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Relationships, Expectations, and Rules: Failure States - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
August 21st, 2012
09:28 am


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Relationships, Expectations, and Rules: Failure States

I’m going to say something controversial about relationships. But before I can do that, I need to define two terms that often get slurred together.

In relationships, there are two tools you can use to determine how your partner should react to things: Expectations and Rules. There’s a fine distinction between the two, which is often confused.

Expectations are what you believe your partner will do in a given situation.  For example, based on past history, I think Gini and I will probably sex it up a couple of times a week.  We’ve never discussed this; it’s just something that, assuming Gini and I are both healthy and in a good mood, I expect will happen.

Rules are limitations that you set down explicitly to avoid hurting your partner.  For example, I have an agreement with my partners that I will not sleep with anyone without getting explicit permission first.

Every relationship has expectations.   Not every relationship has rules.

Now, expectations are nebulous in that sometimes the expectation is, “I don’t expect anything from you,” as in a FWB thing or a very open poly where both partners do as they please, and have no say in what the other wants.  (In which case, the expectation is, “You’ll leave if what I do bothers you enough.”)  And expectations are useful in diagnosing potential relationship problems – if, for no reason that I can name, Gini starts having sex with me only every couple of months, it’s probably not a bad idea for me to check in and ask what’s going on.

But most relationships contain an (often hidden) expectation of a certain level of honesty, and of good intention (you’re not going to hurt me in a bad way intentionally), and of some form of attraction (or else why are you dating, unless you’re asexual?). Those expectations are, in fact, generally the reasons you’re dating that person, even if it’s as simple as “I expect we’ll have some pretty damn amusing conversations.”

The problem is, it’s extremely easy to break an expectation, because it’s just some mental construct someone’s formed of you – in many cases, completely arbitrarily!  I tell people time and time again, “I write up my essays because I screw things up so often that I have to keep notes.  I am not a together person.  I am a teeming mass of insecurities.”  Yet because I write strongly, and consistently, people often think that I’m a confident, wise person.  Then they date me, expecting a confident, wise person.

…that doesn’t work out too well.

But that’s usually the reason relationships collapse; you realize that the model you have constructed of this person inside your mind does not actually exist, and the person who’s really there is not anyone that you actually want to live with.

Managing expectations is difficult.  It’s complex math, trying to synchronize a model with a real person who doesn’t even fully understand themselves. You’re creating a simulation of the person inside your head, and running that simulated person’s reaction against what is happening now, then determining whether they’d be upset by this, and then deciding whether they’re correct in being upset by this and whether you’re willing to have the argument…

Rules, on the other hand, are simple.  You set down like a lawyer with a contract, delineate what is and is not acceptable behavior in a given set of circumstances, and hash it out.  They’re clear.  Easily understandable.

And here’s my controversial statement: Rules are a failure state of a relationship.

Not “the sign of a failed relationship.”  Many functioning relationships have rules.  But I’d argue that most of those relationships have a weak point that’s been poorly shored up, and relationships with a lot of rules are often on the verse of collapse.

“What’s wrong with rules?” you ask.  “Aren’t rules clear and easy to follow?”  Well, yes.  And no. There are millions of laws on the books out there, and having watched my wife do law, you could dispense with 95% of them if everyone just went by the tenets of “Be fair, be honest, and don’t be a dick.”  Most people can spot dickery in the wild, but there’s a significant percentage of folks who go, “No, that’s not dickery, that’s just good honest business practices!” or “That’s a perfectly fair price I’m offering this man with no recourse!”

So what happens?  You codify.  Endlessly.  Exactly what percentage of orange juice must you have in a drink before you can call it “natural ingredients”?  How many square feet can you devote to a home office before you can write it off on your taxes?  Basically, all you do in law is take a basic principle and narrow it down to precise, exacting terms – terms that are ludicrous when you look at them.  So, okay, 30 fly eggs per 100 grams of pizza sauce is okay, but 31 is just crazy?

