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Weighting Attachment in Relationship Decisions

by wolverdude 4 min read5th Mar 20202 comments



tl;dr - skip to Weighting Attachment

My Dating Models

When I first set up an online dating profile, I remember noting that the experience of browsing matches felt a lot like shopping on Amazon. You compare the specs of the different products and try to figure out which one best meets your needs. As a perfectionist, that has been my implicit model of dating from fairly early on. There are a large number of potential mates out there, and most of them would be a poor choice, but there are a few of sufficient quality to be a life partner with you. And so the process of dating is to find an optimally compatible life partner.

But I was unfortunate enough to grow up with a peculiar dating culture that engaged my perfectionism at cross-purposes with this. That culture emphasized purity, and the ideal was to date as few people as possible before marriage. I internalized this to mean that I shouldn't ask someone out unless I was already pretty sure I wanted to marry them. You can see that this, when combined with the shopping paradigm, put me in a bit of a bind. And so my response was to not date. Anyone. Ever. This was not a conscious choice but a natural local minimum that I could not escape without ditching one of those two paradigms.

Something's Missing

So I started dating after finally ditching purity culture. But not dating means I missed out on a lot of experiences of dating until relatively late in life. And this also meant I had never actually tested the shopping paradigm. Now that I'm in it, I can see that normal people do not follow that paradigm. I suppose that explains why lots of other people in purity culture manage to pair up just fine. But the reason that people don't follow that paradigm is feelings. I have discovered that there are very strong feelings constraining my actions. Those feelings plunged me into my first relationship, and now they're brutally punishing me for ending it.

But this also makes me wonder... is that paradigm correct? Do the presence of feelings and attachment actually change the calculus of what is optimal? Is a partner who is less compatible actually the correct choice if you have history and chemistry?

And in there is also the question of commitment. I always had one template for commitment, and one decision. Should I marry this person? But it seems that there are several steps up to marriage (or life partnership of some form), and each of these involves commitment in some form.

Valuing Commitment

On the extreme end of valuing history & chemistry is a friend of mine who is still living with and paying for his controlling, borderline-personality-disordered ex, even though they broke up over a year ago. He just can't bring himself to cut ties and move out. In a sense he's over-committed.

But on the other extreme are folks who jump from relationship to relationship whenever things get tough or the feelings fade or the grass looks greener. You can never sustain a life partnership without some willingness to sacrifice the optimal for the extant.

In this case, the bird in the hand is actually made more valuable by ignoring the 2 in the bush. In fact, that's simply the wrong analogy. The whole idea here is that birds are interchangeable. The act of choosing a bird over and over again does not make it more valuable to you. But that is exactly how partnership works. In some sense, you could pick someone arbitrarily, but as you continue to choose them over and over again, they actually become the best choice. Granted, there is at least a threshold of compatibility they need to pass, but there's a large number of people that any given person could be happy with, provided they both commit.

And here I think is where I went wrong. I was thinking of marriage as the only real commitment. But it's not. There are a ton of commitments you make every day. Sure, there's no vow involved, no conscious communication and acknowledgement of expectations. But in small, subtle ways, you communicate your love, affection, appreciation, and body chemistry. You build attachment. And attachment is a commitment, whether you realize it or not. In fact, attachment is a commitment that runs deeper than marriage. It was before marriage. Before there was a political or religious authority to bestow rights and privileges thereof, pair-bonding attachment was encoded into our genes.

So then how do I integrate this into my model? Is it that you just start dating someone almost at random and continue until the relationship is obviously unworkable? That seems like a very inefficient policy. It is in fact analogous to the way most people choose their religion, a method that I have explicitly repudiated. But there must be some way to weight attachment into the decision of who to date and when to break things off.

Weighting Attachment

So let's say there's a weight GR for romantic attachment and another weight GL for long-term secure attachment. When these are added to the model weighting the various other factors and relationship dynamics, you could see some interesting results...

