A terrible system

Written by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

If I were going to design a system for people to create and build long-term, monogamous relationships, I would emphatically NOT build the system that is currently in place.

I mean, let's think about how it works. Take a typical example:

You meet a stranger. Or say a friend sets you up with a friend of theirs. And say you like the person; say they like you. Say you've got "spark," that instantaneous, irreplicable sense of connection, which feels so good, so right, but is probably borne of your neuroses established in the first four years of your life meshing with their neuroses, also established in the first four years of their life.

And so you see each other again. You get to know each other better. Say you're cautious, you've had your heart broken and you're keen to avoid a painful ending, and you're self-aware, so you have a sense of what works for you and what doesn't. So you gently explore the terrain, poking around for indications that this person might replicate some past bad experiences and for other indications that they might have what you know you need.

And say all signs point to yes, or all the signs you're willing to pay attention to point to yes; any signs pointing to no are quietly disregarded, as the brain chemistry of attachment hijacks your reasoning and tells you yes more this now yes.

Say you fall in love. Say you feel you have all the information you need (or want) in order to decide that this time, this one, it's as good as you could ever need it to be, and then some.

Say you commit.

And you spend loads of time with the person. You integrate them into your social circles and your family. You adjust your life to create space for them and you learn the things they need you to learn in order to interact with them peaceably and joyfully.

And then.

Say it turns out there is some basic incompatibility between you that your love-juiced brain was too soggy to notice. Say circumstances change in a way that brings out some not-so-good dynamics between you.

Or worse! Some of the hardest failures of relationships are the product not of basic inadequacies in either partner or even in the inherent dynamics between the partners, but of the impact of external forces influencing those dynamics. Like water transitioning to ice or steam as the temperature changes. You think your relationship is water, but when the environment changes sufficiently, all of a sudden it's ice.

Look: the longer you are together, the more invested you are, the more you have to lose if it turns out there's something wrong. As years of life twine together, it becomes more and more difficult to disengage from an uncool situation. And at the same time, you can't really know whether or not a situation is uncool until you spend time in it.

No, it's a terrible system for selecting a person who'll make a good long-term partner. It's so complex, with so many variables and so much elasticity as to be borderline chaotic. It's a terrible system.

And I'll bet there are any number of readers out there in long-term relationships who have, at one point or another, looked at their partner and thought to themselves, "Why you?"

And there are two answers:

1.  Because you participated in this terrible system, whose function is to bond people together; and

2. None of the flaws in each person or the relationship are bad enough to countervail the emotional and temporal investment you've already made.

Because the system that GETS you together has only coincidental relationship to the system that KEEPS you together.

This is one of the many places where our evolutionary heritage is just utterly at odds with contemporary culture. The system in place (in our psychobiology) was just not designed for the purpose to which it is being put. And a lot of people are very confused as a result.

David Schnarch says that marriage is a crucible of personal growth; it's not about choosing the right partner, it's about making the right choices with that partner. Given baseline affection and some basic relationship skills, any couple can have a solid, long-lasting relationship.

So my best relationship advice: find someone you fall in love with who falls in love with you. Try real hard (with SCIENCE). Value the well being of the individuals in the relationship over the well being of the relationship per se. Okay?

Haven’t installed it yet?