The Relationship System

Last weekend I was having dinner with Alex and we got to talking about relationships.  I’ve been together with Bagel now for a little over two years and Alex, who’s known me for a good long while, was frankly flabbergasted and mind-boggled that I’d sustained this relationship with Bagel for as long as I have.  To be fair, if I’m being completely honest, I’m somewhat amazed too. Anyway, Alex suggested that I write up what I’d described to her. Haha, she even suggested that I write a “relationship book” one day! While I don’t think that’s ever going to happen, I still needed to complete my long-form writing for this week. So here we go.

First, some background.

As with many things, I think’s useful to understand whence this story starts in order to better appreciate where it is now.

When I was a (much) younger man, and I can say this now with the full benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but it is fair to say that I lacked a fair amount of social grace.  I was selfish and arrogant.  And looking back now, I realize I was quite insufferable.  It’s actually a small wonder that I possessed any friends at all.  Emboldened by having achieved a modicum of success early in life, that’d given me an inflated sense of self.  I remember studying very hard through my high school and college years, not even bothering with dating or paying an iota of interest to girls or relationships.  In my own mind, I was too busy for all of that.  While other kids partied and went out to have fun, I was always in my room or at the library studying.  While they went to Prom or Homecoming, I was inside hitting the books telling myself that, “one day, all those morons will be pumping my gas” while I, in my elaborate imagination, worked tirelessly towards a life of riches and luxury.

So it wasn’t until after I graduated that I turned my attentions to formally constructing a system by which I would identify potential friends and romantic partners. Similar to how Russell and Whitehead dedicated their lives to formalizing a system of mathematics to show all theorems could be proven, or to Einstein’s quixotic quest to reconcile GTR with QM, I saw myself a modern day Feynman or Witten who’d finally formalize the process of friendship formation.

With such delusions of grandeur in mind, I began constructing an elaborate “test system” by which I “examined” potential friends and romantic candidates.  The questions and circumstances were hyper-specific too.  For example, did the candidate like philosophy?  Or how about the Fast & Furious movies?  Was the she punctual?  (That was a deal breaker.)  Did she reply to text messages in a timely manner?  (The “24-hour rule,” for which I gave you three strikes.)  My God, the list went on and on.  Again, this examination applied not only to potential romantic partners but to just vanilla friendships as well. (Though, admittedly, the rubric for friends were considerably less stringent.)

Appreciating the Fast & Furious movies was a key litmus test.

And then when I “failed” people, on the last day of our relationship or friendship, I’d sit them down and walk them through a long list of all the “problems” that I’d perceived with them.  I remember being so gracious as to soften the blow by telling them that, “this was just my opinion and subjective experience but I hoped that by giving this feedback, they could go on to become a better person in the world.” Truly, I felt my magnanimity unparalleled.

It was basically like an exit interview you give when you’re firing someone at a company.  Think George Clooney and Anna Kendrick from Up in the Air.  I had a template for the “exit conversation” and everything.  Looking back at it now, all these years later, I cringe and grimace.  Many of those sessions, especially with women, ended in tears.  For any hurt feelings I may have once caused, I possess extreme regret and remorse.  I am so sorry.

But all of that prologue aside, let us now turn to my relationship with Bagel and how I’ve, somewhat miraculously, been able to keep it going for as long as it has.

I won’t take time here today to detail what effected my change in seeking out friends and romantic partners.  The short story is that I was hospitalized and sent to the ER for three nights over a long weekend.  And that was accompanied by a slew of severe health problems which forced change upon me.  But all that is a retelling for another time.  Today I want to focus on this new “Relationship System” which I’ve slowly been building these past two years.  Suffice it to say, my approach with Bagel has been dramatically different than what I’d historically practiced.

The System

Here are the golden rules that I’ve learned while living with Bagel: 

1. Check your own emotions, values, and judgments at the door. This is not about you.

“Do not superimpose your own values onto your partner.  In fact– don’t even try to understand the relationship on any sort of emotional level at all.”

2. Instead:  Adopt a systems-based approach.  Treat the relationship in its entirety as a system.  You are a mere participant in this system, a collection of inputs you bring to the table.  You have no control whatsoever over how your partner reacts or over the inputs she puts into the system.  Like Viktor Frankl once wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning:  “We cannot control our situation or what happens to us.  The only thing we can control is how we react.”

