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the happy ending is you by Vincent H. '23

thoughts related to relationships

spoilers for the movie arrival (and by extension, the novella story of your life)

i. people who haven’t been in relationships tend to think the hardest part is initiation. as in, everything would work out if i could get x to like me or life would be much better if i were dating y or any of the numerous other sentiments that focus on the status of a relationship rather than the thing itself. and of course, almost everyone who has been in a relationship agrees that maintenance is orders of magnitude harder than initiation


ii. the title comes from this track which i’ve listened to a lot over the past few weeks. i’m getting into post-rock and like how it combines my favorite parts of rock (drum / electric guitar instrumentation) with my favorite parts of ambient music (slow melodic variations / atmospheric buildup)


iii. i talked to a friend, let’s call them Q, who went through a bad breakup recently. bad as in, they experienced lasting abdominal pain and were unable to sleep normally for several weeks afterwards, probably because of affection withdrawal or something along those lines. so i asked if the experience caused them to value self-sufficiency and the ability to exist alone more and they said no, because the breakup didn’t have to be this ugly. if he’d agreed to break up when i’d asked him to, it would’ve been fine, and it only became awful because we mishandled it. that wasn’t something i’d explicitly thought about in the context of socialization before – that while you can reduce the amount of pain other people inflict on you by becoming a more distant person, you can also reduce it by getting better at navigating tricky situations


iv. my favorite eminem verse is this one, from ‘love the way you lie’: 

“You ever love somebody so much you can barely breathe when you’re with ’em?

You meet, and neither one of you, even know what hit ’em

Got that warm fuzzy feeling, yeah, them chills, used to get ’em

Now you’re getting fucking sick of looking at ’em.”

such a powerful verse about how people and the dynamics between them change over time


v. one amusing thing i noticed is that most of the reading i’ve done on relationships has been about communication difficulties and breakups. for instance, some of my favorites include difficult conversations: how to discuss what matters most and relationships are challenging + a lot of work and she divorced me because i left dishes by the sink (please don’t take the last one as seriously as the first two)

i don’t think it’s because i’m a pessimist necessarily, but i have a habit of reflexively identifying problems and attempting to understand them, so maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that i gravitated towards learning about communication failure modes. and as a consequence, most of my thoughts on relationships are actually thoughts on fights and breakdowns rather than thoughts on the actual relationship; for example, maybe you already noticed that this post focuses on the question of “how do you grapple with the fact that any given relationship is likely to end painfully?” rather than a question like “what are relationships?”


vi. i rewatched arrival with some friends over iap (aka january at mit). one of the more awkward sentences from the film is when the protagonist louise says “i forgot how good it felt to be held by you”. it’s a strange line at first glance because you’d expect this sentence to be said by someone who was held in the distant past and hasn’t been held in a while, but this is actually louise’s first time hugging her future husband. so when she says this, i think she’s actually talking about her future self – she already knows by this point in the film that she will end up fighting with and divorcing her future husband, and the line is her explanation for why the future breakup occurs (it occurs because their child dies, but also because they will forget how much they love each other)


vii. it can be hard to tell, but i am terrified of loss. i am terrified of losing friendships and contact with close friends and so on. this confuses people sometimes, because i also believe that losing people is inevitable and that i will be okay after going through the process, and i am fairly vocal about these beliefs. but the beliefs do not dispel the terror; they only make it easier to reason about and plan around


viii. few months ago someone said they liked me, and i was talking to a friend about how i didn’t want to date the other person because i thought it’d create a lot of anxiety in my life. the sentiment i was trying to communicate was that the other person was particularly stress-inducing for me, but instead my friend responded well, how much extra anxiety are you willing to suffer? every relationship is going to produce a decent amount of new anxiety. in hindsight that probably should’ve been obvious, but i didn’t realize it until my friend said so; i think part of me was hoping that there must be a relationship somewhere in the world which was completely stress-free


ix. one of the few relationship-related pieces i’ve read recently that wasn’t about communication failures was a long exposition written by two of my friends about their experiences together. my main new realization from reading it was that i value relationships as a space in which you can interact with someone and experience life in ways you normally wouldn’t be able to do. as a simple example: in the linked document my friends write about a funeral simulation activity where they simulate what it’d be like to attend each others’ funerals. i think it would be rather difficult to convince your regular friends to participate in an activity like this


