A Biased Article About Finding and Maintaining Love
For dozens of people I know, loneliness is the biggest problem in their lives. It eclipses every single other thing. It’s bigger than poverty; it overwhelms wealth. It is the first and most fundamental need they have and yet the need most likely to go unfulfilled.
This is not for lack of advice on how they can correct this. You can go on whatever forum you want, right now, and there will be hundreds of people ready to tell you how buying a dog will help you meet people, what dating services you might use, or how to build a github page to track version updates to your personality. As is the case with anything important, most of them disagree with each other.
I’m no exception to this. The title of this article mentions bias because it’s unavoidable; I know the things that have worked for me and the people I know in encouraging happiness. I think I see things that haven’t worked for others. Most of the advice I’m giving comes from a relatively religious/conservative mindset, and thus stands in stark opposition to what you might get from, say, the ghost-written works of a start-up CEO or a comment by the meditation-and-shrooms-friendly kind of rationalist.
That said, I’ve never seen a group that produces people unhappy at a more pervasive, fundamental level than the nu-philosophy of the EA-and-rationalist-adjacent techworld. Given my audience composition, I think if you are reading this article with great interest - as opposed to the equally valid “because I’m bored” or “to find stuff to disagree with” motivations - it’s statistically likely you have failed in trying to use that kind of advice and philosophy to get the kind of love you need or want.
That’s sort of who I’m writing for. If my competitor’s product has not met your needs, I offer an alternative. And because of that, I’m assuming the aggressive tone - I’m basically going to present you with what’s worked for me and the other people I know without qualifying it much, and approaching criticisms of other philosophical sets in a similarly aggressive way.
I want to stress that you don’t have to agree with all or any of this. There’s even a chance you shouldn’t. But putting all your eggs in one basket is only a good idea if you are sure you have a failsafe, perfect basket - if you aren’t sure you do, read on.
I’m going to heavily qualify this, but nobody will ever love you because of who you are.
Imagine you briefly talk to a person while you wait in line at Circle K, perhaps about a new flavor of KitKat bar or gas prices or something. While talking to them, you become aware that - within the confines of what you know about them - they are an incredibly high-quality person. They are physically attractive and dress in a way you like. They are friendly but not overbearing, and you are comfortable talking to them. Their KitKat banter is top-notch, and they have interesting insights about low-end chocolate marketing you wouldn’t have come to by yourself.
Eventually, they pay for their stuff, give you a charming wave goodbye, and leave. You have nothing but positive feelings for them as a person based on what you’ve seen. At the same time, you are basically aware that you will never see them again.
Do you love them?
Chances are strong that you don’t, despite them being perfectly likable. The same is probably true for a hypothetical celebrity you follow pretty closely and know a great deal about. You and I could read a bunch an actor’s interviews and find he’s a funny, nice guy, good at their job, etc., and never approach anything we’d think of as similar to healthy feelings of love. We might admire them or even hero-worship, but we know from experience that if they died the most they’d get from us is a week or two of performative mourning.
When I say that nobody will ever love you (or me, or anyone) for who they are, I mean it. People love you for who you are to them, which is a very, very different thing. Love (or some varieties of hate, for that matter) is highly dependent on how much space you take up in their life.
If I say “co-dependency”, it’s likely you mentally recoil a bit. It’s considered to be an ugly word. And you don’t recoil without reason; the usage of the word is a negative one. Here’s Wikipedia on the subject of co-dependant personalities:
In a codependent relationship, the codependent person's sense of purpose is based on making extreme sacrifices to satisfy their partner's needs. Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy "clinginess" and needy behavior, where one person does not have self-sufficiency or autonomy. One or both parties depend on their loved one for fulfillment. The mood and emotions of the codependent are often determined by how they think other individuals perceive them (especially loved ones). This perception is self-inflicted and often leads to clingy, needy behavior which can hurt the health of the relationship.
And Psychology Today on how that plays out within relationships:
Healthy relationships are mutually beneficial, providing love and support to both parties. Codependent relationships, on the other hand, are one-sided, casting one person in the role of constant caregiver. By being caring, highly functional, and helpful, that person is said to support, perpetuate, or “enable” a loved one’s irresponsible or destructive behavior. For example, helping an inebriated spouse navigate an embarrassing situation or providing living quarters for a substance-using adult child is said to be counterproductive, a way of forestalling recovery and actually perpetuating the problem.