3. Tread cautiously.  Observe the system.  When situations happen, trial and error different patterns of input and observe the resultant effect on the system. How does your partner respond?  What were the circumstances?  Was she hungry or tired?  Was it morning, afternoon, or evening?  Was it sunny or rainy? Outdoors or indoors?  What topics are landmines or danger zones?  What are reserved words or phrases that elicit positive outcomes?  What are trigger words that precipitate arguments?  Etc.

Over time, you need to be constantly running pattern recognition.  Your correlation engine needs to humming, redlining, constantly, around the clock.  Time is not your friend.  Beware of anomalies and red herrings.  Teasing out signal from noise will be your chief challenge here.

4. Delivery is absolutely paramount.  It’s not just about the content of your words.  Your tone and facial expression will mean more than the contents of your words.  Don’t ask me why.  Apparently, that’s just how it works (at least with Bagel).  For me, personally, my facial expressions have never really portrayed my true emotional state so this was hugely challenging for me. For example, by default, I don’t smile much and my brow is often furrowed.  Even when I’m completely happy or satisfied, this will be my screensaver facial expression.  I don’t know why.  But anyway:  In order to get along with Bagel, I was forced to learn how to manipulate my facial muscles, and to modulate my voice and tone accordingly, in order to fall into parameters that she considered acceptable.  It took a lot of effort, work, and practice on my part.  And I’m still working on it.

Here’s a tip though:  In the first year of our relationship, Bagel and I frequently argued.  Several of these fights went nuclear.  And like in the aftermath of Chernobyl, we both eventually concluded we needed to institute safeguards to prevent future blowups of this magnitude.  There are only so many times Hiroshima can happen before the continent collapses.  So we put into place a “fight routine.”  When an argument started to get overly heated, I’d simply leave and take my phone with me.  Sometimes I’d drive off to the library.  Sometimes I’d just walk away if we were at a restaurant or outdoors somewhere.  The salient point is that I’d leave her physical vicinity.  Then, after about ten minutes, I’d message her on my phone.  And with solely text messages, we would resolve our argument.  This approach has always worked for us, at least so far.  Once we took my face and voice out of the equation, and reduced our communication to solely being text-based, Bagel was able to engage with me in conversation.  My face and voice were the problem.  So we simply removed them.  And peace luckily ensued.

This above example leads to my fifth and final point:

5. A relationship is a continuous science experiment that simply never ends.  It just goes on and on, forever.  Yes, over time, you may be able to learn the general contours of the territory.  But earthquakes happen.  Tectonic plates shift.  The landscape is always changing.  The key is having an empirical, growth-based mindset towards the challenge.  When an argument does erupt, don’t panic. Don’t react emotionally.  Instead, query your database of previous incidents and try to react in a way that will lead to a more positive result rather than a more negative result.  Again, you control nothing except for your own inputs into the system.  Here’s a heuristic I’ve adopted:  At any given point in time, my immediate next word or next action can only do one of two things:  Improve the situation and inch Bagel towards feeling better.  Or hurt the situation and push Bagel towards feeling worse.  That’s it.  It’s like the stock market.  There are only two directions. Act accordingly.

At any given point in time, a relationship possesses what I call a general “health score.”  It’s a single number that charts the relationship’s status and trajectory.  On your dashboard, as a function of time, track the course of your relationship’s health.  My general discovery is that the longer the health score falls below a certain threshold, the more danger the relationship falls into. Below a certain level for too long and the relationship perishes.  It’s like the Titanic.  Up to a certain number of compartments can flood for a certain amount of time.  But past a certain degree of flooding, the ship is essentially doomed.  Once you cross this point of no return, there’s no coming back.

Conversely:  If you achieve a high enough relationship health score for a sustained, long enough period of time, my conjecture (this is still awaiting verification) is that it’ll lead to marriage!  The ring is the prize on the horizon!  But getting there requires a prolonged relationship health score in the “marriage zone” threshold.  I’m still working on this at the moment, but that’s my hypothesis.  We’ll see.

Alrighty, and that’s it!  Over these past two years, I’ve really poured my heart and soul into trying to succeed in this relationship with Bagel.  My health, despite current challenges, has improved immeasurably thanks to her, more than from any synthetic pharmaceutical I ever consumed.  I truly do wish and hope that she’ll agree to be my life partner.  And I believe things are currently on a positive trajectory.  Hopefully, this mental model will give someone else out there some iota of help.  I know it’s a common “truism” that “women cannot be deciphered.”  But I honestly don’t believe that’s true.  Maybe some subset of women are indecipherable, but there are many more who can be understood!  It just takes truckloads of effort and persistence.  Good luck and Godspeed!

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