Relationships and Tradition

Note: By "relationships" I mean romantic or intimate relationships. They have dating or courtship, and could become a marriage. Anything where people are "more than friends". These generally involve love, sex, living together, trust and monogamy, or hope to involve those in the future. Some of these ideas may apply to other kinds of relationships as well, such as friendships, employee/employer or child/parent.

Relationships are an important tradition. Without them, people would be lost. They wouldn't know what to do instead. And if they made it up from scratch, they'd make mistakes. But relationships are also a flawed tradition. People get hurt by breakups, broken hearts, and divorces. People are frequently hurt within relationships as well, by fighting and by being required to meet obligations even when they don't want to.

Since relationships have severe problems, but also contain knowledge we don't want to throw away, it's important to understand what is good or bad about them. And it's valuable to discover which components can be separated out and removed and which are integral and can't be changed so easily. We should also look for other traditions which we can use.

The Good

The main benefit of relationships is cooperation. Cooperation is when people work together towards a goal they both want to achieve. In this way, each person finds he's getting help compared to if he did it alone. There's not necessarily any downside since they both wanted to accomplish the goal.

Cooperation is hard because people are different. Working together requires coordinating actions, agreeing about what steps to take next, understanding each other, and not having complete control over the entire project. Sometimes cooperation goes wrong.

That's why the relationship tradition is important. Cooperation is hard, but relationships are a known way to do it. Relationships get people on the same page so they understand what is expected of each of them and help them know how to cooperate, instead of making it up as they go along. Relationships help people cooperate in regards to home ownership, sharing a car if they can't afford two, cooking and cleaning and maintenance, raising children, acquiring companionship, attending events (which are nicer with someone to talk to), acquiring sex, discussing emotional problems, and more.

If we were to just stop having relationships to avoid the pain and suffering, we'd miss out on the benefits of the cooperation they enable. Some of these things are available in other ways, but generally in smaller doses, and some aren't.

The Bad

The cooperation relationships enable isn't always smooth. It involves people taking on obligations they don't always want to fulfill. It involves long term commitment, which sometimes goes wrong as people learn and change. It involves trust which can be betrayed and turn one into a victim. It involves sharing which disables standard methods of conflict resolution based on property. And it involves following a one-size-fits-all model of relationships, even though people differ; the model allows for some differing, but not enough.

Relationships make people nervous and sometimes break their hearts. Relationships can lead to vicious fighting. Relationships can cause people to neglect their friends or family. Relationships usually require some unpleasant parts such as in-laws. Relationships can be expensive if you buy jewelry or have a normal wedding. People in relationships are often under additional pressure to have a sexually attractive appearance. If one partner is eccentric or unconventional, the more conventional partner often pressures him or her to conform more.

Exclusive relationships exclude possibilities. It's well known that they frequently exclude possibilities that people consider desirable. Sometimes people desire the excluded options so much that they pursue them, causing problems. But not pursuing them, while wanting to, is also a problem.

What Can Be Changed?

What can be changed depends on the individual people: what they want, what they understand, and how much progress they've already made. If you change one thing, and understand how to make things continue to work, this opens up new possibilities for what you can change next that wouldn't have worked in the past.

The most important thing about changing a tradition is to do it piecemeal. Change one thing, see what happens and proceed carefully. Don't ask the tradition to justify itself and reject all the parts you don't see good reasons for. Instead, changes are what should be held to a high standard. Changes need to say what flaw they are correcting or partially correcting; how they will correct it; what effect this may have on everything else; how they can be backed out of; how much effort it will take and whether it's worth that effort; and why the change makes sense both as a change to the tradition and as an idea in general. Whether similar things have been tried before should be considered, and if they have then the proposed change must say how it will do better if past attempts didn't consistently work out well. The change needs to be explained in detail, and both people should say it in their own words to verify they have the same change in mind. And it should be considered whether there is any smaller change that would make progress, and if so why not do that first?

When possible, changes should draw on existing knowledge. Instead of venturing into new territory, use ideas that already have had error correction. If you have a problem, think of some other area where people don't have that problem and see how it's done, and then try to transplant that method. If you want some feature, then consider if that feature exists in any other field, and if so try to adapt it. Only when there's no existing knowledge to use should you make stuff up from scratch.

Gradual changes are the best approach because they run the least risk of destroying existing knowledge, they are the easiest to undo if they turn out to be mistakes, and they incorporate the fewest new ideas that may have new mistakes in them. Further, they are understood the best. Instead of having lots of new concepts to understand, there's just a few. Gradual change does not limit our ambition. Do one. Then do another. If everything goes well, you can do one every day, or faster. Making small changes doesn't limit the overall speed at which we can improve things. But don't try to rush. Often we think something is working at first before we understand a lot about it, but once we get more experience with it and understand it more thoroughly we discover some flaws. That shouldn't be a surprise as mistakes are common.

What can be changed about relationships, to improve them, without destroying the existing knowledge? Absolutely anything. There are no fundamental, pessimistic limits that mean we can never fix our problems without destroying valuable knowledge. There are no such things as perfect starting places with no problems or flaws. We start in error, and improve to states with less error but still plenty. It's no different with relationships. Just pick any problem and make a small improvement to reduce the harm it does, or the frequency at which it occurs. After several steps maybe the problem will be solved to your satisfaction. Then move onto another one, and continue as long as you want to. Don't change the parts you see value in, and they won't go away. The more a part you want to work on seems to be a mix of good and bad, then the smaller, more gradual, and less ambitious changes you should make: hone in and isolate only the bad parts.

Other Traditions

The most important tradition to draw on is friendships. Friendships enable cooperation but less frequently cause suffering. That's because in friendships people interact for mutual benefit. When one person doesn't want to do something, then it's not done; you just have to ask another friend or not do it. By limiting the relationship to the times it will definitely work out well for everyone, friendships can offer less, but all of it good.

Another tradition that enables cooperation is capitalism. Capitalism, again, only enables cooperation for mutual benefit. In other words, capitalism is purely voluntary. Capitalism enables an impressive amount of large scale cooperation.

An important category of traditions is all the ones that relationships contradict. For example, sharing bank accounts and other property contradicts the capitalist tradition which allows for conflict resolution and is so effective that it even works among strangers. Sharing secrets violates the tradition that people have private lives and that others should respect their privacy. Being really demanding of a partner, and upset if they don't do or think something you expect from them, violates tolerance.

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By Elliot Temple, Feb 2010 | Join the discussion group, receive the newsletter, or send comments to

Acknowledgments: some ideas presented are modified from, or inspired by, ideas from Karl Popper, Ayn Rand, David Deutsch and William Godwin. Thank you!