Maybe It's Just Me, But...

Musings of a mildly mad multi-disciplinarian

How Deep Is Your Love? Another Way to Look at Commitment

How not to lose your marbles in a relationship

One advantage of commitment that I’ve written about before is that it provides a "buffer" that allows partners to make small mistakes from time to time without worrying that each mistake threatens their relationship. We can’t expect a relationship to run smoothly all the time—occasionally we annoy each other, we offend each other, and we anger each other. Like strength of will or character, the strength of a relationship can be measured by the problems, including mistakes and other disruptions, that it can survive. (This is not say that all problems should be survived, of course—more on this later.) While we would rather have relationships free of problems and disruptions, we are all-too human with all the associated imperfections, so we need relationships strong enough to make it through the bumps (at least the small ones).

To look at it in a different way, we’re going to borrow a concept used in both the physical and social sciences, such as engineering and economics: the concept of equilibrium. As I’ll explain, a solid relationship is like a stable equilibrium, and stronger relationships are ones that withstand more (or more serious) disruptions, while a weak or fleeting relationship is like an unstable equilbrium.

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Think of a marble and a bowl, as in the picture nearby. If you set the bowl on a table and toss the marble in the bowl, the marble will roll around the bowl, going up and down the sides a bit, until it settles at the bottom, reaching its equilibrium. (That last sentence did much the same thing!) If something disturbs this equilibrium, say by knocking the table, the marble will jostle around a bit more before reaching its equilibrium again. Even if the bowl is in constant movement—say you’re holding it while sitting on a bumpy train—the marble may never reach its equilibrium point at the bottom of the bowl, but it is always "trying" to get there. Only if the bowl is struck hard enough to throw the marble out of it altogether will the process of reaching equilibrium be interrupted (until somebody puts the marble back in the bowl).

A solid relationship is like that bowl, holding the two people together through life’s ups and downs that threaten to tear them apart. This includes events from outside the relationships, such as job and family troubles, as well as ones from within, such as arguments or illness. In the context of a solid relationship, these events upset the equilibrium, sometimes seriously but temporarily, and if the relationship is strong enough it will heal itself—get back to equilibrium—without requiring significant attention. Only the worst disturbances, the earth-shattering ones, represent a shock to the system severe enough to force the “marble” out, after which the relationship needs serious attention to get the marble back in the bowl. Adultery is just one example (though an obvious one) of a shock that could do this to even the strongest relationships.

What’s an unstable equilibrium, then? After all, doesn’t the concept of equilibrium imply stability? Yes, but stability can be… well, unstable. (Bear with me.) Think of the bowl and marble again, but turn the bowl upside-down and balance the marble on top of it. If you can do this, how likely is the marble to stay there for long? A stiff breeze or a car door slamming outside might be enough to knock the marble off its precarious perch. It’s at equilibrium as long as nothing changes around it, but the slightest disturbance ruins it—that’s why it’s unstable.

Think of passionate but short-lived relationships you’ve had that burned brightly for a short time before collapsing. These kind of relationships (if we even want to call them that) are basically unstable equilibria: they may be beautiful while they lasts, like a delicately balanced marble or a majestic house of cards, but they can’t withstand anything that happens to them. They aren’t built to last—they’re meant to delight, like a summer fling that comes and goes, leaving a wonderful memory in its wake.

Flings are great, no doubt, but if your goal is a solid long-term relationship, you want a stable equilibrium that can withstand the bumpy road we call life. Of course, not all relationships are created equally. To return to the metaphor of bowls, some are shallow and others are deep, and marbles are more likely to fly out of the shallower ones than the deeper ones. The deeper bowls, obviously, represent the stronger relationships, the ones that can withstand more serious disruptions, like losing a job or serious injury.

OK, that's not exactly what I meant...

Do we want a bowl from which the marble can never escape—like a ball? While this may sound comforting and romantic to some, like a relationship that can withstand anything, remember that people change, sometimes to become closer but other times further apart. In the worst case scenario, one or both partners may turn on each other as the relationship breaks down. In this case, the bowl itself naturally changes, either becoming more shallow or even developing cracks, both of which would allow the marble to escape. Relationships are not to be valued in and of themselves, but only as way to enable two (or more) people to improve their lives by being together. Turning the bowl into a ball so the marble can’t escape puts the priority of the wrong aspect of the metaphor (which we’ll already starting to stretch too far!).

So, what determines the shape and depth of the bowl? These things aren’t given or fixed, but rather depend on how well the partners “fit” together and how devoted they are to each other. How patient are the partners willing to be with each other? What kind of mistakes are they willing to forget or forgive? When partners decide they want a relationship instead of a fling, in effect they decide to flip the bowl and try to keep a marble inside it. But from that point, they determine how hard it will be to knock the marble out; they decide what disruptions they’ll put up with based on how much they value the other person and how much they want the relationship to last. Most critically, it depends on both partners (or all partners if more than two): one committed partner alone cannot make a truly strong relationship (as I explained here).

Of course, a real-life relationship is less like a bowl sitting on a table and more like a bowl on a train: the marble never gets more than a moment of calm, so it never has a chance to find its equilibrium at the bottom. But the bowl makes sure the marble is always trying to find that stable point, just as a solid relationship helps partners keep the end goal in mind while weathering life’s ups and downs—and without losing their marbles. (C’mon, you had to see that coming.)

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For a select list of my previous Psychology Today posts on relationships, adultery, self-loathing, and other topics, see here.

I invite you to follow me on Twitter and visit me at my website and the following blogs: Economics and Ethics and The Comics Professor.

Mark D. White is the chair of the Department of Philosophy at the College of Staten Island/CUNY.

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