In a thread originally concerning grand theories over at Bobvis, the topic turned to relationship theories. Before Sunrise commented:

I think it just feeds the already insecure people with tactics that don’t always work. Sometimes people just get to the point where they don’t understand why they haven’t met someone decent (at the very least) and so go looking for answers and will probably try anything to succeed in dating.

To which I replied:

Here’s the problem: these books, as obnoxious as they are, are very often reasonably good predictors of human response and behavior.

To which Spungen expressed skepticism and asked for examples.

Before I get started, A story about when it was first suggested that the Earth revolved around the sun instead of vice-versa. The Catholic Church denounced the theory. The Pope, however, was approached by a bunch of mariners that said that using this theory was actually helping them navigate the waters, but they were good Catholics and didn’t want to disregard the Church. The Pope said that if the theory helped them, then they could use it as long as they didn’t believe it.

Also, there’s a movie out there that I have not seen but was explained to me. In the story, a woman ran across a book on how to train dogs and decided to use the lessons on how to train a dog to train her boyfriend. It was a remarkable success. He of course found out about it and was mad and they made up and I assume lived happilly ever after.

I do not, for what it’s worth, believe a woman should think of her man like a dog. I don’t think that she should tream him like a dog. But even though I reject the whole premise of her actions, many of the things that one does with a dog one should also do with a human. Show appreciation and reward desirable behavior. Express disapproval with undesirable behavior in a manner that he will understand, and so on. I don’t advocate to a woman to think of her man as anything but a man, but even if the premise is wrong and offensive, the advice is quite efficient.

I firmly believe that when a relationship between two people is right that games generally do not need to be played. I have driven myself crazy in the past trying to make the unworkable work and it proved, shockingly, unworkable. I have acted very strategically to try to bring relationships together and have met with some success, but the relationships that really matter are more a matter of not blowing it rather than making things work. That’s not to say that even promising relationships aren’t fraught with potential peril, but it is to say that a real relationship is generally so special that the problems presented that prove irreversible harm are special and unique to the relationship involved.

That being said, most relationships are not that unique. In fact, they fall into the category of a cold-blooded negotiation wherein both parties interests never move beyond themselves to the partner or making things work with the partner. As such, the boilerplate solutions presented by relationship gurus come in to play a lot more often than they probably should. And the good books are written by people that have caught the rhythms of these relationship failures and provided ways to avoid pitfalls with a bunch of overgeneralized if-then statements. But far from useless, these books not-infrequently bring to the attention of the reader patterns of human behavior that they could see for themselves if they knew what they were looking for.

So some examples.

John Gray, the author of the Mars & Venus books, is by most accounts a fraud. He got a sham degree from a fake university and used that as a launching pad in to pop psychology. That being said, his books were successful because they resonated with a large number of people. They resonated with a large number of people because they contained a perspective that, for whatever reason, has helped a large number of couples, my ex-girlfriend Julie and I among them.

Whatever Gray’s disqualifications for writing it, what he had to say regarding the mood cycle of women explained a whole lot of how Julie had been acting. the trite metaphor about the wave rising and crashing fit extraordinarily well. Maybe it shouldn’t have taken a book to point it out, but it did. The tidbit about how to listen to a woman when she’s sharing the frustrations of her day helped me stop making her bad days worse by trying to fix her problems for her. And the advice that it gave her, when she took it, was equally helpful. This is all despite the fact that I am hardly a masculine man’s man and she was hardly a southern belle of a woman.

But some of the positive effect it had on my relationship with Julie can be attributed to the fact that we both read it. Perhaps we started responding favorably as Gray said we would because Gray said that we should. I don’t believe that to be the case, but it’s impossible to say, really. But what proved remarkable about it is how a lot of what Gray had to say worked not only with Julie, but with her successors, many of whom detested Gray and swore up and down that he was full of crap.

Not, not everything he had to say worked with every girl I knew. Gray’s advice is built as part of a traditionalist worldview on relationships that I rejected long before I married my strong-headed alphaish doctor of a wife. Some of Gray’s suggestions regarding chivalry would not only have been wasted but resented by some of the women I’ve dated over the years. But on the whole, the advice was spot-on more than it was wrong and a reasonable predictor of what would get a positive reaction and what would get a negative one, what would keep her happy and what wouldn’t. And often quite contrary to what she told me would be the case.

I carry no brief for John Gray. I have no ideological attachment to Mars & Venus. I could care less whether it worked because of the biological differences between men and women or because society has programmed us the way that it has. What I care about is that the advice is, though not 100%, solid.

Doc Love’s The System is another.

To follow Doc Love’s advice is to apply a level a strategy that is unhealthy in a human relationship. The entire enterprise is quite manipulative. A relationship that needs this level of tactics is not likely to be a great one. It takes the thrill out of meeting and falling in love and replaces it with a game of romantic chess. But his analysis of what works and what doesn’t has proven (to me, anyway) remarkably adept.

Beware giving someone what they say they want. What a woman says that she values in a guy and what she actually places a value on are two separate things. This is no less true for men, but Doc Love gives advice to men for women and not vice-versa. When women say that they want a man that is open and honest and affectionate, they want a man that will be those things eventually. A guy that is those things too early throws everything off balance and runs the risk of coming across as desperate, insecure, and needy.

