Friday, February 29, 2008

My Balance Theory of Relationships

This was something that first occurred to me last summer. I'm curious about whether it rings true for anyone else out there, or if there are any other suggestions for it.

The Theory

The setup for the idea is this: Take two people who are in a relationship and pick a single personality trait or attribute. Each person probably has a specific comfort zone with respect to that trait. That is, they have an equilibrium state (or narrow range of states) outside of which they feel an imbalance and a desire to return to "safety." I'm sure we can all relate to this on an individual level. Now, since we have two unique individuals here, I think it's safe to assume that their comfort zones are different for some set of traits (probably many, depending on how finely you want to slice the notions of traits and significant differences).

In this situation, my theory says that each person will seek the same equilibrium state for the relationship as a whole as they would desire for themselves individually. If one partner creates an imbalance for the other (as may happen naturally if their comfort zones are different) then the other partner will try to counter that imbalance by behaving in the opposite direction, even to the extent of leaving their own comfort zone in that direction. The drive is for the relationship average to be at the desired level, though the complication is that each person may have a different goal.

For a specific example, let's assume one person (A) is an introvert and their partner (B) is an extrovert. If A feels like they're going to too many parties, then s/he may start lobbying for more time at home, or even start deliberately avoiding social events that s/he might otherwise have enjoyed. B might in turn react to this reaction, and be more insistent about going out on principle, rather than for any such intense desire. You can construct many other similar examples, such as one partner becoming more and more effusive in displays of emotion because they feel their partner is distant or unemotional. (And that partner then withdrawing further if it makes them uncomfortable.)

If you want to see this more formulaically, let's take our two people A and B, call the trait T, and the respective comfort points for this trait Z(A,T) and Z(B,T). Then the theory is basically a function that says:
if Z(A,T) < Z(B,T)
then Z(B,T) += Z(B,T) - Z(A,T)
and vice versa

The Caveats

This is, of course, only a rough approximation. Clearly it couldn't strictly be true, because the positive feedback loop it creates would turn each person into a raving maniac at opposite ends of any given spectrum within minutes. So I'd give it at least the following caveats (there may be more):
  1. This applies mainly to traits or issues of relative significance to the relationship. (E.g. your favorite color doesn't count.)
  2. Each person probably has a limit to how far out of their comfort zone they're willing/able to go, even voluntarily.
  3. Some people may be more susceptible or sensitive to this than others.
  4. This probably applies differently at different stages of a relationship. (E.g. not so much in the beginning, when you're all love-crazy.)
The Application

But it's the general concept that's most important here, and the potential application of it. The problem with these attempts to maintain balance is that a mathematically balanced relationship is still very unstable if one or both of the individual partners are working at their limits. However, if you're aware of this potential motivation behind your (and your partner's) behavior, then you can take steps to balance things in a more healthy way.

So how do we do that? Unfortunately, I haven't had much direct experience in this part of the theory yet. My instinctual advice would be to start with that all-purpose relationship tool, communication. If you notice this happening, say so. Explain where your comfort zone is, and describe the things that make you uncomfortable and why (being respectful, of course, of the other person's valid choices and preferences). Maybe you'll be able to find the overlap in your zones and then consciously start spending more time there, but maybe it will be more complicated than that. The greater the differences, the more compromises will need to be made.

The Ideal Balance

This last bit may come as a surprise because I do not believe that the ideal balance has two partners lining up conveniently in every way. Rather, I think this theory illuminates something I've wondered about for a long time. That is the tension between two theories of attraction: the "birds of a feather" model vs. "opposites attract." I've observed both of these effects within the same relationship, without fully understanding how they can both contribute to making things work. Now I think I have a better idea.

The "birds of a feather" traits, I believe, should be the ones that correspond to strengths for both people. If you feel that you are already at the best possible state with respect to one trait, then a good match for you will be there as well. You don't want someone who will be pulling you off track. For instance, someone who is very good at expressing love and caring for people would do better with another similar spirit than with an insensitive brute (to take an extreme example).

The "opposites attract" factor will best come into play with those traits that you feel need some work. (I'm assuming here that you have the desire for self-improvement here, and aren't just apathetic about it.) In this case, an "opposite" partner can help pull you in the direction you need/want to go. For instance, the introverts can get more good social interaction by tagging along with their extrovert partners, who can then in turn perhaps learn something about introspection and self-reflection. Of course, in these cases you have to be very careful. If a growth opportunity for one person is a frustrating drag on the other, then there's still going to be difficulty. And even if there is an ideal midpoint for both people, it may take some compromising to get there.

So I might sum this up as: Reinforce your strengths and balance out your weaknesses. Sounds kinda obvious once you get past all the verbose explanation of it, but it can be harder to see when you're actually in the midst of figuring out a relationship. What do you think?


tmb said...