  • If GR is especially large, but GL is relatively small, then you should rarely stay with someone long-term, but should always stay with people as long as the feelings last. This seems to be the way nature has weighted things. Culture and cognition have added a lot of extra weight onto GL though, so people do normally form lifetime partnerships eventually, and more than half of these stay together.

  • But let's say hypothetically that GR is decently large, and GL is extremely large, large enough to overshadow gross incompatibility in the relationship. If that is the case, then you should just marry the very first person you date and stick it out to the bitter end. This is similar to arranged marriage cultures and exemplified in the Japanese Gaman ethic.

  • On the other end of the spectrum, if both GR and GL are near 0, then there is no commitment and partners will come and go from your life, seemingly at a whim, creating something like hookup culture.

  • My old implicit model arises from a small GR and a large GL. The cost for switching early is very low, so you should do it often and evaluate a lot of options. This is the Amazon shopping model.

  • More realistically, I could see a model where GR and GL are strong, but not prohibitively so. This creates the conditions for a falsification-only approach. As you build connection, you should only break it off if you discover something that will make the relationship work very poorly in the long-run.

  • A non-zero GR also explains why you should go slow. Building too much attachment before you've had a chance to evaluate the relationship can limit your options and push you forward into a difficult relationship that might have otherwise been abandoned in favor of a happier one. My mistake in my first relationship was to implicitly assume GR = 0, and go full-speed ahead, not understanding how badly heartbreak sucks, or that breaking up inherently destroys something valuable.

Choosing Good Weights

Obviously everyone's model will look different for this. But I would like to maximize the utility that I (and to a lesser extent my partner) will get out of the relationship. I'm already decided on a high GL because I want a committed life partnership and kids. The question is how big should GR be? My utilitarian instinct would be to consider relatively small differences in marital happiness stretched out over decades strongly when compared with intense short-term heartbreak, but there's future-discounting to factor in. Also I'm still unacquainted with the full cycle of heartbreak to understand just how badly it sucks, but I'm likely to over-weight it since I'm presently in the middle of it.

I welcome any thoughts on weights or critiques of the model itself. Are there other important attachment-related factors I'm not considering? Is there a whole different paradigm I could benefit from being exposed to? Please tell!

(cross-posted from my blog)


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2 Answers

My strategy in trying to find a life partner has been to do as much filtering as possible early on, keeping my standards as high as I can manage. Lowered standards that let in hundreds of people don't help, since I only need ONE. But I need to keep them low enough that my local options are still numerous enough for some trial and error.

Then, since I filtered strongly early on, I feel pretty comfortable committing to anyone who makes it past the first few months in a "Only break this off if you discover something that will make the relationship work poorly in the long-run" kind of way.

I had the initial thought that failure mode that this runs into, is that the people you end up dating for six months or so are more hesitant to commit for longer, since I'm more of an average person in their dating pool. But after reflecting for a moment, this seems not true. Most of my filters are lateral, such that adding or removing them gets me more or less OPTIONS, but not more or less in demand ones, in general.

TBH, I skipped the last two sections because I think I picked up enough from the beginning. Things I think are valuable:

  • Take it slow in the beginning.

  • Learn to distinguish between fantasy and reality. Both are good, but they are different.

  • It is sometimes helpful to make a simple list of attributes of your prospective partner as you get to know them, then rank them and yourself 1-3. The point isn’t to be shitty or exclusive. It’s to realize what you don’t know about them very well yet. Only when you have a workable knowledge of them in every relevant category should you commit to a long term relationship, I think. Don’t make this into calculus.

  • Relationships end. It sucks. Feel your emotions fully, and honor the love and good things you shared with each other. Express gratitude for what is gone. Treat each other as well as you possibly can during and after a breakup, especially when you’re processing resentments. Be kind to them behind their back.

Following this advice is the best way I know to reconcile that sensible “shopping” attitude with feeling actual human emotions.