Monday, February 23, 2009

What is a Relationship Model?

Relationships are everywhere. We have relationships with our friends and our family. When we go to the store we rely on a relationship with the person at the checkout counter. The onion that we buy got to the store through a (probably complex) relationship between the store and a farm. When it grew, it grew through complex relationships between the plant, the soil around it, and the sunlight and water which rained down on it. And the crazy thing is, none of these relationships ever stay the same. How we buy food from stores is not the same today as it was 100 years ago, and it will probably be different 100 years from now. How the onion relates to the soil around it changes drastically as the onion matures, and has changed in a larger sense as onions have evolved and been selectively bred. 

We're used to thinking of these things as things: stores, onions, sunlight and people, but sometimes it is useful to think of them differently. You can think of the entire chain- from the sunlight hitting the soil to the onion soup you eat at your pot luck- as an interacting series of relationships. Understanding how all of those relationships evolve and change can be just as useful as understanding the things and people involved. 

This is useful because when it comes to relationships, especially relationships between people, we tend to be very very smart. If I ask you to explain the impact of the federal funds rate on housing prices you could probably read 5 articles on the topic and still be scratching your head. But if I ask you how bringing your new girlfriend to Thanksgiving will impact the conversation between your grandma and your uncle, you'd probably be able to tell me. A computer could never do that. People are incredibly complicated, much more so than obscure financial data, but because we have a deep intuitive understanding of the way that relationships work we are able to operate in them remarkably well. Thinking in terms of relationship models allows us to tap into that intelligence and use it to enhance our understanding of just about anything.

A relationship model is a set of expectations about what will happen in a relationship. If I call my friend Sam we will probably make plans to hang out next week. If I go on a date with Lori's sister things may get weird between Lori and I. If I work hard and kiss up to my boss, I may get promoted. If I buy this onion, I can cook with it. Relationship models allow us to confidently take actions in a largely unpredictable world, they consciously or intuitively tell us how relationships work. 

The relationship models that are easy to describe tend to be static. In these relationships expectations are written down in laws, scientific studies, or cultural customs. The relationship between a customer and a teller at the grocery store is one example, in most grocery stores around the world that relationship works in essentially the same way. Science tells us what to expect from the relationship between baking soda and vinegar, legal documents tell us what to expect from the relationship between a corporation and its shareholders. Even these fairly static relationships are constantly being redefined and disputed, which makes laws, science and cultural custom riddled with controversy. 

What's harder, but generally more fun, is thinking about dynamic relationship models. These models describe relationships where what we expect changes radically over time. We generally can't say where the relationship will wind up, but we can develop an understanding of the forces that will get us there. Falling in love is an example of a dynamic relationship model, so is scientific innovation or the development of an ecosystem or market strategy. Dynamic relationship models can't tell us exactly what will happen, often they can't even come close. They tell us what to pay attention to (ie the look in his eye, your gut instinct), and give us guidelines for how to act (keep an open mind, communicate clearly and openly) while we hold on to the changing situation for dear life.

The interesting thing about dynamic relationship models is how much they are similar. Did you notice how "keep an open mind" and "communicate clearly and openly" apply equally well to falling in love, making a scientific discovery and selling a product? It is not uncommon for dynamic relationships in widely differing circumstances to behave very similarly. A dating scene is a little like the trading floor on wall street which is a little like the woods regrowing after a forest fire. Relationship modelling is about finding a common, flexible language to describe those relationships, so that our understanding of one kind of dynamic relationship (building a lifelong friendship) can inform our understanding of another (building a stable company.) 

What are some concepts that you use to think about dynamic relationships?


The Impossible K said...

Great post!! :)

I think Madea gives a great analogy:

It's a lot like the concept of trees regrowing after a fire- we depend on each other, though to varying degrees, and how we fulfill that role does have an impact on the growth of others in our relationships. Ideally, I'd like to be a "root" in all my relationships, but there isn't enough time or energy to do that. But you can sense, intuitively, where you are needed and what role you can play. I've personally been surprised at how simple the most "complex" relationships really are: if both parties are concerned with providing for each other, both are taken care of... :)

Anonymous said...

Jay, sorry for using your blog for this, but I just had to show you this, this is such a blatant example of the condescending appropriation of asexuals that I foresaw and expected from Carol Queen:

Please frwd this to all the AVEN members, post this to every asexual forum/blog you know.

If Queen enjoyed your discussion so much, why doesn't she just link up to your podcast, like she does to all those other sites she mentions in her essay?

She can link up to Good Vibes and the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality, but she can't link up to AVEN?

In my experience, such a refusal to link up to someone is a sure mark of disdain and tokenistic appropriation.

Jay, I know you really like Carol Queen and are impressed by her eloquence and charms, but really, take it from me: people who use your words but then refuse to link up to you, people who mention talking to you but refuse to mention your name/organization (thus publicly acknowledging you), these people are not your friends. These people are not allies.

The least she could have done is link up to AVEN, but she couldn't even conceive of doing just that! What does that tell you about the way she thinks of us?

Jay, I am experienced with this sort of thing. It is a sure red flag alert. I have had people claim to like my writings, only to refuse to publicly acknowledge me as an author when push came to shove.

If Carol Queen truly likes asexuals, why doesn’t she link up to OUR central organization, AVEN? If she truly believes in information as much as she claims in her essay, why doesn't she want people to follow a link to AVEN and link about us?

I have said this before and I will say this again. These sex-positive people, they just want to steal all our ideas, they want to steal our whole subculture, offering us no credit or attribution (aka baseline respect amongst thinkers who refer to one another as true equals) in return.

Jay, please do not believe this liar. Despite what she claims Carol Queen does not like asexuals. Really. She just wants to use us. She wants to exploit the living daylights out of us. The way she references your podcast yet does not link up to you is all the evidence I need for the fact that Queen is out to tokenize asexuals as part of her frankly ridiculously "you can be pro-sex even as you don't have sex" campaign. This is not inclusion, it's the schoolbook definition of exploitation.

Have the guts to link up to us if you really believe in freedom of information and if you really think we're so gawddamn interesting!

Anonymous said...

I know I haven't commented in a while. I just want you to know that that doesn't mean I'm not checking in to read. You've got some interesting thoughts on relationships, and I hope to absorb them, so that I can make my own observations, sooner or later.

Conor Wilson (the same one as over on AVEN.)

Bitsy said...


I want to invite you to Sex 2.0. I think it would be wonderful to see the asexual movement represented. After all, in our talking about sex, people who don't want it need a place at the table too.

"Sex 2.0 will focus on the intersection of social media, feminism, and sexuality. How is social media enabling people to learn, grow, and connect sexually? How is sexual expression tied to social activism? Does the concept of transparency online offer new opportunities or present new roadblocks — or both? These questions, and many more, will be addressed within a safe, welcoming, sex-positive space."

If you think it looks interesting, spread the word around.

I hope to see you there!