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Sunday, July 18, 2004

Relationships, Back to the Future

I promised to think about what I want from a relationship, and I am convinced it is something non-traditional, yet very traditional.

I think of myself as a traditional person, but back in The Goode Olde Days, they probably would have publicly burned, stoned, or hanged me. I am a person with traditional values trapped in the shell of an innovator. Unsurprisingly, this dichotomy extends relationships. Something I've written about recently is how I was not bothered by my bisexual girlfriend having a girlfriend. Yet I am very traditionalist when it comes to a girlfriend having a fling with another man (public flogging). But the dichotomy goes deeper than this. 

At one point I was going to write about my ideal relationship as a next generation relationship. But I've come to realize that my vision is really a modern translation of the very old style of relationship, the community-stabilized monogamy. In a sense, it's Back to the Future not The Next Generation.


Once upon a time, a relationship between man and woman was an economic and social commitment oriented around a small social circle. Villages were made up of multigenerational extended families, as long-distance travel was generally not practical. Social mobility was nearly non-existent; you died in the class wherein you were born. Most socioeconomics was based around land, which was owned by family, or deeded through feudalism. Either way, once you had land, you didn't move around much.

This created islands of stability. A man and woman worked jointly in their socioeconomic niche, for example their farm or store, as well as the family. Their roles and expectations were clearly defined and supported by their social groups.

Fast forward to the present or near future.

Economics is no longer tied to land. Fungible currencies shifted power from land to an abstraction of wealth called money, banks made it move faster than humans, and then complex financial engineering vaporized economics into the realm of abstract mathematics. And recently economics is no longer tied to organizations, but asset classes. Companies come and go, or move from asset to asset. People shift from companies to companies to follow suit, based on their interests and skills. This is indeed a new world.

Through the rise of air-fuel engines, radio and electronic networking, our social networks are not geographically bound. Whether it's a chat room on AOL or the World Economic Forum at Davos, people are connected across the world by interest or attribute rather than by land. Many people know more friends in another state than in their own neighborhood.

An example the result: a person in a Starbucks with a laptop can make as much money with friends across the world as a person with a thousand acres in their family for seven generations and a statue of their great grandfather in the town square. A kid in a garage with a synthesizer and a CD-burner can make as much money as the CEO of a multinational corporation with billions in assets. And all of them are more powerful than the kings of old.

But along with losing the geographical context of socioeconomics, we have also lost the lynchpin of monogamous relationships. It isn't as practical to be monogamous if there is so much travel and so much separation from your mate. If you spend about 2/3 of your waking hours apart, and much of that time you are around other people (e.g. coworkers), why should we be surprised it's difficult to stay monogamous? In addition, the socioeconomic interests of mates are not as tightly aligned. Each mate is mobile, with an independent career or job opportunities, and no pressure to stay together in the same local geography forever. And on top of all this, roles are not clearly defined, and yet expectations are that they should magically mesh together (the difference between love and true love is that the latter is easy. And, by the way, never happens. It's just an evil Disney-esque expectation setting that dooms us to unhappiness.)


I would never advocate that we should go back to the Dark Ages and confine ourselves to small geographies and no upward mobility, just to save relationships. I'm no Luddite. But I do believe we can shift the traditional relationship to the new context we face.

First we have to put our human loyalties to something we decide is stable. Yet in our modern world, very little is stable. Or is it? I believe that very few concrete things are stable. But there are abstractions that are stable. We will have to embrace abstractions for this next-generation relationship. 

Think of other kinds of relationship terms we have today, in the context of a male-female relationship:

Friends, friends with benefits, sister, significant other, girlfriend, wife, mistress, prostitute, courtesan, consultant, coworker, business partner, and so on.

These terms define relationships with different interaction dimensions: work interactions, sexual interactions, financial interactions, family interactions. Some are driven by contractual expectations where the cost and benefit are measured in money, time, milestones, etc., and some are driven by social expectations. There are a growing number of these terms because of the continuous social evolution (and segregation) of these interaction dimensions.

My belief is the relationships driven by social expectations are least stable because there is so much social evolution and diversity. Relationships that are strictly specified (e.g. contractually) are stable, but short term. Relationships that are highly adaptable can have longevity.