There’s a few variations on the theme depending on where you look it up: Sometimes the term describes a person who just gives too much, hurting themselves to feel like a giver without necessarily causing good. Sometimes it describes a duo where the non-giver is an abusive taker or a pairing where the giver abuses a person by giving them harmful things and keeping them under control. Regardless of the definition, it’s always negative and always describes a sort of imbalance causing harm for one or more person.
I’m not at all saying that imbalances of this type can’t be harmful - see, for instance, the obviously-bad case of a “loving” parent scoring alcohol for their problem-drinker child. That’s a thing; unhealthy relationship dynamics exist. But so do other imbalances, including those that revolve around how you hear and understand words.
What’s the one-word term for a deep, powerful, and beneficial dependence between two or more people? One with balance and built on healthy, justified co-reliance? If you have had a very lucky past, you might say “marriage”, but that’s a very specific term; it only applies to one kind of relationship. “Family” is similarly over-specific.
I think-but-can’t-prove that the common use of “dependency” in a negative term and the lack of a specific, common term for “positive co-dependence” probably trains people (read: has probably trained YOU) to think of the idea of needing someone - and of someone needing you - as a negative thing. I don’t think this training is absolute, but I’m betting it’s had an effect.
As we go, I’m letting these worst-case scenarios accumulate in my rhetoric, like a gradual verbal Frankenstein. Now that this strawman-you has negative feelings towards dependence, we can talk about tradition and keep the snowball rolling.
Sometimes I’ll say I’m not “allowed” to do something or other that I often do anyway. What I’m usually trying to get across isn’t that I’m actually prevented from doing this, but rather that whatever I’m trying to do isn’t in the mainstream-acceptable-behavior set anymore. In this sense, neither you nor I are allowed to think of tradition as a positive thing most of the time.
There are exceptions. You are allowed to like the holidays, for instance, or to watch The Twilight Zone on New Years Day. But regarding family and romantic relationships, particularly in the California-Rationalist-influenced philosophy? Nothing could be so new and untested as to be presumed obviously true.
I’m not just talking about romance in this article; it’s not even my primary focus.
Are your parents and family toxic, where toxic is so broadly defined it could mean anything? Dump them. Is your marriage difficult? Rational people only stick around when both parties have documented yearly net mental welfare gains. Does the general cultural circle you adhere to stigmatize suspicion of government and glorify adherence to official protocols? Abandon every single relationship you have for weeks, months, or years and hope they survive.
There was another writer - now broadly thought to be a plagiarist, although I can’t confirm or deny this - who popularized the usage of “Lindy” as a term. To be Lindy was to be proven - coffee, in his telling, was proven by time; energy drinks weren’t, and so on. Scott Alexander, reviewing a book on a similar subject, talks a lot about how weird and accurate cultural traditions end up being in a variety of cases, eventually culminating in this:
Rationalists always wonder: how come people aren’t more rational? How come you can prove a thousand times, using Facts and Logic, that something is stupid, and yet people will still keep doing it?
Henrich hints at an answer: for basically all of history, using reason would get you killed.
A reasonable person would have figured out there was no way for oracle-bones to accurately predict the future. They would have abandoned divination, failed at hunting, and maybe died of starvation.
A reasonable person would have asked why everyone was wasting so much time preparing manioc. When told “Because that’s how we’ve always done it”, they would have been unsatisfied with that answer. They would have done some experiments, and found that a simpler process of boiling it worked just as well. They would have saved lots of time, maybe converted all their friends to the new and easier method. Twenty years later, they would have gotten sick and died, in a way so causally distant from their decision to change manioc processing methods that nobody would ever have been able to link the two together.
And it seems like tradition is great until you read the entire article and note that in any case that the topic veers from obscure food-procurement-and-preparation topics, they are pretty much dismissed out of hand - for instance, you are entirely cleared within the confines of that article to ignore the wisdom of the old.
You end up with an article talking about the nearly magic way tradition can teach you how to do a complex, 20-step process to process poisonous plants but that also can’t see its way to conceding, even a little, that it might ever indicate you should change your modern-world behavior even a little.
(Note: Pre-reader Orion took exception with this section. I think he was right: I want to make it clearer that Scott is reviewing a book, and it’s not clear he shares the opinion of the writer, or that the author’s omissions are his).
Here’s a pithy statement I wrote just so you could hate it:
There are two kinds of polyamorists: People who strongly suspect they could never be worthwhile enough to make another person happy long-term, and people who are happy to reap the advantages of agreeing with them.
