The Relational Stance

by Raemon 7 min read11th Feb 202011 comments

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There's a concept that's pretty core to my understanding of relationships, which I'm sure must have been written up somewhere but I don't know of a good explanation. Here is a first pass.

The concept is, well, 'relating' – the meaning that you ascribe to a relationship, and the stance from which you are oriented towards it.

I think relating is particularly important when you choose that meaning deliberately.

The Coworker

If you have a coworker you who make jokes with, and get reasonable amounts of work done with, that... could just be some random acquaintance who you pass the time with...

Or it could be someone you choose to make a larger part of your life (a friend, or trusted colleague, that you would help out in time of need, or go to bat for). 

Or it could be someone that you don't expect to go to bat for or help in crisis... but nonetheless, when you reflect upon them, you decide "this person is an important part of my life. If I left this job I wouldn't stay in touch with them, our relationship is ephemeral. But I might still ascribe importance to them being part of my life, right now. Their jokes are silly but something about them makes life better in a way I deeply appreciate. The little kindnesses, or competences, that they demonstrate at work are meaningful to me."

There are many ways you could choose to relate to a person, independent of what kind of activities you do together and commitments you've made.

The Romantic Partner

The original context I got this idea from was some relationship advice book I stumbled upon as a teenager, which said "Love is not an emotion. Love it a choice." 

Sometime later, I fell in love for the first time. Over the course of a few months, I noticed a few different things going on in my head:

  1. I had a crush on them, i.e. feelings of limerence and infatuation
  2. I had some kind of strong and more significant-seeming feelings, that I thought might be love.
  3. Several months later, I found that although the limerence feelings came and went without warning, and the stronger #2 feelings came and went on slower timescales (weeks or months), there some other aspect of my orientation towards them that didn't go away at all. And it wasn't a feeling, it was something different. There was a particular way I cared about them, felt they were a good person, wanted them to be part of my life, wanted them to succeed and be happy even if I wasn't part of their life.

And at some point I asked myself "is this #3 thing love?"

And I thought about the line "Love is not an emotion, love is a choice." 

And then (#4) I decided I loved them, and then, in deciding it, it became truer.

I think Thing #2 and #3 were both reasonable things to call love, as well. At least, I don't have a better word for them. But they were notably different things. 

Thing #3 was similar to thing #4. But it didn't have deliberate intentionality to it. It wasn't exactly a choice. It was a mental stance. Different from a feeling. And also different from any particular set of activities or commitments we might have been doing.

Relating to people is mental stance. It can be intentional, or reflexive. It can come with commitments, or not. It can be mutually intentional, or asymmetric. 

The Relational Stance is when you make the more general choice to consider how you relate to someone. If someone has become part of your life, and you've accumulated some feelings and implicit commitments and reflexive stances toward them, you may deliberately ask "what do these feelings and commitments and stances and activities mean to me." 

Maybe you decide they don't mean that much to you, they're just an incidental part of your life. Or maybe you decide they are an important part of your life.

Self-Reflective Relationships

In romantic contexts, there's a stereotypical moment where you lay your cards on the table: "I love you." And they might, or might not say back, "I love you too." 

There's a harder part that may come later – what does that love mean? Does it mean that we'll see each other once a week? Does it mean we're on the Relationship Escalator where we date for awhile and then move in and get married? Does it mean we'll have a whirlwind summer romance that burns quickly and bright, and leaves a pleasant memory in its wake?

What does this mean about what sort of things we will do together, and what commitments we're making?

There are a bunch of practical questions there, and a bunch of important feelings-oriented-questions there. If you want a whirlwind summer romance and I want a longterm commitment, well, hmm. Perhaps I feel sad about that. 

But the thing I want to focus on here is asking "how do I relate to that?", which is somewhat different from how I feel. There may have been a particular flavor of the way I cared about you, and what meaning I found in our relationship, and the way I see you. I don't have very good words for it. And if I find out that you see me differently than I saw you, that might change the way I see you in turn.

And then you might get into a recursive, unstable loop. 

Say that Alice first looked at Bob as a deeply meaningful but ephemeral summer fling. And Bob had thought of Alice as a potentially longterm stable partner, but one that he nonetheless wasn't that committed to yet. He hadn't yet reflected on how meaningful the relationship was, and upon reflection, he isn't sure.

Some people don't share their their inner stances with each other. Some people don't have the introspective awareness to even know what their internal stances are, reliably (or their feelings, or goals).

But, say Alice and Bob are both pretty self-aware, as individuals. And then they both communicate their thoughts on the relationship. And now Alice is aware that Bob wanted something different out of the relationship than she did. And Bob is aware that although she saw it as ephemeral, she saw it as something profound. And that makes Bob consider taking the relationship more seriously... but at the same time, Alice has noticed that Bob was coming into it with different expectations, and maybe that makes her feel a little more distant, which Bob then picks up and feels a little more distant...

...or, maybe Bob is like "No, wait, yeah, this relationship is important to me. And it's still important to me even if it's an ephemeral summer romance. And I do still hope that maybe you'll decide it's worth staying part of each other's lives after our  vacations end, but if you don't decide that, it's okay."

There are multiple stable equilibria they could eventually reach (and multiple unstable arrangements where each of them is constantly shifting their stance, in unpredictable ways that are really stressful).

