Approaching relationships scientifically: On path-dependent properties

You said to me once that pathos left you unmoved, but that beauty, mere beauty, could fill your eyes with tears.

I tell you, Harry, I could hardly see this girl for the mist of tears that came over me.

The words uttered by one of my favorite characters in gothic literature, Dorian, as he falls in love, beautifully encapsulates the two elements most people associate with love – intense physical attraction and unrestrained emotion.

As a romantic, I charge recklessly across the turbulent expanse of life guided by the lighthouse that is my heart. I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad. My God, how I worship her! Oh how I understand his desires and his near psychosis! I had to pause after reading this page. I was still breathing but my soul had forgotten to do so. I sat frozen in silence, still holding the book up for fear that the slightest movement would cause the beauty of the moment to elude me forever. Briefly, I was Dorian, and blinking back tears, I was in love.

But how dangerous is it to be fixated on these abstractions when we’re in relationships?

A study carried out in India comparing the love in “love” marriages to the love in arranged marriages found that the love in the former gradually weakens over time, while in arranged marriages couples start out with hardly any love for each other, but tend to develop it over time. Within five years, the love in the arranged marriages surpasses that in the love marriages, and is twice as strong by the tenth year. The main difference between the two is the difference in expectations of what and how much work is needed to make a relationship work.

As with many studies, we have to be wary of such claims and the rigor of research carried out. However, it does provide a suitable foundation for the discussion of the keys to building and maintaining a happy and successful relationship.

Dr. Robert Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, found that one of the most significant factors contributing to the growth of love over time is the recognition that when you make a commitment, the process of getting to know the person is going to continue, for life. It is important for us to understand that people are extremely complex and are constantly evolving, and to shed the illusion that we’re in love because we understand the other person.

In Dr Epstein’s words, a relationship should be an adventure in getting to know each other.

To look at it in a different way, a relationship should be approached by both individuals thinking: Okay, how do we make this work? Here is where the concept of path-dependency comes in.

Path dependence first appeared as the idea that a small initial advantage or a few minor random shocks along the way could change the course of history. Now, it is broadly used to describe situations in which the path taken matters.

In my opinion, this is a vital concept to remember in relationships. The sequence of events that takes place matters the most, not the destination.

When problems crop up in a relationship, people often choose to gloss over them or to ignore them. Some people choose to pretend they don’t exist, telling themselves that the other person will change, or that the problem will go away with time. Others buy gifts to make up for it, or decide to go on a trip together to rediscover their passion.

These are all bad decisions because they have skipped the crucial step of fixing the problem. Imagine that building a relationship is like building a bridge. Each time you decide to skip the problem-solving step, it’s like allowing rust to eat away at the bridge while you’re still building it. You’ve placed all your focus on the big picture of completing the bridge, but it’s at risk of falling apart at any moment because of all the areas of weakness.

The potential for the bridge to be completed has no value because there’s a risk of losing everything before that happens.

Some of these problems may be fairly insignificant, and you can choose to laugh them off. Others, however, present themselves as critical junctures after which the course of events set in motion is difficult or impossible to reverse.

As author Nassim Taleb put it, growth with fragilities is not to be called growth.

Always recognize the fragilities in your relationship and strengthen them before moving on to doing something else that you think will improve your relationship. Otherwise any perceived improvements would be inconsequential.

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