I don’t know how true this is in an absolute sense. I know it’s at least true sometimes because I’ve seen it firsthand in people around me. At the same time, I know that every good policy has exceptions - somewhere there’s a guy who would have lived longer if he hadn’t given up smoking.
I mention the statement you hate because when you say things like this people pop out of the woodwork to inform you of how wrong you are. Carefully crafted rules, they say, can prevent all of these shortfalls. People have moral hang-ups (that I perpetuate) that keep them from being successful in this way. All you need is openmindedness, respect, and a carefully crafted sexual constitution to keep the bigamy gears turning.
Here’s Aella (an insanely sex-positive person of the type who promotes the term “sex worker”, is a sex worker, is poly, and broadly thinks all of the closed-minded people who don’t believe poly is a generally viable thing are clearly wrong) on the subject of polyamory:
I dated this guy who I loved deeply, but his sexual preferences revolved around novelty and very beautiful women. I had sex with almost nobody else while we were dating (by my own preference), but he had sex with dozens of other women. This was fine, except the other women tended to be much prettier than me; I would watch women with adorable young makeup-free faces enter our apartment and hear them moaning in our bedroom. He and I were rarely having sex; partially due to sexual incompatibility but partially due to his lack of interest. At one point (after I asked) he told me the sex we’d had at the start of our relationship had come from an overflow of affection, but that he’d never actually found me sexually attractive. This combination of things - not having sex with him, him finding me sexually unattractive, and watching him have sex with lots of very beautiful women - destroyed me.
Here’s this person who has every single box ticked - she’s a libertine’s libertine. She’s read all the books and absorbed all the philosophy and knows all the on-paper reasons polyamory should absolutely work. She gets into a situation that absolutely should show any reasonable person that what they want and need is a committed relationship with someone who actually likes them, who has a factual, lived knowledge of how miserable it makes them when they are not enough for the person they love.
And it never even occurs to her - not once, not ever - to question the system itself. Nobody - not Aella, not anybody - can go through that kind of experience without questioning it at all based on the words of others alone. It’s possible she’s just so fully indoctrinated into that kind of thing that the bulk of it anchors her to this one piece, but I think the answer is simpler: She probably just can’t visualize a person finding her, just her, to be enough.
And if you are this far in the article, there’s at least a chance have difficulty visualizing yourself that way, as well.
I know a bunch of people who range from a slight-to-medium positioning on the autism spectrum, at least in terms of how they interact socially. And while they often understand a bunch of stuff I couldn’t even begin to learn, they equally often have a tendency to think relationships and social interactions are the kind of thing you can calculate out on paper.
When you think you can figure out love on a calculator, you eventually run into a problem: You yourself know that you only have so many interesting things to say. You know all of your flaws and shortcomings. And when you plug that number into Excel and divide it by the years left in your lifetime, it’s really hard to see how someone could love you, and love you forever, without getting bored or tired.
But, listen: they can. We are starting to get into the happy part of this article. I assure you they can.
This is not an article that is entirely about romantic love. But it hardly matters, because you very probably think at least some of these are true:
You can avoid pain by being very careful to avoid risk.
You can’t build relationships because of some flaw in your phenotype - how you look, how you talk, or how you act.
Other people have relationships and can keep them because they have something you don’t - looks, charm, or whatever.
Good news: none of these are true. Some of them might be multiplicative modifiers - I’m not going to pretend a really good-looking, charming dude doesn’t have an easier time surrounding themselves with people. But if he wants those people who surround them to genuinely love him (as opposed to admiring them, or being used by them), then he has to dip into the same toolset all of us do.
I’ve mentioned this before, but the last time I moved, a bunch of people showed up to help. It doesn’t sound like a huge thing, but it really is; beyond the practical help, it was an outward sign that I have people in my life who love me at least enough to do miserable, boring work to help me. The reason it could happen - how we got to that point in the first place - is that those people and I are part of a system that encourages a sense of duty to help.
At one point, maybe I helped them (or they helped me) out of a sense of duty unrelated to either of us - an obligation we felt to something external. The next time one of us needed something, the repayment of that debt of service was part of the calculation. If this sounds dry, mechanical, or cynical, you haven’t imagined it far enough.
