The First Principles of Relationships

Ever since four years ago Elon Musk mentioned this idea of starting with “first principles,” I’ve been obsessed with using it in my career–starting projects and writing memos always asking myself, what must be true for this to work? What must matter for me to want to do this or for this program to have meaning? It’s really been helpful in helping me put a framework around extremely whitespace ideas and problems. Where I haven’t really been using it is in my personal life.

I recently came out of a short, but deep relationship. Everything progressed so quickly, and it seems to have stopped just as abruptly. I’ve been in a few relationships, and with the dating apps so ubiquitous, the number of dates and people I date have really grown exponentially. And the result seems to be a lot of failures. With the most recent one, I really wanted it to work, but it also didn’t. Is it because I  simply didn’t try hard enough? That’s my number one fear, it’s that I’m simply making excuses to let go of relationships-a relationship and a partner that can be very meaningful.

So to keep myself from questioning when its too early to stop trying, now I ask myself what must be true for a relationship to matter? What are its first principles for it to work? What are my key bets? And if these all hold true, then I know I need to continue trying, or at minimum, talk through them.

  1. You must be attracted to one another
  2. You need to make each other better off
  3. You need to be able to trust one another

Those are my first principles for a relationship to work. I think everything else is noise and or will be a subset of these principles. I used to believe there were 3 pillars to the stool of a relationship:

  1. Pillar 1: Physical stimulation
  2. Pillar 2: Able to stimulate each other’s minds
  3. Pillar 3: Able to integrate with each others friends and family

Though these are still important and good to have, I don’t think they fully cover the broad scope the 3 principles stated above do. For example, good sex can  be a subset of being attracted to one another; but so can simply enjoyment of looking at one another, but it’s  enjoyable over and over again because it never gets old… It’s not good sex, but it’s wanting to be with each other.

The same can be said for the other 2 principles and pillars, but here are some more examples for the other two principles.

You Need To Make Each Other Better Off:

  • Stimulating each others’ minds intellectually and through laughter. You need to make each other think, and think about things from a different perspective. People tend to be single-minded and extremely biased, so everyone needs a balance in thought, and the partner is the one that needs to reach them. Stimulation also comes through laughter. People love to laugh, especially at silly things. Can you be silly?
  • Helping each other out. Relationships can’t just be about carving out more time for one another, but it should be about enabling each other to do more. Even simple things like helping each other walk the dog, clean the dish, take each other to the airport, it makes life so much easier for one another; vs framing it as I need to find time to do all those things myself and find time to spend with him/her.
  • You need to help one another take risks and open possibilities for one another. Similar to the above, but idea focused. It’s about helping one another explore and enabling on another to not only think about, but to do awesome things.

You Need To Be Able To Trust One Another:

  • Not ignite friction. We all have families and friends, or if we don’t, we all want some. If not, then that’s a whole other social issue. But for most of us, there’s this aspect we always need to consider-can we trust one another to integrate and not create additional friction among our friends and family? If its your own friends and family that don’t want to get to know your partner or can’t understand why you want them in your life, then the problem is your family/friends. And you really need to question if they are truly looking out for your best interest. Listen to them, think, and decide. Now if it’s your partner that has a problem, also listen, think, and decide. You need to trust your partner is looking out for your best interest as well.
  • They will be there for you when you’re down. We all get sick and have setbacks in life. We can all stand up on our own when we fall, but it’s a wonderful thing to have a hand there to help you up when you trip. Will your partner be there for you when you fall? They don’t have to agree with what you do or you agree with what they do, but you need to know they will still be there if you fail, and your relationship isn’t simply based on your past successes.
  • Lastly, is the trust to be monogamous. I haven’t figured out how to make a relationship work if you’re not monogamous with one another. Open relationships seem to be a silly ideal if you have the intent to start a family, because families are a lot of work, and requires a lot of trust and commitment to one another. If your goal is to not have kids, then maybe it’ll work to be in open relationships. But for the most part, you simply don’t want to have doubts about one another’s sense of commitment, nor do you want to give the other person any sense to doubt. I think a lot of people feel this, whether they consciously know it or not, that’s why so many people are not okay with their partners being close to ex’s; because more often than not, something happens at during their moment of weakness.

So with this first principles framework, I’ll need to determine which relationships are worth salvaging.


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