But that’s what happens when you turn “fair” into “law” – you wind up with an arbitrary marker.  And maybe your pizza sauce contains 20 rat hairs, but hey, that’s not on the books, we didn’t check, that’s totally cool.  Until somebody complains about their furry pizza, and wham.  One more guideline for business owners to feel resentful about checking.  They feel hemmed in, taking this extra time and expense to have to someone inspect their pizza for infestations.

Which is what happens with relationship rules.  You think they’re well-defined, but often there’s a lot of room just outside the defined zone to cause further problems. And they cause resentment.

“You can’t sleep with other people,” goes the rule.  But can you kiss them, even if you never intend to sleep with them?  Can you flirt with them?  Can you go over and spend time at their apartment alone?  Can you give friendly backrubs?  Tickle fights?  Beatings at the club?  Beatings in private?

You’d think those should be simple questions – but the fact is, generally if you say, “You can’t sleep others,” then one or more of those things will often cause agita. Because the rule is “No sleeping with other people,” but the problem it’s attempting to address is something like, “You can’t form romantic, intimate bonds with other people, because that would make me feel completely insecure.”

The problem with rules is not what they’re intended to do – which is minimize hurt, a valid goal – but rather that an excess of rules encourages a certain laziness in expectation management.  People follow the rules blindly, forgetting why they exist, and their mental map often fails to take into account all the other things that might upset their partner. And so their partner piles on more rules, trying to shut off the undesirable behavior, not realizing that their partner literally just doesn’t get the root cause that all the other issues stem from.

Rules are not inevitably bad.  They’re often a starting point for a good mental map; I’ve been on hiatus from new sexual partners now for eight months as I try to devise a better set of rules that will lead to my long-term partners being happy.  But the rules are not the rules.  The rules are there so I can see what I’m doing wrong in creating new relationships (and I was doing things wrong, as far as I’m concerned), and create a new mindset that’s going to make anyone I’m dating happy.  And when they’re done, it won’t be a set of law, but rather a mental map of good expectations that works.

In other words, I’m developing rules as a method of what my partners expect of me.  When this process is complete, then I won’t need rules.  When I date other women, I’ll know exactly when I’m pushing the limits of my current lovers’ comfort zone.

Now, the danger of valuing expectations over rules is that there is the unspoken assumption that “If I just make my partners happy, then I’ll have a great relationship!”  Which is, of course, ridiculous. Sometimes, you go through all the effort of forming a proper set of expectations, understanding exactly what actions will make your partner happy… And discover that the only way you can keep them happy is to be miserable.

It also doesn’t exempt you from fights.  Even when I know exactly how Gini’s going to feel sometimes – and expectations being as inaccurate as they are, I’ll say that after thirteen years of marriage I still have about a 1 in 20 shot of getting it wrong – there are times when I have to say to her, “Look, I know you feel this way, but that’s crazy.”  And she has to do the same with me.

Then there’s all the times I get the expectations wrong, and have to talk about that.  The goal is not to be perfect, of course – that way lies madness – but to create a working model to determine what, if anything, you need to talk about in advance.  Which involves finding new information.

It also doesn’t exempt you from using that information.   The reason New Relationship Energy gets such a bad rap in polyamory is because people will meet a new partner and just fucking forget to run the actions by the Expectation Engine. Why should they?  That’s effort!   This is love!  I don’t want to think about old him when new him is right here, kissing me!  And so, rather than having to deal with any sort of model (which takes a fair amount of brainpower at all times), many kinky folk go, “Fuck it, I’m not bothering to consider other people’s emotions at all, I’m just demanding no strings whatsoever.”  Which is a workable way of doing it.  (Or, you know, you just date people with low expectations.  Which is also workable.  Which is also not me.)

Furthermore, expectations are not only nebulous, but they’re mutable.  What I wanted six months ago isn’t what I want now.  The reason they tell you that communication is a good idea is because the best way to keep those mental models updated is to spend time together, to be open to new experiences, to pay attention. I’ve broken up with people not because they’re evil, but because what they came to want out of a relationship wasn’t what I wanted, even if it we’d synced up at the beginning.

