Thursday, January 17, 2019

Relationship Principles

Through the ups and downs of my own relationship experiences, and those of my close friends, I have noticed some common themes about what makes them work. At the same time, when they run into issues, several underlying principles emerge despite how varied the problems may seem superficially. After highlighting what is important at the outset of a relationship (the preconditions), I will describe the four principles I rely on and my reasoning for them, and then outline how those principles must be used to build a future together.

The Preconditions

Relationships are as old as time, so unsurprisingly, much ink has already been spilled on this subject. For the modern relationship though, especially when you are first getting to know someone, Mark Manson's article on compatibility and chemistry in a relationship lays out what to focus on quite well. He notes:
Compatibility usually corresponds to the long-term potential between two people. High compatibility between people comes from similarities in their lifestyles and values. Educated and liberal people usually date other educated and liberal people. Hedonists usually date other hedonists. Insane religious nuts usually date other insane religious nuts. For no other reason than people of opposite moral values, quite literally, repel each other. And sometimes violently. 
Chemistry on the other hand, represents the emotional connection present when you’re with each other.
To start though, you must know yourself well. You should have a good sense of who you are, what you are willing to give to a relationship, and what you need in return. Once you know that, and you find it in another, these two simple C's of compatibility and chemistry are enough to spark a romance.

The Present

Once you get into a relationship though, knowing that you have chemistry and compatibility is not enough. You will encounter problems, as surely as you will encounter death and taxes. How you deal with those problems will matter more than how highly you score on the two C's. After a breakup where I felt I had all my ducks in a row, had that spark of chemistry and the deep sense of belonging borne of compatibility, I wanted to come with principles that helped me explain to myself how I had failed *within* the relationship. Here are the four principles I landed upon:
1. Categorical imperative 
2. Co-existence 
3. Communication 
4. Compassion

I'll admit that #2 is a shoe-horned way to make my principles be the four C's. Still, when I look back on ways that I have failed, I can often find at least 1 if not all four of these principles explaining what I was doing wrong regarding the things I can control. Let's go through each one, why I think it matters, and why I think it matters in this particular order.

Categorical imperative

This concept is most associated with Immanuel Kant. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, he lays out his view of actions that can be categorized as absolutes. Many concepts become murky the more you look into them, leading a kind of moral relativism. For example, lying to your partner is bad. Lying to cover up an affair? Bad. Lying to cover up a surprise birthday party for them? Hmm... sounds okay.

Kant wanted to formulate a principle by which any action can be judged independent of the context it is in. He formulated this as:
Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.
Breaking this down, Kant argues that you should act only in a way that could be followed by anyone at any time (the "universal" part). For a relationship, this means that act only in a way that your partner could act in the same way without issue. For a much deeper dive into this and how it can apply to your entire life and not just your relationship, check out Mark Manson's views on Kant.

A simpler way to remember this conceptually is simply The Golden Rule: do unto other as you would have others do unto you. This should be paired with what Black Swan author Nicholas Nassim Taleb has termed The Silver Rule: One should not treat others in ways that one would not like to be treated.


The second principle is better stated simply as being there. Even when things are tough, when they are mad, when you are tired, when there are a 1000 other things to do. To me, this is both a literal and figurative principle. Imagine you are having a fight with your partner - what's worse: hashing it out even if upset, or one person storming out? The first option requires literally being there, so there's at least some chance of a solution. If one leaves, guess what? Unless it was 100% their fault and 100% on them to solve it (rare), nothing will change when they return. If anything, things may be worse. If you are not physically able to be present, modern technology makes it fairly easy to still show that your partner has your attention. Being there in a relationship is a state of mind, and if you approach your relationship with that from the get-go, you will be better able to weather the storms life tosses at you.


This one is seemingly straightforward but falls into that category of things which are "simple but not easy". Communicating well requires layering multiple skills.

First, the old adage that God gave you two ears and one mouth and you should use them in that proportion applies. Listen.  Truly listen. Pay attention to your partner when they tell you about their day. If you are having an argument, try to first understand their position and literally restate it in terms that they would agree with. This way they absolutely know that you get their point of view and are not confused or intentionally not understanding what they are saying.

When you do speak, try to remember that you both willingly chose each other. You both want the best for each other. Make any comments about the person's actions not who they are or what their intent is. Remember that generally: less is more.


I initially had this principle as empathy, but over time, I came to agree with the argument that LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, author Brene Brown, the Dalai Lama and others have made that compassion is the higher norm.

Empathy manes to truly embody another's feelings. But if your partner is down, what does it mean for you to fully empathize with them? Do you just both feel down now? Have you made your partner's life better?

Animation, with audio of Brene Brown speaking on Compassion

Compassion starts with empathy but only goes halfway. At some point though, instead of meeting the person where they are, one retains some separate-ness in order to help one's partner through whatever obstacle they are facing.

Looking Ahead Together

This would be seem to be enough. If both you and your partner are there for each other, communicate well, and truly care about each other's well-being, what more could one want?

And truly, in any given moment, it probably is. However, the short runs becomes the long run over time. The only constant over the long run is change. Succeeding in the long run means being on the same path through life, which can be quite challenging since no one knows what the future holds.

Imagine that couple that everyone thought was perfect for each other. But then you hear after being married 7 to 20 years or so, they divorce because "they grew apart." This is where values and vision come into play.

Values can be defined as "broad preferences concerning appropriate courses of actions or outcomes." Remember that partner and relationship you were so certain about? What happens when it encounters the unknown, a near certainty in the future? If you and your partner are well-aligned in your values, you are less likely to react by how your partner might respond in the face of job loss, major illness, or any of life's other severe trials.

Values by their nature though are somewhat reactive. They are preferences on how you will respond when prompted by external cues. Vision though is proactive. It looks out on the future not as a dark place full of unknown but rather as a bright field of possibility.

What do you want out of your life? What does your partner want? In a romantic context, basic almost obvious questions should include: do you want to get married? Do you want children? Where do you want to live? How will you integrate your families? How will you handle finances? I am not saying you have to have perfect answers for all of these but if you are aware of that you are incompatible on a major axis, do not assume you or the other person will change.

For example, if you want kids and your partner does not, that's a really really important issue to hash out early. If it is irreconciliable, it is ir-re-con-cil-able: do not take up any more of your time or theirs. It is easy to avoid conflict and have wishful (if not truly magical) thinking early on during the honeymoon phase of a relationship, but this too will pass. If your partner is not on the same journey with you, eventually your paths will diverge. No matter how great the early experiences are, you are potentially foregoing spending that time with somehow who is aligned with you in the short-term and the long-term.

This is a lot to consider, which is why it is best to consider these principles before entering a relationship. The emotional rollercoaster that ensues potentially once a relationship starts means that all bets are off if you do not come prepared beforehand to deal with what you will and will not accept out of the relationship. If you cannot do the work early on, you will certainly be forced to work things out later at much greater cost.

I cannot say if these principles are generalizable, but they are what make sense to me. They are not a static set of rules but rather a dynamic guide to what we all strive to do everyday: work and play well with others. Make your own principles, and they will make you better, in relationships and in life.

For more articles on how to approach relationships, check out:


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