A lot of women will get impatient as a guy opens up slowly, but this is exactly as it should be whether she realizes it or not (sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t). Relationships often continue to unfold most successfully as she emotionally pries bit by bit as he lets out the rope hand by hand. If he moves too quickly or doesn’t move at all, problems will ensue.

This was, I have to say, a mistake that I made repeatedly. I’m a pretty open guy. I honestly enjoy expressing myself, it’s why I write! Far from being to my benefit, however, it was torpedoing chances that I might have otherwise had. Spungen is quick to point out that it’s usually the case that a chance was never had, but all I can say in my defense that in my case it was verified later, when I was more cautious and things did actually start happening (or she wanted them to but I lost interest).

The last one is the infamous Ladder Theory.

Every election people love to throw out worthless data predicting the winner of the election. Sometimes it’s that when this football team beats that football team the Republican wins and other times it’s the winner of some state will win the whole election. What they say is true, but they present it as though it’s proof that there is a connection (there is obviously a connection between Missouri’s electoral votes and the ultimate winner, of course, but it’s no more than Missouri’s electoral votes added to its winner’s totals).

The most interesting ones are the ones that track economic models. They vouch 100% accuracy in predicting who won past elections. This was repeated over and over again as proof that Al Gore would dominate the 2000 election. Whatever you think of that election, we should all be able to agree that Gore did not do as well as the economic model suggested he would. Why not? Well, because the economic model was based on the very elections it’s being judged against. The 2000 election wasn’t a part of those calculations because it hadn’t happened yet. If it were it would have changed the “foolproof” formula.

I mention that because The Ladder Theory has the same problem. It attempts to explain what has happened and then establish a causal effect even where one doesn’t exist.

The Ladder Theory was written by a bitter guy that wanted to explain away his romantic failures. It is primarily boosted by bitter guys that want their relationship failures to not be their fault and rely on a not-so-thinly veiled mysogynistic theory to do so. Personally, I got no problem accepting my role in all of my romantic failures. My theory has always been that if it was something I did, it’s something that I can avoid doing next time (by either not screwing up a chance I had or not wasting my time with a chance I never had).

I also think that The Ladder Theory is problematic in its essence. It places far too much emphasis on money and power and makes no mention of personal charm and charisma (which comes in varieties other than dominating). It also presents both men and women as automatons incapable of independent thought and direction.

But despite the relatively warped view of men and women, the notion of two ladders and an abyss is in my mind indisputable. A lot of guys make the mistake of thinking that if they just get close enough to a woman they can be promoted to romantic interest when in fact personal interest and romantic interest are two separate things. I am (I hope) on the “friend” ladder of all the women I know. I can become extremely close to one or two, but because I am married I will never end up on the other ladder. It’s nothing personal. It’s not a rejection of their worth or what they mean to me or vice-versa, it just is.

But it doesn’t have to be marriage that sticks a guy on the “Friends” ladder. I once had a female friend that I was crazy about. I wanted to be a heck of a lot more than friends, but for a variety of reasons I wasn’t what she was looking for romantically. I wasn’t Catholic, I’ve never had a small frame, I think quietly more than I talk, and the list goes on and on. She really did like me a lot and it was nothing personal. But I never had a shot.

When a guy is at the top of the friendship ladder, he can’t just keep climbing to the relationship ladder. He has to either stay where he is or take a leap. And if the leap fails, which it probably will, he will have to accept being in the abyss (which is basically out of her life) or climbing back up the Friends ladder. Not because she’s a meanie-poo (as The Ladder Theory might suggest) but because he took the leap. Envisioning the ladders, the abyss, and the leap, is an extraordinarily helpful model even if I don’t buy in to the bitterness of the theory as a whole.

In a couple of cases I was on the friendship ladder, jumped for the relationship one and missed. Ironically, in my two most dramatic tumbles I ultimately did end up on the relationship ladder. In other words I became the object of their romantic affections. When all of this was happening, I didn’t understand what was happening or why. I didn’t understand how I had gotten into a position both enviable and maddening. Or where that position was or how far it was from where I wanted to be. The Ladder Theory’s model explained it and once I was familiar with it I had a visual model as I watched other people do what I had attempted to do (or not do).

Anyway, the point that I am making is that oftentimes these things persist because they explain things that are in a way that people can understand. They’re varying degrees of imperfect, mind you, but they are often better indicators of what different people will do (or should do) in circumstances than the people themselves.

Category: Coffeehouse

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2 Responses to Theory Truth Nuggets

  1. Before Sunrise says:

    “Anyway, the point that I am making is that oftentimes these things persist because they explain things that are in a way that people can understand. They’re varying degrees of imperfect, mind you, but they are often better indicators of what different people will do (or should do) in circumstances than the people themselves.”

    I agree with you in theory, however, I just feel that people end up short changing themselves when following any of these rules. What happened to taking chances? What happened to believing in yourself and just doing what feels right to you? Nobody has anything to lose, really.

  2. trumwill says:

    I don’t disagree, really. These sort of codes only come in to play when two people have to make something that isn’t quite right work. But some of the rhythms of human behavior that inspire the codes are quite helpful to figure out, even if sometimes just to help explain to you the seemingly strange behavior of others.

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