But I don’t think it’s much of an exaggeration to say that properly managed expectations are the key to a happy relationship.  Not rules, because rules are stiff and generate conflict, but a mutual understanding of what you think is fair and what you want of each other.  Which, when done properly, is wondrous.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

This entry has also been posted at http://theferrett.dreamwidth.org/237936.html. You can comment here, or comment there; makes no never-mind by me.

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(36 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

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[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 01:59 pm (UTC)
“You can’t sleep with other people,” goes the rule. But can you kiss them, even if you never intend to sleep with them? Can you flirt with them? Can you go over and spend time at their apartment alone? Can you give friendly backrubs? Tickle fights? Beatings at the club? Beatings in private?

Which is why a vague rule like that isn't always helpful. Define "sleeping with", define "sex" - early on in our relationship, my husband and I agreed upon a definition of 'sex', which I won't bother to repeat here, but we made sure that when we said "You can be flirty and cuddly with other people, but don't have sex without permission", we were thinking of the same definition of sex.

So while we have a "rule" that we won't do XYZ without permission, there's an expectation that we aren't going to run right up to that line and go "Look! I'm not crossing it! I'm right here but I'm not crossing it!" because we have no interest pushing boundaries just because we can. Rules are good, but it's also good to remember WHY there is a rule, and to have the forethought to make sure you're following it not JUST because it's a rule, but because it's a rule because it makes your relationship move smoother.

Just this weekend I was snuggled up with a friend at a party, and he was occasionally tugging on my hair. It was enjoyable, but it wasn't super-sexy, and he could have pulled much harder and it would have been even more enjoyable. And it would have brushed up against that line, but not cross it. So I did not encourage him to pull harder, and if he had, I'd have told him to stop altogether.

The other thing I find with rules, and I wanted to comment on this on your last post, but I couldn't find the words, is that I could sit here and list off all the "rules" in my various relationships and it might seem cumbersome or burdensome to other people on the outside, where as to me, from in here, they're just How Things Are. I don't feel constricted by them, I feel that they are things that make my relationships more enjoyable, they are the things that allow me to live the life I want to live. They give me a measure of comfort that I know what's expected of me, and what I can expect from my partners.

An some of those rules are set in stone: "Do not sleep with other people without prior permission", and some can be discussed on a case by case basis: "Don't see that new movie in the theater with someone else before you see it with me", etc.

I dunno. Every time a discussion about poly and rules and managing expectations comes up, I see people saying that it's some sort of complicated framework, but from in here, it's just Life. It doesn't seem complicated to me.

[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:09 pm (UTC)

Perhaps the people who say it's some sort of complicated framework just don't realize they already do that with the circle of friends they have, and that they just don't call it poly because theirs doesn't include expectation of romance and sex.

[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:07 pm (UTC)
I think in a healthy relationship rules are a good starting point but over time you won't need them anymore - but they are a good way to get a conversation going.

For example, when Rome Girl and I first started dating seriously she was like "it's ok for you to fuck other people, but not anyone who is going to bring drama into our home that I'll have to deal with. It's fine if it's drama you have to deal with, but not if I have to deal with it."

Since, at the time I was still pretty mentally unhealthy and loved drama, this was something that needed to be said. Now, years later, it wouldn't occur to me to bring drama around that would effect her.

"Don't fucking play The Misfits when I'm home unless you have earphones on because their lyrics really upset me" was another rule she brought up at the beginning and I responded "Fine, but don't fucking play The Beatles when I'm home without earphones because they put me into a state of rage."

Since she loves The Beatles and I love The Misfits this had to be stated as a rule at first, but now is just natural.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:21 pm (UTC)
Yup. I'm taking the rules I'm generating now as a starting point to get to where I don't need them. And that's fine.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:12 pm (UTC)
Grr. I totally agree. And not in a good way. The places where we have rules? The rules are like sawhorses with blinking lights on them, surrounding treacherous sinkholes. It'd be much more awesome to simply not have treacherous sinkholes, but there they are, so the best we can do is try to surround them with barriers. Which only work about half the time.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:18 pm (UTC)
I totally agree with this, too. Sometimes, there are just things that need to be avoided at all costs for whatever reason, and you throw up a rule around it. Maybe eventually it can be worked through, maybe it can't, but it needs to be solidly blocked off. We all have our baggage, and sometimes rules are to help us manuever around it. And there's nothing wrong with that.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:27 pm (UTC)
It works like this in tabletop gaming too, which is why you always have the player who is all, "OMG, I hate rules!"