If you do that kind of thing long enough, you build trust. You build a knowledge of how far someone will go to help you. You build reliance and commitment. And really note that none of this had a thing to do with who I was; it had to do with what I was willing to do for them, and what they were willing to do for me.
The advice part of this article is short. It doesn’t have to be long.
Do you want people you can depend on? Then find an opportunity to let people depend on you. I’m not saying this is easy, and I’m not pretending there’s a one-size-fits-all way to do this. But being a big part of people’s lives means being available to be an important, dependable part of theirs.
Do you want people who are committed to you? Be prepared to commit to them. I’m not just talking about monogamy - I’m talking about being willing to be a long-term part of a person’s life in the way they need, sometimes serving them in ways that won’t be repaid and sometimes won’t even be noticed.
Do you need love? Then you might need to find people who need it more than you do, in any of the many ways they might need it. Do you want relationships with stability? Then you might have to look for structures that encourage stable relationships, as boring and traditional as they might be.
And listen, I’m the last person to say, hey, here’s exact instructions on how this will work. Or to pretend I know all the individual challenges you have. Or, and this is the really bad one, to pretend it’s all super easy. Most of this stuff would take time and work, and I think the people who need it most are disproportionately coming from a place where that kind of work and time is being drawn from what can feel like a dry well.
That said, I know a lot of people who have tried, and tried hard, to make a bunch of new, exciting relationship structures work only to find they didn’t work for them. As with Aella, the entire internet is awash with folks who will eagerly admit they are miserable in any context whatsoever except one that questions how they got there.
To the extent it helps, I want to give those people permission to move back to the kind of stuff that traditionally has worked, and to give them an alternative that very well might be worth a try.
And, listen: if you need someone to talk to today, I’m almost always online. firstname.lastname@example.org gets me by email, and I’ve just started a discord here that I’ll be on for large parts of the day almost any day you care to check. I’m not a doctor, but I am a friend: hit me up.
Author’s note: I’m not secretly a more famous writer or anything. I work for a living, mostly by writing for corporations in support of their recruiting processes. If that’s something you need help with, feel free to let me know at email@example.com.
Man... you totally beat me to this. I was just thinking about this topic the other day, well, middle of the night when I couldn't sleep. My thoughts were very much like yours, around the notion that "there are a lot of ways of living humans can make work, but the proportion of people that can make non-standard ways of living work is very, very small." I think the past 20 years have enabled people to drift away from the standard ways that worked towards things that seem like they should work, but turn out to really, really not in practice for 99%. Whoops.
I think the problem is commitment-matching (or expectation-matching). In the traditional relationship you're describing, 100% commitment is matched by 100% commitment, and when one side lets the other side down, he or she should feel like he or she is to blame and that the other party's ensuing disappointment is legitimate. (I will allow that there may be disagreement about what 100% commitment entails between the two parties). But if you're trying to match each other's commitment in a way that is less than 100%, (say, 45% to 45%), two problems emerge. First, the parties will disagree on what constitutes 45% commitment, as in the previous situation, but also any time one person naturally increases or decreases from the agreed 45% threshold, that person's or the other person's expectations are very likely to be unmet. I guess the difference is between "I will always be disappointed if you cheat and you agree my disappointment is warranted" versus "I will agree not be disappointed if you cheat, but I can't guarantee that I won't be, and if I am, you won't necessarily agree that my disappointment is warranted." Maybe another way of looking at it is that in the traditional view, regarding an action that demonstrates decreased commitment, "you know it when you see it," and in the poly view, you don't. Expectations can be illegitimate, improperly communicated, impossible, etc., in the traditional view in similar ways that they can be in the poly view, but the poly view has a lot more menu options that can lead to unmet expectations than the traditional one does. If the happiness you derive from the poly lifestyle doesn't overcome the increased difficulty with expectation-matching, and the additional disappointment that ensues, it's probably not viable for you.*
Final thought is that by definition, "going the extra mile" for your partner (like giving up a poker night with friends to nurse a sick SO) in a traditional relationship is almost always a net good, while "going the extra mile" for one of your two poly SOs is likely to be a net neutral or negative (like giving up a night with SO 1 to nurse a sick SO 2) , in that the SO who doesn't get the extra attention/time/fun loses out on the attention/time/fun he/she was supposed to get AND is at least at risk of getting a heaping helping of jealousy to boot.
*Insert all caveats RC already applied. I'm theorizing here, not pontificating, although I admit that I come from a traditional background and have traditional views on this issue.