How To Stop Naming Your Relationship

I had a conversation with a friend/lover/something/it'scomplicated today (early May 2010) that reminded me of eir relationship naming fetish; ey has trouble with our relationship because it is hard to select one of the standard societally-defined names for it, because of how those are categorized.

What I noticed is that I find our relationship to be quite simple and easily comprehensible. In fact, I find it easier to understand than some of my more serious, easily labelled relationships. In itself that was an interesting realization, but I also got lucky and noticed what the simplicity reminded me of: it reminded me of Rationalist Taboo, which is a tool in the singu-rationalist community for achieving precision when labels get in the way.

The basic idea is that only things that make a difference make a difference: the question is not "what do I call this?", the question is "under what circumstances can I tell the difference between this thing and other things?".

I quickly came up with a stripped-down version of Rationalist Taboo specifically for this purpose, as a tool to understand any relationship you're in. It's very simple: write down a list of questions that distinguish between your relationships. A good example is things that you might do with some people but not with others (like kiss them without warning, for example) and for the person you're confused about and a couple of people you aren't, write down if that action would be a good idea, bad idea, neutral, or don't know.

That's left deliberately vague: I have no idea what you value in your relationships, nor what the other people in them do.

Such questions might not make all the distinctions you want to make, but after that it should be relatively easy to make up your own, more probing, questions. What you especially want to look for are questions you cannot answer, because that tells you where a relationship is actually confusing. This is the crux of the matter: sometimes people get confused because they have no label for a relationship, and sometimes they get confused because the relationship is actually confusing or unpredictable; this exercise distinguishes between those two states. If a relationship is complicated by label-making standards, but you completely understand what to expect from it, there's no problem worth fixing (unless you're unhappy with it, of course), it's when you actually don't know what to expect that there's a confusion worth spending time on.

When you are done, if you like, make up labels for each of the patterns you see. Call them anything you like; make up new words if you want. If your mind needs labels, give it labels.

You might notice patterns that make it clear that several people in your life deserve the same label, or you might see that each relationship is special and unique in its own way and that insisting on grouping them together cheapens them by ignoring their uniqueness.

Here's me playing this game a bit.

This list is bent specifically towards evaluating romantic relationships, but you can certainly modify it as you see fit.

Label: (G)ood idea, (B)ad idea, (N)either, (?) no idea. Each question is implicitly of the structure "If I X this person, it would be Y".

Kissed in private G G G B
Kissed in public G G B B
Held hands in private G G G G
Held hands in public G G B G
Fondled in private G G G G
Fondled in public G B B G
Told wildest fantasies to B G ? G
Said "I love you" to G G B B
Called at 3 am crying for no good reason G G B B
Called at 3 am crying due to serious personal tragedy G G ? ?
Showed up on doorstep at 3 am covered in blood begging for help G G B ?

These questions are not sufficient to distinguish between the relationships I am currently confused about, but they're a good starting point, and I'm having an unusual sense of privacy around the whole thing. Examples, though, of where I might go from here to nail down the distinctions I want (that is: questions to which I expect to answer "?" in at least some cases):

  • Reverse the 3 am questions: what are the odds the person in question would call me at 3 am because they were upset and couldn't sleep? What are the odds ey would call me first?
  • If me and each of these people were stranded on a desert island, how long would it be before ey turned to me and indicated something like "I'm horny, let's have sex!"? What would this action look like? A significant look, actual words, disrobing...?
  • If I said "I'm horny, but very tired; can you get me off?", how would ey react?

Moving on, I don't have labels for any of these relationships, but I certainly feel I understand how I relate to most of them very well: notice the very few question marks, and almost all in situatons that almost never come up.

The point that originally started all this was that what the person I was talking to calls "confusing" is a relationship that I can only assign one question mark to that I give a shit about. I know exactly what to expect, which is, to me, the opposite of confusion.

Another tool this gives me is the option of looking at particular boxes and saying "I'm not OK with a relationship like that" or "I need to change what's in that box to be happy".

If you understand what's going on, you're one step further to controlling your destiny.

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