps you’d like an athletic girl, but it’s not a huge deal if your potential s.o. isn’t. And so on. Blah blah.

I’ve avoided talking about some other critical traits, such as honesty (when it matters), because I have nothing to say about them except the obvious, and I’m lazy. But they’re definitely important!

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22 Responses to Relationship Ramblings

  1. awu says:

    Do you really think one can substitute ‘he’ for ‘she’ in all such suppositions, wlog? Deal-breakers in particular, modulo sense of humor, just may differ.

    • aj says:

      In that section, I actually meant that all the superficial characteristics are person-dependent, and vary to some degree. I’ve edited it to clarify this — thanks.

      However, in practice I actually think the deal-breakers are pretty much the same. Which ones do you think don’t apply in the other direction?

      • awu says:

        I don’t know if it’s actually true that girls care less about what guys look like — although it does seem that the male gaze is something gender-specific — but statistics do show that whereas smarter guys are more likely to get married, smarter girls are not.

        For example, one article I read suggested that [f]or girls, there is a 40% drop [in the likelihood of marriage] for each 16-point increase [in IQ].

        • aj says:

          Yeah, I’ve already read that article, but I’m not sure what you think it implies about deal-breaking (which is essentially a high-pass filter, not a gradient).

          • awu says:

            They could be deal-breakers for guys and girls alike, but I guess I’m just doubting that one can make statements about relationships wlog, ignoring the gender(s) of the people involved.

            Not only does each person differ on the average gender-wise, but studies of gay and lesbian relationships seem to show that they can differ from “straight” relationships.

            Although there are many similarities in all kinds of human relationships, well-known researchers at UW and Cal, in a 12-year study of gay and lesbian couples, have found that the emotional dynamics of such couplings are not the same as one might find in cross-sex couplings.

          • aj says:

            I don’t see why not. The article you linked to doesn’t suggest that any of the main things I wrote about are invalid.

            I agree that in theory it’s possible for different things to matter, but I haven’t seen any evidence for this.

          • ngj says:

            After reading ‘s comment, I poked around the nearby psych stuff and found another article that mentions something about interested-ness at the end of it. That is, in one of the conversations they observe, the wife talks excitedly about something, and the husband answers non-comitally, and that was a very bad thing.

            Anyway. I should be doing work. This is all very interesting though!

          • aj says:

            Wow, an interesting article! I recognized the name of one of the authors, and recalled that it was the same guy that Malcolm Gladwell profiled in his book Blink. Luckily, that bit happens to be excerpted on the internet here (several pages long). It’s a good read.

        • judytuna says:

          At the end of high school, my friend got into MIT. She didn’t go because:
          1) Her boyfriend “only” got into Berkeley engineering. (Yes, Berkeley is “not good enough” for some Asian parents in San Jose. Mine, for example! People find this offensive.) Her boyfriend at the time was absolutely crushed that she, a girl, got into something that he did not; she went around saying “you know that I only got in riding the estrogen wave” to make up for it. She knew it would wreck him if she went to a “better” school than him.
          2) Her mom wouldn’t allow it. Her mom said, “You are a girl. You have to marry someone smarter than you, because you’re a girl and boys are smarter than girls; no boy ever wants a girl that he thinks is smarter than him. If you go to MIT, you will be percieved as smarter than if you go to “just” Berkeley. Therefore if you go to MIT, the pool of men that will want to marry you becomes smaller, because there’ll be fewer men that are better than you.” Like that article.

          It boggled my mind. (Obviously, there are other issues with the atmosphere in question that are problematic, like being obsessed with what college you go to, how that determines your entire worth as a person, your parents’ old-world values, etc.)

          • aj says:

            Wow, it’s boggling my mind too. I can’t believe parents like that exist. Talk about societal stifling…

  2. Anonymous says:

    i think your ramblings are great! i totally agree about the importance of having a perspective on things, both on relationships and on life in general. this reminds me of an interesting idea I heard about for controling your own behavior, where in a situation, you visualize looking down on the scene you’re currently in, as if you’re watching yourself in a movie and the camera is mounted on the ceiling or above, and you’re watching how you’re acting while you’re acting (maybe in very short glimpses to make it easier) to allow yourself to realize if you’re going way off base or performing in a way you don’t want to be. A strange and difficult to perform concept, not something i ever do but it seems like it’d be cool to be able to do for some situations.

    anyway, i think having the best understanding that you can of the other person, who they are, why they do the things they do, is important. this of course comes with time and a lot of hanging out and talking, but you hit on that just having the desire to understand, the “interested” quality, is key.

    • aj says:

      Hmm, this is really interesting. I guess it capitalizes on your shame… and I have no shame. Just kidding. Seriously, it looks like it encourages you to detach yourself from the situation and look at it dispassionately, which sounds like a great idea if your emotions are taking you for a ride. Worth trying…

  3. f18225 says:

    i think that the heisenberg effect point is the most compelling. too many people make the mistake of searching for that one person who is as close to “unattainable” as we can achieve. when someone is too attainable, we tend to take them for granted, and look for something more challenging. this is why the classic game of playing hard to get never gets old.

    • aj says:

      “this is why the classic game of playing hard to get never gets old.”
      Haha, well, not if I have my way :).

    • ngj says:

      This sounds a lot like cognitive dissonance–where we feel something’s worth our time because we had to try really hard(or suffer a lot) to get it. Even if it’s not really better.

  4. walther says:

    i propose that you, jeff, wilson and i co-author a how-to book on relationships. we can get vicki to write the forward.

  5. Anonymous says:

    You’re smart. I like you and your analysis.

    Your little sis

  6. Anonymous says:

    love it aj! i’m sending it to all my friends
    liz x

    btw, i’m a type a (in an attempt to prevent any future grudges…)

    • aj says:

      Haha, thanks for letting me know! I’ll keep that in mind… :)

      And glad you like it!