Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Youmeus Curiosity: How to Save a Relationship If It's Worth Saving

Working it out with your partner, and other people too.

In relationships, partners often deliver their problems to each other prepackaged with tidy solutions. The most common prepackaging combines, I'm frustrated with you have to change,' and while that's often a satisfying package to deliver, it's appropriate far less often.

How much less often? It depends, of course on the relationship, but in theory, a problem between you and your partner would have three possible solutions: 

1.     You have to change

2.     Your partner has to change

3.     You both have to change

We could call curiosity about these three possibilities, Youmeus Curiosity: About your partner, you ask, Is it you, me or us? — three 33.3% possibilities, not the typically prepackaged 100% certainty that if we're dissatisfied, our partner has to fix it.

Still, our impulse to prepackage is understandable. In the presence of your partner, you experience frustration; frustration you didn't feel away from your partner. Therefore, the problem must be your partner. The evidence points to the conclusion the way it might had Galileo run a simple experiment: If you were an inert little ball rolling along in a cheerful direction and then, in the presence of the partner-ball you started rolling in an unpleasant direction, we would know that your partner caused the change from cheerful to unpleasant.

Truth is though, you're not an inert little ball; you're a living being, a creature and creator of habits, some of which only surface in certain presences. A ball is only moved by outside interactions, but you've got all sorts of inner drives and tendencies that emerge in different circumstances, some of which you don't even know about because you've never been in a situation in which they would emerge.

I can illustrate with a personal example. One ex-partner remembers me as, by temperament, fundamentally generous and accommodating. Another remembers me as, by temperament, fundamentally stingy and demanding. I could say each partner brought out different things in me, but that's a little vague. More accurately, different natures within me emerged in the interaction with each of them, and the reverse was also true. The paths of living beings, especially humans, are far more complex than the paths of Galileo's inert spheres.

Some say, therefore, that you should never point a finger. You can't or shouldn't try to change other people; you can only change yourself. Other's say that since all relationship problems require collaborative solutions, you should always assume that both parties have to change.

I say stay away from all such formulas. Stop to wonder. Be Youmeus-Curious. When frustrated, find your way to the Youmeus question about who has to change rather than formulaically assuming you know what the solution is.

In frustration, we tend to zip right past Youmeus Curiosity but we can always return to it. You come out, guns ablazing saying "I'm frustrated, so you have to change," but then you calm down and visit all three possibilities. In my partnership, we no longer hold out for immediate Youmeus Curiosity when a frustration first arises. So long as we can find our way to Youmeus Curiosity eventually (the sooner the better), we're fine.

Talking about solutions before finding our way to Youmeus Curiosity produces much more heat than light — heat that, in excess, eventually causes stress-fatigue and brittleness in a relationship. Knowing how far we are from Youmeus Curiosity is therefore a crucial relationship skill.

Here are five signs we can use when gauging how far into formulaically prepackaged solutions we are, and therefore how far we are from Youmeus Curiosity:

I- vs. you- messages:  Starting with "I" generally implies more Youmeus Curiosity than starting with "You," though not necessarily. "I'm uncomfortable" can mean, "I assume it's my fault and I have to do something about it," a post-Youmeus Curiosity assumption. "I am disappointed in you" is technically an I-message but it implies that your partner has to change.

How you describe your frustration:  "I'm uncomfortable" expresses more Youmeus Curiosity than "I'm disgusted."

Temporal generalization:  "You blew it last night" expresses more Youmeus Curiosity than "You always blow it."

Character generalization:  "You're picky" implies more Youmeus Curiosity than "You're a jerk."

Practical vs. Moral Framing: "What should we do about our incompatibility?" is a practical question. "You are immoral and it's my moral responsibility to make you pay" is a moral framing very far away from Youmeus Curiosity.

Moving from Youmeus Curiousity to ever-increasing prepackaged conclusions, here are some examples of how the language changes regarding the same relationship frustration:

1.     I'm uncomfortable about what just happened and want to figure out why.

2.     I'm disgusted about what just happened and want to figure out why.

3.     I'm angry with you for what you just did.

4.     You blew it and it has me wondering about our relationship.

5.     You always blow it. What's wrong with you?

6.     You're acting stingy.

7.     You're stingy.

8.     You're a jerk.

9.     You're a jerk and you owe me.

10.   You're evil, and in the name of virtue, I will make you pay.

If you and your partner broach a frustration using language like number one, you can probably find your way to Youmeus Curiosity relatively quickly. Closer to number 10 and you should probably take some time apart; quite possibly, forever.

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.


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