So let’s say that we are looking for stable and long lived relationships. What then? I say that both specification (to achieve stability) and adaptability (to achieve longevity) in the context of a changing socioeconomic environment require abstraction.

abstraction  n 1: a concept or idea not associated with any specific instance.

Note: Abstraction is necessary to classification, by which things are arranged in genera and species. We separate in idea the qualities of certain objects, which are of the same kind, from others which are different, in each, and arrange the objects having the same properties in a class, or collected body.

from dictionary.com

The note mentions how abstraction is used for classification, and that's essentially what we want. We want contracts and expectations to be associated with a class of something rather than specifics, since the specifics will change. See, for example, this reprint of the NY Times article for a view of what has led to the new social relation: “friends with benefits”.

SIDEBAR: Why Long-Term Stability?
One could ask, why even strive for a long-term stable relationship? Why not a long series of short term relationships? I will write about that alternative, because once you factor out family and kids, there are some attractive attributes of short-term optionally-renewable relationships.
But then I think, hiking up a mountain is not the same as a series of short hikes up a hill. And companionship in old age is also attractive: an old age when I’m more mellow, relaxed, and looking for a deeper dimension of friendship and historical perspective.
So for those who find the notion of long-term suspect, please suspend disbelief and read on.

So let’s look at some of these abstractions I find interesting for relationships.


I believe the first abstraction is the relationship itself. Perhaps more than even to ones partner, one must be committed to the concept of the same relationship. Today's entrepreneurial equivalent is believing and sharing a vision. For purposes of this article, I have discussed a long term stable relationship, but there are others (I will write about a short-term contractual relationship in a future post.)

The second abstraction is socioeconomic investment. Like the Goode Olde Days, there has to be a commitment to a society and an economic system. Remember these are now virtual, no longer grounded in geography such as a house, neighborhood, ethnicity, country, work environment, corporation, or culture. Given that list, hmm, everything seems unstable! But abstractions such as entrepreneurship or science or social justice or social relativism (or its enemy, the Cult of Free Inquiry!) can survive. Such abstractions have richly world-wide distributed communities, social and networking supports, strong social expectations, and social inertia that makes them difficult to leave.  Can people commit to investing in a socioeconomic abstraction for the long term? Rather than being born and bred to landowning gentry or serfdom, can we be life-long disposed toward entrepreneurship or the cult of science?

The third abstraction is interaction schema. This is what is implicit in all the labels we have for different forms of relationship. For example, imagine choosing from the following menu of interaction schema elements:

Intellectual: we think together, share ideas, and build on each others' ideas.

Professional: we work on projects together, some his and some hers.

Social: we go to parties and meet people together, leverage our networks.

Sexual: we please each other sexually.

Exploration: we explore new worlds and civilizations together... to boldly go where no... oops, there’s that next generation reference again.

Sharing: we share experiences, contacts, and knowledge.

Friendship: we spend unstructured time hanging out and help each other.

Romance: we do romantic things to and for each other, making each other feel good about our socialized sex roles.

The fourth abstraction is symmetry. I have written elsewhere about this. Asymmetry is damaging to a relationship, and yet it is what makes relationships wonderful and interesting. I had a relationship with somebody that was a female clone of me (forced into by my matchmaking friends) and it was a disaster. So I’m advocating the abstraction of symmetry, in other words, an overall balance is required. Sometimes this requires deposits on one side or another, which is a system advocated by several marriage counselors.

The fifth abstraction is obligation. In the past, obligation was a social contract. The concept of marriage is a social contract; you are wed before your social group. It was a promise and obligation to join that social group as a couple. Today's equivalent is a legal contract. Interestingly, marriage is more a legal contract than a social one these days; it is no longer taboo to discuss the prenuptial or divorce.

The sixth abstraction is operating constraints. Love may be romantic, but it also has to be pragmatic to survive. Relationships are on Antarctica, not La Jolla, so you need a little planning. Part of it is recognizing ones own needs, strengths and weaknesses, and building operating constraints around the relationship. Not exactly romantic, but in the long run, isn’t survival more romantic than failure?

I believe these and other abstractions form a term sheet or contractual framework for a long-term and stable relationship.

And I will address the contractual framework in Part Two.


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