It isn't that the rules aren't necessarily good and useful... rules are great for defining a world, or sometimes, a relationship. It's that we've all had those experiences with the large number of players who, the minute they see a rule, recognize that it's restricting what's probably a broken-ass exploit, and they go poking to find the way to use that exploit, within the technical rule.

Or, as Umberto Eco put it, to see what people actually _do_, look at what the group they're in explicitly forbids.

In some relationships, rules are okay, but I would posit this is because behind that rule, there is an understanding of, "hey, this thing would hurt me, and it was either done by someone I was with before who hurt me, or it was done by you when you didn't get how much it would hurt me, and now you do." And to both partners, avoiding that hurt is a worthy enough goal.

And in others, it... well, isn't. Self-control is hard, and the urge to poke at the limits is strong... as well as how people aren't good at avoiding short-term gratification in favor of long-term benefits.

Tl;dr: yeah, relationships can have rules lawyers too, and that behaviour is just as dickish in bed as it is at the gaming table.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 03:01 pm (UTC)
Wow, that's a great analogy. Actually one of the reasons I gave up tabletop gaming was I kept ending up with at least one rules-lawyer in the group who was so obsessed with min-maxing his character that it broke the game/story/etc.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 02:59 pm (UTC)
And so their partner piles on more rules, trying to shut off the undesirable behavior, not realizing that their partner literally just doesn’t get the root cause that all the other issues stem from.

Or, as in a recently ended relationship, I got the root cause of the problem, and to solve it would have required me being a different person. I kept trying, though, until I couldn't any more.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:25 pm (UTC)
That'll happen. It sucks, but that'll happen.
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:27 pm (UTC)
Well, as noted, the rules are often a starting point of discussion - a way of saying, "You may not know this, but sleeping with a man with a bushy red beard would wound me to my core. So don't do that."

The problem with the all-expectations model is that if your model fails, and you wind up accidentally walking across a deal-breaker, sometimes you don't get takebacks. Which is why I'm not entirely against them.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
a great deal of this condenses into "communicate with your partner enough and often enough that you both understand fairly well what the deal breakers are, what the 'this is gonna put a serious dent in the relationship' areas are, and what is going to piss the other person off".

lengthy way to say "talk with (not to) your partner(s) and have a farily clear understanding of where the big ol honkin danger places are and try to avoid them".

which is why i dont flirt around much on the internet anymore, although we are still theoretically poly. he's so damn busy he doesnt have TIME for that, and i dont want him to feel bad (while still sometimes feeling neglected for his work) so we focus on the things we DO have a bit of control over, IE our own one-on-one relationship. which is pretty good, although may be better if he'd stop bringing home viruses and i'd stop being sick LOL
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:13 pm (UTC)
I think a mixture of rules and expectations are good. Rules help me figure out what the Big Danger Spots are, and the expectation is roughly "don't be a dick and try to go up to the Big Danger Spot as close as you can - stay away from the Big Danger Spot zone" but I might not have known about the BDS if a rule hadn't been laid down first. Some rules (in fact promises) were obvious and I was already obeying them but my wife felt better when I made the promise. Some rules surprised me, and I would not have known how much of a trigger it would be if not for the promise/rule.

That said, rules for *everything* would be over the top. Or to paraphrase that supervillain from the Incredibles, if everything is a Big Danger Spot, then nothing is.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:28 pm (UTC)
I wholeheartedly agree with any accurate metaphor that also quotes the Incredibles.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:18 pm (UTC)
Exactly, rules can be training wheels until you fine tune your expectations, but when a relationship comes down to not wanting to deal with expectations, just clear cut rules, it's no longer about what will make you partner happy but what your partner will tolerate. That way lies inevitable ruin.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:19 pm (UTC)
"The problem with rules is not what they’re intended to do – which is minimize hurt, a valid goal – but rather that an excess of rules encourages a certain laziness in expectation management. People follow the rules blindly, forgetting why they exist,"