x. but we can’t talk about arrival without talking about the ending; it’s one of those movies where (in my opinion) the entire film is constructed with an eye towards magnifying the final 5 minutes as much as possible. during the final scene, louise explains that, despite knowing her future child will die young of an incurable disease and that her future husband will blame her for knowing all along and not doing anything about it, she chooses to marry her husband and have the child anyway. she even looks forward to the journey, despite knowing it ends in tragedy. and while none of us can see the future like louise could, we do know that every one of our relationships must similarly end in breakup or death; one of the many things arrival suggests is that this alone isn’t a good reason not to begin those relationships


xi. i used to think suffering less was about eliminating desires and not feeling emotions. for instance, letting go of the desires for personal connection and affection by rationalizing around them; by doing so you could figure out how to live alone and focus on work, and then you would stop experiencing pain resulting from the dissolutions of interpersonal relationships. but the longer i’ve tried to do this for, the more obvious it’s become to me that i can’t actually force any given thought to disappear: there are a lot of desires i’ve been able to vanquish by thinking through them, like that of trying to get all A’s in classes, but there are also many others that i’m just not ready to let go of yet, and simply telling myself a desire is dumb isn’t going to make it go away

nowadays i adopt a related view, which is that most feelings are harmless once you actually confront them directly, and doing so allows you to make sound decisions by seeing past the fog of emotions. this does not mean ending the desires for friendship or intimacy and ensuring the pain never returns; it means understanding that these desires are currently a part of me and that, for now at least, that means the pain they bring will recur over and over, and that’s okay. maybe someday i will have changed in a way such that those desires and pains really do disappear, and that’s okay too


xii. i told Q that i thought reading a lot about communication failures in relationships was very helpful for developing better relationship models and for allowing me to pattern-match scenarios to solutions better, and was surprised when they disagreed. their main complaint was something like relationships are extremely context-dependent and models might be helpful for helping you understand what’s going on at a high level, but you’ll have to come up with all the solutions yourself because pattern-matching to general solutions results in context collapse

as an extreme example, you can have all the right models about what the problems in your relationship are, but if your partner refuses to be stereotyped or doesn’t want to discuss the problems they can just reject your models and you won’t be able to collaborate with them on implementing solutions. of course you might read this and think “well that just means you need an additional model for what to do when your partner is being difficult”, which might be true, but i think what it also means is that at some point you need to step out of your mental models and truly engage with the other person. and the difficulty of continuously engaging well is one of the many reasons why maintenance is so hard


xiii. i think we tend to overthink interpersonal relationships in a way that misses a very simple point: if relationships are about sharing experiences with people, then the nature of your connection with someone should be determined by the set of experiences you’re comfortable sharing with that person

when written out in that form, the previous sentence feels true by definition, like, my coworkers are people i’m comfortable working with, and our relationship is about working together, big surprise. but i think failure to understand how this applies to other kinds of relationships is the source of much frustration

for instance, one relatively common behavior is when people who were formerly good friends try to maintain their previous level of friendship despite having drifted apart emotionally. this usually makes both people unhappy, because they recognize that they’re not as vulnerable with each other as before and that it’s harder to be friends than it used to be, but they don’t realize that the former is a primary cause of the latter. i think they’d be a lot happier if they either accepted that they’re not close friends anymore or worked to directly address the vulnerability problem

or as another common pattern, i think a lot of people seek out a specific kind of love that they’re not ready for yet. i generally adhere to the belief that it’s very difficult to love someone else if you hate yourself and it makes sense in this context: if you hate large portions of yourself then it’s difficult to share experiences involving those parts of yourself. and as a result, people who harbor a lot of self-hatred often run into problems when they pursue love that requires sharing a wide range of experiences. that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them; it just means that they should probably work on hating themselves less, or look for a different kind of love, or both


xiv. one more remark from Q: it’s really funny how other people are unimaginably complex but we keep trying to stuff them into very simple models. well, i think it’s funny right now because i’m in a good mood; later on when i’m in a bad mood i’ll find it unbearably frustrating. but in that case, neither the hilarity nor the difficulty that comes with trying to understand other people is a reflection of the act itself; they are reflections of our mental states and general satisfaction with life

and similarly relationships aren’t the warmth of being hopelessly in love with someone, but they’re also not the stress or disappointment or heartbreak that comes when problems emerge. these feelings are facades that recycle repeatedly, so fixating only on the former (as pop culture tends to) or only on the latter (as i had been doing) misses the point. and if you truly believe that entering a long-term relationship is about experiencing all these sensations over and over again, then i don’t think it makes sense to look for perfect fit soulmates or people you’ll never have conflicts with or any of the other absurdly complicated criteria people have for evaluating each other; instead you’d just find people that you’re okay experiencing everything with, and that would be enough