More Options Than We Recognize

Some Thoughts About Relationships is Colin Wright’s examination and exploration of the way we live our lives with other people. He dives into romantic relationships and looks at other relationships such as social and business relationships to help us have a full picture of how we interact with other people. Throughout the book he puts forth the idea that relationships can be anything we want, and that we can be more aware, intentional, and rational in our relationships than we often realize. In regards to romantic relationships, but applicable beyond, he describes what he calls The All Options Policy by writing, “The key to understanding this policy is accepting that there’s no single moral, upstanding, golden model when it comes to relationships.” His quote focuses on the diversity of human life and experience, and opens up our relationships to be more flexible than we sometimes allow.

 

What is powerful for me in Wright’s quote is the idea that our relationships can be as broad and diverse as humanity. Within romantic relationships, it is very tempting to use the model laid out by ones parents to create a template for ones own relationship. This is a good strategy on an individual level, particularly if your parent’s have a healthy and successful relationship, but it also is in some sense limiting. The key is taking the model laid out by parents, grandparents, and those close to you, and expanding on that model to fit your preferences, the preferences of the partner you find, and the demands and drives of society and your place within it. The alternative as Wright describes is taking the models you see around you, and limiting yourself by constraining the extent of possibilities in your own life and relationships.

 

Creating limitations in our model is especially dangerous when we take what has worked and is understandable for us and begin forcing it on other people. Highlighting humanities diversity can be trite, but for some reason we seem to think that our diversity should not translate into our relationships. It seems to be common for people to take their template for romantic relationships, developed through personal experience and familial models, and begin to use it as a filter for not just understanding but in some sense judging the relationships of others. When we begin forcing other people to fit in with our comprehension of romantic relationships we limit the possibilities for others and ignore the fact that other people think, feel, and respond to the world differently than we do. Thinking only of our model and forcing it onto others only acts to make us feel more superior than others while ignoring the experiences and backstories of other people.

 

What we can take away from Wright’s quote is the idea that humanity is more expansive than we often realize and there are no true rules for how we should develop our relationships within the diverse scope of humanity. There are certainly guidelines and commonalities, social structures and norms, and shared feelings and expectations that we understand and that exist because they tend to form stable and successful partnerships, but forcing ourselves or others to fit into pre-filled relationship models can be limiting and ignores the diverse reality of humanity. Allowing ourselves to be rational actors and developing systems where less pressure is exerted to maintain prior assumptions of how relationships best operate will let us find a healthy place with our partner and establish a relationship that truly fits our needs and experiences.

Continuing on The One

In my previous post I wrote about the common story we tell ourselves about romantic relationships and marriages that focuses on a single person fulfilling us and make us happy. Author Colin Wright calls this idea the Policy of The One in his book, Some Thoughts on Relationships. Wright thinks the idea is not just wrong, but it is potentially harmful for how we view ourselves in the world, and how we view ourselves in relationships. A better approach, he suggests, is to recognize that we are full people on our own and that we have choice in relationships and can rationally structure our relationships rather than simply hoping to find someone who is a magical fit. In his book he writes, “You are The One. You are the only person in the world who can complete and fulfill you, and ensure your happiness. You are born complete, you die complete, and you decide whom you spend your time with between.”

I am particularly fond of Wrights quote because it reflects what I have seen in successful relationships personally and in those around me. It is great to be in a dependable marriage where you have another person who can provide love, support, and stability, but Wright (and I) would argue that you cannot reciprocate those qualities without first being comfortable and confident in yourself, in knowing that you are a complete human being. Understanding yourself and knowing who you are on your own will make you a better partner in any relationship. Not understanding yourself and not being complete on your own makes it hard for you to truly be honest and connect with another person.

This is where Wright argues that the policy of The One breaks down in an unfavorable way. Believing that you are not complete on your own or without another person in some ways limits your ability to be your true self. Failing to be your true self takes away from what you can provide to another person in not just a romantic relationship but in any relationship. This view limits your possibilities and can lead to poor decisions in relationships as you begin to think out of fear and not out of confidence.

Self reflection can help us see who we are, and understanding that relationships can help us grow, adopt new perspectives, and learn more about ourselves should encourage us to seek strong relationships with others. But seeking out relationships to fulfill ourselves or to make ourselves whole takes away from who we are, and limits what we can be in a relationship. Assuming we are not whole without another person means that we cannot learn, grow, and adjust, in relationships, and that we are dependent on another person to fulfill ourselves and our potential on this planet. Turning this perspective around we can see that on our own we can be complete, and that in relationships we can find new areas of growth to be more for ourselves and for those around us.