This tendency has driven me nuts in the various jobs I've had over the years. You have these not-very-bright people who follow rules blindly just because they exist. They say, "Rules are rules!" in the same annoying manner that that woman in Office Space exclaims "Somebody has a case of the Mondays!" However, if you ask them why a rule exists, they can't tell you. It doesn't even occur to them to ask why. Or to not think dogmatically and rigidly. I swear I could make up an workplace rule that everybody must eat dogshit every day and they'd probably do so without blinking an eye.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 07:25 pm (UTC)
The most dreaded seven words I would consistently encounter were "That's the way we've always done it." Makes me insane! Why, for crying out loud?? It makes no sense! But, well, that's the way we've always done it. Sheesh!
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 04:40 pm (UTC)
I dunno. I dont like the idea of "rules", but if theres something you know is gonna drive you bezerk, youre better off having it out in the open up front.

Ill give you an example of one for me-im a real picker eater. I dont want anyone im with saying shit to me about it-it drives me fucking insane. Ive been with people where this was the only thing i asked them-dont bug me about this-and they couldnt do it. Drives me fucking insane.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 06:06 pm (UTC)
Typo. "picky eater."
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 06:27 pm (UTC)
Weird, my coffeehouse won't let me post on your home website. Ah well.

I spent the majority of your post champing at the bit to say what you wrote in your second-to-last paragraph. So there's that!

I would say that expectations can be far more diverse than simply an expectation of how another person is or will behave - sometimes there are expectations of a relationship, and all of them can be discussed without breaking out into rules.

For instance, I expect my wife to keep my interests in mind, and if she isn't solid on my comfort, to come out and ask, and I will be as specific as I can, and vice versa applies. This isn't always how it has been, in this relationship or in others, but in this case it allows me to trust her in behavior that might have other people climbing trees.

The one thing that pings my caution-signal is the idea that, without discussion and some sort of resolution, it might be acceptable to do something one wants that their partner finds uncomfortable, as long as they aren't in the right about the why.

As far as I'm concerned, that's the time for full-stop talk, and if that's not possible, it's the time to accept that you're missing out on that individual circumstance. Otherwise, you run the risk of stepping over a bright line of discomfort and losing an otherwise awesome relationship, if that makes sense.
(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 07:21 pm (UTC)
Privileging expectations over rules also privileges people who are really good at figuring out other people.

That's a good, and interesting, point.

Rules are just expectations made explicit.

That, however, is completely incorrect.

At this point in my life, I expect my wife will go for a long bike ride three to four times a week, thus leaving me alone in the house for a couple of hours a day. I expect if we go to a party, my wife will flirt with others. I expect that in general, my wife's not much interested in sex after eleven o'clock at night.

If she chooses not to go for a bike ride, I'm not particularly worried. If she's not in a flirty mood, I'll check in to see if there's something bugging her, but I won't yell at her. And if she feels like jumping me after midnight, I'm usually overjoyed.

The expectations are on my end, to help me anticipate what to do. If I'm really horny that day, I know that usually I'd damn well better make my move before it's too late at night. If I don't, well, I know what usually happens.

So there's a vast difference. Breaking rules inevitably has negative consequences. Breaking expectations does not.
[User Picture]
Date:August 21st, 2012 07:37 pm (UTC)
I don't know. I think rules can be a good starting point. Sometimes two people can have vastly different viewpoints on what's considered ok and what isn't. If you put a rule in place, and you're discussing what the rule/terminology is, it helps you come to a clearer understanding of what you're saying to each other. Lots of times, the rule isn't going to work, and then you will need to have another discussion, but that's part of marriage whether you're monogomous or poly or something else.

As someone who works with laws and rules for a living, I can't give up on them entirely. That being said, there are BAD rules sometimes. I've suggested and implemented bad rules in the past, and that can lead to chaos, but it gives you an opportunity to change the rules into something that works better.

Don't be an ass SOUNDS really easy, but trust me, most people can't handle that kind of terminology.
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