Hmm. Good food for thought. I have definitely seen/experienced the "drive for relationship average" play out in just the way you've described, and I've also definitely experienced the "opposites attract model for growth". I can't quite make them fit together though. It seems that in your "drive for relationship average" idea, an extrovert partying a lot will make an introvert pull back and want even more alone time than before, rather than resulting in a compromise where both are pulled towards the middle.

apollo said...

lol............the dance of the ages. Balance in relationships. Assuming you mean between men and women, which isn't perhaps a fair assumption these days, the " balance " we seek is not easily defined . Love, caring and partnerships require more giving , than seeking one's own needs be met.

To look for a formula that can be used to give humans peace in a relationship would stop wars even. At home and in the larger world. I suspect humans will continue to struggle with balance. Finding it one's self first , then finding someone who wants to share who they are with you as you that's love. Peace.......

CameronAero said...

WOW, some heavy stuff there in Ideal Balance. I had bookmarked this page to re-read it when I have a little more energy in me.

Very good read however!

Peace, Thoughts & Understanding.
A true spiritual sanctuary.

BigG said...

Very interesting post. I guess I'd just add that another piece in the equation is self-time vs. couple-time. If there seems to be an imbalance in the relationship, the answer MAY be to seek out the balancing experience for yourself. This of course, requires another fine balancing act, making sure that the important needs of the relationship are still nutured. And of course that the experience isn't directly detrimental to the relationship. Don't ask me to try and fit THAT into a mathematical equation!

song of the selkie said...

intense subject to mull over, thanks for posting. this reminds me of a rough nite with the mock turtle i once had, and other push-me pull-you dancers i have known! i get a real kick out of the word relationship; subtract the ‘r’ from that and you get elationship, a little closer to what we all are looking for, in my case the closest i ever got to any relationships was yet another letter's deduction from the word making “elationhips,” proud of it! a nice respite from other derivatives such as: the dumper ship, the partner ship, must i go on?

Rachel said...

Despite my slow commenting, this has been bouncing around in my head since I read it. I think "reinforce your strengths and balance out your weaknesses" is dead-on, as advice goes.

As for what really happens, though, I don't think that person A and person B move away from each other to the far-opposite ends of their comfort zones most of the time. I think more often they try to move toward each other, resulting in either a) expanding the comfort zones of one or both partners until there's an overlap or b) that axis simply becomes "outside the relationship" as the partners give up on that particular alignment. Option b isn't a bad thing since it ends the pulling and tugging -- but it can't happen on TOO many axes, or the relationship won't have enough to hold it together.

Extrovert/introvert is an axis on which it's very hard to give up, it should be said, since it's really hard for couples to have separate social lives. Maybe that's a good one to line up on. That and whether each person wants children.

Tandava said...

Eightoclock - I think that's a good point, and merits an amendment to the theory. I think what you describe about moving closer together is probably something more likely to happen in the earlier stages of the process, when the whole relationship is being defined from the ground up anyway. If the middle ground exists and works for both people, then this whole issue is taken care of automatically. However, if it's too much of a stretch for someone, then at some point they'll be unable to keep it up and react in the opposite direction, which is when my theory comes more explicitly into play. (And I first came up with this description of it all after having reached such a breaking point, so I guess I had sort of assumed that context but not made it clear.)

Tali - The above may relate to your comment as well.

Bigg - I think you're correct, but everything you do as an individual still affects the relationship that you're a part of. E.g. back to our classic example, the introvert may stay home because he needs some quiet time for himself, but the extrovert partner may still be sad that she has to go to the party alone.

dawa said...

it is refreshing to hear a guy's perspective on such matters. i like the fact that you recognize communication as being an important negotiating tactic in achieving balance. i liked the fact you could elegantly explain some relationship dynamics in mathematical terms. i find your balance theory quite similar to the physiological mechanism of homeostatis and the processes the body initiates in order to maintain equilibrium.
Quote from academic paper "Ecological, biological, and social systems are homeostatic. They oppose change with every means at their disposal. If the system does not succeed in reestablishing its equilibriums, it enters into another mode of behavior, one with constraints often more severe than the previous ones. This mode can lead to the destruction of the system if the disturbances persist." this quote could very easily apply to relationships - and explain why people cling to destructive relationships. the desire to avoid change (a break up) is so great that people continue to mobilize efforts to work at a relationship or employ the fail safe tactics of denial or complete honesty and disclosure depending on persons involved. it also explains why people avoid relationships in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Hi there - What a great post! “reinforce your strengths and balance out your weaknesses”...that's where I've been going wrong all along!

p.s. thanks for the thoughtful comment on my tomato post :)