The One Policy

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright discusses the way most people approach romantic marriages and finding a spouse to spend their life with. In the United States our culture is a little obsessed with the idea of “The One” or the thought that there is one person in the world that is the perfect custom tailored match to who we are.  Wright is critical of this vision and describes the reality of finding a partner.

 

“In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own.”

 

I enjoy Wright’s thoughts of The One and his vision of completeness. I think it is important for us to always be authentic in who we are, and that includes being our complete self. If we cannot be a complete version of ourselves without being in a relationship and being with another person, then we cannot say that we truly know ourselves and we cannot say that we are truly stable. Self-reflection and awareness can help us better understand who we are and what we need, and can show us that we can be complete all on our own. If we cannot reflect on who we are and if we cannot be full people without another person, then we are going to be asking an awful lot of anyone else to be a complete person on their own and to fulfill us at the same time.

 

Wright is critical of The One not just because it is self-centered in the way that it uses other people to serve us while also being self-pitying in saying that we cannot become whole human beings on our own, but because it implies that relationships with anyone who is not The One are in some sense a waste of time. The concept of The One puts pressure on us to be somehow more than who we are, and it pressures us to doubt relationships and undervalue anyone we don’t think we will marry. We lose the ability to learn and grow within relationships, because we simply look for someone else to do all the growing so that we do not need to.

The Words We Use

Have you ever had a disagreement with someone only to find out that you both agree on the same concept or principle, but you just don’t agree on semantics and vocabulary definitions? Author Colin Wright looked at this phenomenon within relationships in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships. Wright has three rules regarding communication in relationships and his first rule is to keep in mind how other people use vocabulary different.

My college undergraduate major was Spanish, and I took linguistic classes in English and Spanish, so I am always drawn to conversations and discussions surrounding the use of language to express complex ideas with random sounds organized together. I love the different uses of language across a nation or across multiple nations, so Wright’s first rule of relationship communication is a natural fit for me. In describing his rule he writes, “The vocabularies we use for things are different from person to person, and as such, incredibly important words like “relationship” and “love” and even “communication” will mean something slightly, or vastly different to each individual who uses them.”

It is not often that we discuss how language is used with the people in our lives, and in daily conversation we certainly don’t often dive into questions regarding the different meanings we all have with the same set of words. Wright’s description of vocabulary means that we are living in an unavoidable world of telephone, where the words can be the same, but what has been said is different from person to person.

Being honest and open in relationships requires strong communication practices that can be inhibited when we are not discussing the same idea with the same concepts arising from the same meaning in the vocabulary we use. It is worth being more aware of one’s own vocabulary to better recognize situations where communication is taking place, but miscommunication is obstructing the meaning of what is being said.

Intentional Relationships

When we think about friendships and romantic relationships, we tend to believe that relationships just happen all on their own. We don’t necessarily consider how we build those friendships ourselves and we don’t think of the effort that we need to put forward to maintain friendships. Author Colin Wright in his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, encourages us to change the ways we think about relationships and to strengthen and maintain our connections with other people. He writes, “A rational mindset helps us remember that relationships should be considered and intentional, not dependent on luck.”

 

By putting conscious thought into our relationships and stepping back to evaluate, analyze, and synthesize information our behaviors, wants, needs, and desires, we can be more intentional with our actions. When problems arise, an irrational response is to act on emotion alone from a single point of view. A rational approach, however, would involve stepping back from emotions and understanding what is lying below the surface of the relationship and affecting the ways we feel and wish to act. Being able to step back, problem solve, and openly describe emotions is key to strengthening a relationship that we want to last.

 

Deciding that relationships are something we want to strengthen, maintain, and actively pursue requires that we adopt new perspectives and learn to reflect on how we interact, behave, and live with those in our lives. By failing to adopt other peoples’ perspectives and points of view, we fail to see areas where our relationships can grow together. Successful relationships require effort and work to plan and build a path that is suitable for you and the person you wish to be close with.

Being Irrational

Author Colin Wright addresses irrationality in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships. He dives into what irrationality looks like in our daily lives, and extends irrationality to relationships and our behaviors and actions in relationships. He writes, “Being irrational means that you rely on a storyline to make things right: that if you just believe hard enough, want it bad enough, or go through enough struggle, life will work itself out. No assessment possible, no change necessary.”

 

Wright’s views on irrationality really resonate with me. There is certainly nothing wrong with living ones life based on stories, in fact it is truly unavoidable no matter how rational one becomes (human rights, money, and political parties are useful stories in our lives, but they are stories none the less). Striving for rationality however, means that you are willing to examine the stories that shape your outlook, and you are willing to take your own responsibility for the shape and direction of your life, your community, and the world. Falling back on stories and believing that life is beyond your control and the result of forces that can’t be understood may align with reality in some way, but it leaves us in a place where conscious and active thought is meaningless, and our decisions, behaviors, and actions are instead guided by emotion, perspective, and impulsiveness resulting from the stories we tell ourselves about the world.