But, maybe, the relationship hits some kind of equilibrium where they've both honestly shared their stances and feelings and expectations with each other, and then updated in response to those things, and then updated in response that, eventually settling into something stable.

Mutually Intentional Friendship

"I like you." "But, do you like me like me?" 

In my neck of the woods, there is a script for romance. There's a less clear script for friendship. 

But something I've noticed myself wanting is mutually intentional friendship – where I've consciously thought about what kind of friend they are to me, and I've told them about that, and they've told me what kind of friend I am to them, and we both consciously decide to be somewhat better friends than we had been. 

Friendship space is deep and wide. There's a million variations of intensity, and frequency, and meaning people might ascribe to friendships. Some people are seeking soulmate-level friendship, some people are seeking a bunch of casual acquaintances, or a mix of things in between. 

Fortunately, I think many of the scripts for romantic dating roughly apply to friendship, if you bother to do it: Meet people at parties. Invite them on some low-key one-on-one hangouts. If you both have fun, go out again. If there is some kind of mutual-spark, start hanging out more frequently. Eventually confess your feelings of somewhat-higher-than-average-affection-or-meaningfulness and reflect on the nature of your relationship and, I dunno man, figure it out.

The Person On the Street

A passing stranger – someone you have no particular connection with. Maybe the person you buy coffee from, maybe a homeless person, maybe a business person you bump into, maybe an aggressive person following you around.

How do you relate to them? Are they just Some Guy? Do you consider yourself to have some relationship with them by virtue of growing up in the same town? Or common humanity? Are they someone you're actively annoyed at and want to avoid?

What is relating, and the Relational Stance, again, really?

Here I am at the end of the essay and I notice that while I'm confident that relating is different from feelings, and different from goals and commitments and life trajectories... 

...I'm still not 100% sure what relating is. 

"Relating is what meaning you ascribe to a relationship", I said at the beginning. But, what sorts of meanings might you ascribe, that are different from your goals and commitments and life-trajectories? My answers come mostly in the form of flavors and felt-senses, that mostly don't have good english words. 

But here is a stab at some clarifying examples.

Magnitude of mattering

The most obvious thing is "when you ask yourself 'how important is this person to me?', what answer do you feel in your gut?". If they disappeared from your life, or were about to be deleted from your memory, how strongly would be you affected? 

Ephemerality

Do you expect to see this person again? Will they be a constant part of your life? Will you see them once a year or so? In some sense this is a practical question, about what sort of activities you'll be able to do and how much shared life trajectory you'll have. But there is something of a flavor that comes along with that, that gets sharpened when I reflect upon how I'd consciously choose to have them be more or less frequent in my life.

What word describes your relationship?

Friends? Family?

Something interesting I started to notice, over the past couple years, was the distinction between people who felt like friends, and people who felt like family. This distinction was sharpened by coming home for the New York Solstice, where I saw many friends I hadn't seen in awhile. In some cases, it felt very much like coming home for the holidays – the way seeing various cousins/aunts/uncles/etc feels at Thanksgiving. In other places it felt more like "ah, there's a friend I haven't seen in awhile." 

After experiencing that, I started noticing aspects of this with my friends who live nearby that I see more often. Some of them feel like people I'm obviously going to remain close with, even if we moved away and didn't see each other for years. Some don't. For some people, I feel a flicker of "hmm, we don't feel quite like family yet, but I there is something qualititatively family-like here."

I might just be a bit confused here, and maybe the difference here is just "friends vs acquaintances and colleagues?". But there are at least some people where the word "family" feels appropriate, but I'm less close friends with them than I am with some others who feel more "friend-shaped" than "family-shaped."

In some cases, there were people that I didn't think of as family-shaped, but when another "family" flavored friend treated them in a way I associate with family-ness, I suddenly felt a sense of family kinship.

Kindred Spirits?

You might only interact with someone briefly, but some facet of them deeply resonates with you. If you're hiking and you pass another hiker, you might have almost nothing in common except that you both deeply love hiking, and that is enough to give the encounter a flavor of connection.

Same can go for people who share a professional ethos (dancers, programmers, artists), or an ideology.

Enemies?

I've been listing positive examples so far, but there are plenty of relationships you might want to avoid. Are they a professional rival? An ex-romantic-partner with a weird vendetta? 

Would you die for them?

There's been exactly one person for whom my answer to this question was "I'd consider it". That was a decade ago. Since then, my understanding of the stakes of the world has risen, and there is not currently a person for whom this is true for me. But I can still imagine it.

Recap

Relating is the stance you take towards a person, and the meaning you ascribe to your connection-or-lack-thereof. It can be unconscious, or intentional. 

The Relational Stance is the more general act of considering how you relate to a person – looking at a person through the lens of "how do they fit into my life and what to do they mean to me?"

A Relational Choice is the decision to relate to someone in a particular way. Afterwards which the way you relate to them will probably be different, both on the object and meta level.

Where Next?

Many aspects of this still feel confusing to me. I've thought about this over the past couple years, increasingly deliberately. But I haven't shared my thoughts on this with too many people and I'm not sure how much diversity there is in how people relate to relating.

But I'm fairly confident that the underlying concept of "my stance and orientation towards a person" is a useful concept to have. I have some followup thoughts, some of which fit into what might evolve into a sequence on Friendship, and some of which will fit into the Noticing Frames sub-sequence.

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