Last week I talked about the importance of clearing the slate, of throwing out the words "friendship" and "romance" and thinking of every connection with another person as a relationship. This gets pretty tricky. It's difficult to lump the stuff that we're used to thinking of as romance with the stuff that we're used to thinking of as friendship, because the two look, act and feel so fundamentally different. In order to describe where relationships are and where we want them to be we'll need a way to describe them that does not rely on the old binary. If we're trashing the binary, we need to design a new system for talking about relationships from scratch.
So if we're designing a new language system, what are our criteria? Well:
It should be versatile enough to talk about the most superficial friendship, the closest lifelong partnership and everything in between.
Because many of us desire (but can't describe) relationships in the "gray area" between friendship and romance it should be able to navigate that gray area with ease.
It should be simple: easy to learn and easy to apply to the real world.
Finally, it should also be easy to communicate with. We should be able to speak this language to the general public without stopping to illustrate new concepts or define new terms.
This is no easy task. In one way or another, this is a problem that I've been grappling with ever since I started AVEN. After a lot of trial and error I've found a solution that seems to do the job fairly well, I've been using it for the past several years to think about and describe my relationships and have seen some pretty incredible transformations as a result. The old barriers around friendship have begun to melt away, as my (former) friends and I have grow considerably more open and affectionate and begun to talk about where our relationships are going in the long term. The numbers problem is almost completely gone- if anything I've got too many possibilities for meaningful intimacy (a happy problem I'll discuss next post.) This system is something I like to call the 3 Ts.
The 3 Ts are Time, Touch and Talk. Think of them as a set of vital signs for a relationship, a way to quickly and easily understand the what is going on in a relationship and communicate it to others. They are also incredibly versatile, allowing you to accurately describe friendships, romantic relationships and relationships that fall far outside of either norm. To think about any relationship you really only need to understand 3 things:
How much time do you spend in the relationship?
What happens during time?
Time fleshes out a relationship, how much time you spend with someone and what you spend that time doing. Relationships are built by spending time with people doing things that have personal relevance. The people that you have spent a lot of time with and done a lot of meaningful things with are probably the people that you trust the most and feel closest to. By looking at how much time you spend with someone and what you do with that time you can paint a rough sketch of the role that that relationship plays in your life.
Time also tells you a great deal about your priorities. When you spend a lot of time with someone it's usually because you choose (consciously or otherwise) to prioritize your relationship with them over other things that you could be doing. You may go out of your way to spend time with someone that you are close to because it lets you relaxed or because it lets you feel challenged. You may spend lots of time with a coworker that you don't like because doing so allows you to earn money, and money is important to you.
It can also tell you about the priorities of others. If someone goes out of their way to make time for you or keeps large sections of their schedule open for you it means that they consider their relationship with you a priority. It doesn't tell you WHY you're a priority, it could be because they care about you deeply or it could be because they want to steal all of your money, but it gives you a hint at how likely they will be to spend time with you if you ask.
Stop reading for a second and ask yourself:
What five people do you spend the most time with on a weekly basis? What do you do with those people? Why are those five relationships with ones that you spend the most time on?
How does the relationship make you feel?
How do you and the other person express what you feel about the relationship?
Touch is about all of the "touchy feely" parts of a relationship, not just physical touch but the whole host of verbal and nonverbal ways that people communicate their feelings. Saying "I love you" is touch, so is flirting, so is saying "thanks for inviting me to the concert, it was awesome", so is sex. All of those things express feelings that you have about the relationship. When done right, touch is almost always fun. Expressing a genuine, positive emotion gives you a chance to experience that emotion more fully. It makes you feel good and it helps you to understand the emotion better.
Touch is a little bit like a language that you build every time you form a new relationship. Over time, you and the other person will develop ways to communicate how you feel about the world in general and about the relationship in particular. Maybe you constantly give each other shit as a way to show affection. Maybe you hug when you say hello and goodbye and always take time in the conversation to ask the other person how they are feeling.
If built effectively, touch operates as a sort of feedback system for relationships, it helps you quickly identify what works in the relationship and what doesn't. When good systems to exist to communicate emotion you can constantly tweak the relationship to fix things that are hurtful and explore things that are exciting. Without a good system of touch people tend to step on one another's toes without realizing it, and relationships quickly become frustrating.
Stop reading for a second and ask yourself:
What four relationships in your life do you feel strongest about? How do the other person in the relationship and you express those feelings? Are there types of emotions or types of emotional expression that you would like to have in your relationships that you don't have currently?
What expectations do you have about the relationship?
How do you decide what to expect in the relationship?
Talk is the conversations and other things that you do to know what to expect from a relationship. It's the times when people say "honey, we need to talk," it's the endless hours that people spend processing relationships with their partners and friends. Talk is deciding whether to raise kids together, it's agreeing never to go to that pizza place again, it's popping the question and it's asking someone to go to the movies. All of these things set some expectation about what the relationship will be like in the future.
Like it or not, expectations matter. Expectations give structure to a relationship, they tell you that the relationship is a safe place to invest time and a safe place to express your emotions. If you build up good talk in the relationship you'll have a clear sense of the role that the relationship plays in your life that's based on good, ongoing conversations with the other person. If you want to change anything about the relationship you'll feel comfortable having an open conversation about it, and you'll know that the other person feels the same way.
Like touch, talk works differently in every relationship. Some people are comfortable diving right into the guts of a relationship's expectations, while others need to spend hours meditating or processing with their friends before they can speak with the person they're in a relationship with. Talk is also the way that time is negotiated. If I call you and invite you to a concert on Saturday, I'm setting an expectation (talk) about doing something together (time). Looking at talk is a good way to know which relationships matter, since relationships have to be important to involve big commitments. Looking at how those commitments and expectations are decided on can divulge information about the way that power works in the relationship.
Stop reading for a second and ask yourself:
Think of four random relationships in your life. What do you expect from those relationships? How did you decide to expect those things? How do you and the other person communicate about the expectations that you have for one another?
Ok, this blog post is running a little longer than expected. I'll have another update, possibly mid-week, where I talk about how to use these three concepts to build, understand, and communicate about relationships.