 

What Wright encourages us to do, is to build more reflection and awareness into our lives to be able to begin living in a more rational manner. Thinking more clearly and striving to be rational gives you more control over the stories that you tell yourself about the world. Irrational behavior lacks continuity and can be hijacked by people who make emotional arguments, rouse up fear, or present a particular story that highlights only part of reality. Living irrationally in relationships can be damaging since both parties may begin to rely on their own stories and perspectives as opposed to relying on reflection, measured decisions, and shared understandings of decisions and behaviors.

A Rational Relationship

Some Thoughts About Relationships is an exploration of how we live, behave, and interact with others. Author Colin Wright looks at what it means to build friendships and relationships with people in the modern age, and offers timeless advice and perspectives on connecting. He kicks off his book by bringing the idea of rationality into relationships, something most people probably argue is not possible. He writes,

 

“Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Not many of us in our marriages, friendships, business partnerships, or other relationships truly take the time to think about our relationships in a rational manner. It is hard to reflect on a relationship in general, and finding the time and ability to sit down with another person to evaluate a relationship and seek growth seems like a rarity. Wright’s suggestion is to build self-awareness into the relationship and to be able to stand back and look at reactions and decisions within the relationship to try to find better ways to move forward. This process involves self-reflection and awareness from both members of a relationship, and a willingness to accept emotions but not let emotions be the main driver of a relationship.
Another idea presented by Wright in the quote above that I think is rare in today’s world of relationships is a focus on iterative improvements. I recently took a course at the University of Nevada, Reno focused on government budgeting, and one of the key concepts in the class was the incremental nature of the government budget. Incrementalism was first described as a theory to explain growth and progress within government policy by Charles Lindblom in a journal article The Science of Muddling Through, and its role in budgeting was described in detail by Aaron Wildavsky in his book Politics of the Budgetary Process. What Lindblom and Wildavsky argued in their reviews of government, is that improvement is possible in small steps, and that growth is possible when we think about where we have been, what is available to us, and where we want to go in the future. This is understandable for budgeting, but probably not something we do in our relationships. Wright seems to suggest that we should think more deeply about our relationships and where we think we need to grow in our relationships to allow ourselves to take small steps toward improvement and growth. Wild jumps and changes in our relationships in this manner will likely seem improbable if we are looking to actually improve our relationships, just as wild changes and adjustments in government budgeting are too confusing and risky to be implemented. Rationally reflecting on our relationships can help us find avenues for growth and iteration to help us determine where to focus our time and energy with that other person.

The Friends Around Us

Joshua Fields Millburn wrote the forward for Colin Wright’s book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, and in his forward he looks at the ways in which many of us develop and maintain friendships. To start it off, he writes, “If I could go back in time and give my eighteen-year-old self one nugget of advice, it would be this: You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”

Fields Millburn explains that we often fall into a trap where we develop relationships with the people around us simply because they are around us. It is not a bad thing to become friends with neighbors, co-workers, and people in the same geographic locations as ourselves, but in some ways it can be a little limiting. Having positive and meaningful relationships with people around us is important and can make a big impact in our lives and the connections we have with the places we live, work, or go to school, but we can also strive to have greater friendships with people beyond our small geographic region.

Throughout his forward he encourages us to look first inward and understand ourselves and become someone that we can and want to be friends with. After reflecting on ourselves and developing our values, we can align our actions, and begin to develop true relationships based not on proximity, but on values. The trouble, explains Fields Millburn, with the proximity approach to friends and relationships is that we can’t always find people at work or in our neighborhoods who share the same values that we do. We don’t need to share the same beliefs to have the same values, but associating and living with people who don’t share your values in some way puts your actions and habits at odds with the values that you wish to live by. Striving beyond our local constraints to meet people who share our values and focus their lives to advance those values will give us a positive model and sounding board for our own lives, even if they are distant from us physically.

When I first returned to this quote I worried that seeking out people beyond our proximal friends who shared our same values would contribute to the already evident problem of information bubbles that we see across the country. Many people become isolated their media and information streams to only view that which they agree with or that which supports their prior beliefs. But what Fields Millburn explains is that it should be our values, and not our beliefs that align with the people with whom we associate. On a deep level we should make sure that our lives, goals, desires, and actions are in some ways connected with positive values, and we should expect that our beliefs built on top of those values will vary.

At one point, Fields Millburn specifically addresses the idea of bubbles and is critical of the isolationist bubbles that many people live in when restricting their friendships to spatially close people. Looking beyond those people who are immediately present in our lives will allow us to expand beyond the bubble that we live within.

