Relationship modeling

February 10, 2022

Given the pandemic's isolation of friends and friend groups, I've been thinking a lot about relationships. Which ones fulfill, which ones entertain, and which ones are resilient to strain.

I've noticed one axis that tracks relationship maturity is conversation temporality. In a new relationship, you're mostly focused on the present or recent past. You're playing mini-golf. You're sharing coffee. You're telling stories. You're enjoying the same moments together.

As relationships mature, you focus more on the past and future. How did you grow up? What are your fears and dreams? Why do you have the same wallet that your grandfather gave you years ago? You're theorizing about the future and grounding it in the past.

Why do close relationships devote such a significant portion to moments beyond the horizon? Why do we care so much about the past? One answer is that we require intimacy before we even broach these subjects. Deep conversations seem vulnerable and vulnerability is more comfortable with a close friend. But still, it begs the question of why we're so compelled to ask about the pasts of others and to share them in the first place.

My theory: We have an innate desire to predict how others react. Given some new stimuli, what would they do? We want to create a mental model of the other people that are close in our lives. This model allows us to rely on others to make self-consistent decisions even in unforeseen circumstances. Similarly, we want others to understand how we see the world so they trust us with the same.

There's certainly a spacial component here. Observing a person in a diversity of situations allows you to better model what they'll do. You can read their body language and see them when the world really throws them a curve ball. How do they respond in real time to these new situations?

But you also have to understand more that isn't visible on the surface. You need to understand their history, their value systems, their perspectives, their strengths, and their insecurities. One key method to building this trust is to discuss the past. Hearing about your history paints a portrait. Did you grow up in a family where dinner debates were the norm? Or did your parents shy away from conflict? Hypotheticals poke at the bounds of your worldview and force you to imagine what you would do in worlds that you haven't experienced yet.

People naturally face conflict. Friends make mistakes, friends get mad, friends fight. I'll stipulate that I believe most people are good at their core, especially the people who you consider your friends. Friends don't intentionally hurt friends. Relationship friction is much more often caused by someone doing something that unintentionally offends. And at least a portion of this is by not understanding enough of the pattern to appreciate how others will feel about a new situation.

There was a Huffington Post article a few years ago about a divorce that was caused by leaving out the dishes. Spoiler: it wasn't actually the dishes. It was not recognizing how unappreciated a partner feels if their needs are perpetually disregarded. It was poorly modeling their feelings and reactions to these small actions over time.

Past a certain point of intimacy, you need a model of others. This pattern modeling supports the evolution of relationships. It builds trust. And it's this trust that's required to allow your relationships to fulfill, entertain, and bounce back.