A Theory of Others

How much do we value other people, and how much should we value other people? At the core of ethics lies this question, and philosopher Peter Singer addresses it in his book The Most Good You Can Do. Singer refers to Canadian philosopher Richard Keshen’s ideas to build his vision of what ethics look like in an age of reason and tackles questions of how we should think about other people. In his book Singer writes, “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and their well-being matter as much as our own.”

 

This piece of advice is very similar to the Golden Rule, but with one notable distinction. The Golden Rule puts us at the center, focusing on how we want to be treated, and then expanding outward. Singer’s foundation for an ethical person starts with other people and a recognition that the lives of others are just as important in the world as our own life. It builds on common humanity and pushes past areas where see human ethics frequently fall short such as, tribalism, merit, and perceived responsibility. If we cannot start from a place where we accept that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own, we cannot move forward with truly equitable ethical foundations.

 

Singer’s ethical base also reminds me of childhood developmental studies and Theory of Mind, which focuses on a young child’s early recognition that other children and people have thoughts and feelings. This recognition builds until we are able to perceive, predict, and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others. From our own consciousness we can begin approaching other people as if they are rational conscious individuals just like us, even though we can never see their consciousness or prove that they have thoughts just like we do. Ultimately, Theory of Mind, a recognition of conscious thought in other people (often also projected onto other living and even inanimate objects around us) begins to shape the ethical foundation of our life.

 

This seems to be built into Singer’s worldview through recognition and reflection of life and consciousness. On a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, guest Yuval Noah Harari discussed Rousseau who said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he was critical of Rousseau’s fictitious “I,” or the self  created by Rousseau out of nowhere and built on in story. Harari explained that the conclusion Rousseau should have reached is simply, “Thought exists, therefore thought exists.” This view does not diminish the reality of our consciousness, but helps us understand that the “I” discussed by Rousseau is simply the story that thought creates. We know that thought exists so it is not unreasonable to believe that others can think, and if others think and can build their own story to create a fictional “I,” then Singer’s ethical foundation still exists and is perhaps bolstered as we recognize the stories we tell ourselves and  as we accept that our thought is in no way fundamentally different from the conscious thought of others which gives rise to our imaginary “I.” Ultimately, we must realize that we are limited in how we experience the world and that others experience the world in the same way. Increasing our ability to think of others and interpret the stories they create for themselves helps us to further our ethical thinking and behavior.

Reasonable Decisions

I am a public administration student at the University of Nevada, Reno, and what my studies this semester have taught me is that there is no true way to separate politics from policy and administration. The way in which we govern, the bureaucrats that we ask or need to govern, and the decisions that are made will always be political because it is not possible to take self-interest out of the decision making process. We can be technical and rational in our approaches to a problem or in our implementation of policy, but ultimately the direction and base of our decision making is a value judgement. Rational thinking can establish the best means by which we can accomplish something but the ends are always value judgements that we make.

 

With that in mind, we can use empirical evidence to shape our decision making and we can base our ultimate goals on evidence and research, but we should recognize that the goals we set are ultimately shaped by value judgements, even if they are reasonable value judgements. This is where Peter Singer’s book, The Most Good You Can Do, comes in. Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, and his recent book focuses on effective altruism and how to live a life that is more impactful and like the title suggests, provides the most good to humanity.

 

At one point in his book, which I read well before my venture into a public administration masters program, he focuses on moral decision making from the point of reason. In synthesizing other philosophers he writes,

 

“A reasonable person seeks to hold beliefs that are in accord with the relevant evidence and values that are not open to reasonable criticism by others. … Sound ethical decisions as those that others cannot reasonably reject. Granted, all this leaves open what values are reasonable, but at a minimum reasonable values are values that are not influenced by biased thinking and hence can be defended to others.”

 

Values and moral judgement can flow from rational thought as an individual expands their perspective and synthesizes more information. Self reflection and moral considerations can help an individual develop a worldview where their ethical frameworks are shaped not by emotion but by empirical evidence and rational thought. We can develop strong arguments that the moral and ethical world views created in this manner support the ultimate well being of all humanity, but first we must establish what we will use as our measure, and in his book Singer suggests that we use suffering as our measuring stick. The more our actions reduce suffering across the globe, the more our actions are in line with rational values that can be empirically measured and rationally defended.

 

Where I see an ultimate breakdown is that the ultimate decision, that humans should act to reduce all suffering on the planet, is still a value judgement. It is one that can be reached through rational thought and relative to other goals can be defended through reason, but it is still a value judgement that we put forward. I agree with Singer and find his arguments for effective altruism incredibly motivational, but I think we must accept that our rational thought process is only establishing rational means to achieve a value based end, and we should develop a more open and honest forum for discussing the ends that we aim for.