We put a face on every cloud.
Our brains impose structure on formlessness with dangerous efficiency. This helps us make decisions in split-seconds, which is important when evading predators on the savannah. However, our impulse to reduce the complex to the coherent ironically complicates our modern lives: relationships become more difficult over time.
Consider meeting a person for the first time over chai and pumpkin bread. Outside of their physical features and a name tag, you know nothing about this person*. By the time you reach the bottoms of your mugs, the stars have aligned and you become infatuated with each other.
* In reality, our existing stereotypes – based on physical features, style of dress, manner of speaking – have already constrained the possibility space. As we will see, this can result in tension right from the start.
At this stage, the possibility space of this person’s attitudes, preferences, habits, and dreams (what we will call their character) is unbounded in your mind. They can say or do anything and it would be a surprise to you. You have no expectations of this person. And, crucially, they have no expectations of you.
This is why the initial rush of a new relationship is so thrilling: not only do you feel the excitement of exploration and novelty, more importantly you feel as boundless as your partner’s understanding of you. We all contain multitudes, contradictions, mysteries, and surprises. Your new partner’s gaze creates a feeling of open sky; you feel wholly seen.
You feel more than whole: your boundlessness in this person’s mind can even push you to expand your own self-imposed identity. Released from your own expectations, you discover a broader sense of self. You find yourself sneaking into parties and buying those cheetah print shoes and singing to yourself just for the hell of it. You feel more than yourself in the eyes of new love.
As time proceeds, your structure-loving brain begins to distill your partner’s rhythms, patterns, and preferences. This is an involuntary process; we instinctually and automatically categorize. Even if our partner were to act and think truly randomly, we would intuit some pattern to their behavior that did not exist. Slowly, we shrink the possibility space of their character. And they shrink ours.
The contraction of expectations is not steady or linear: it might expand on a trip to Marrakech, when they unexpectedly dance along with locals during a street festival, then contract when they refuse to try spicy sardines from a street vendor. Over a long enough period, your expectations calcify. You save time (as our mental heuristics intend to do) by making assumptions and extrapolations about what your partner will and won’t do. We reveal our assumptions explicitly and implicitly: by not bringing up politics, or going to a new play with work colleagues, or suggesting the same restaurant as usual. We act and respond to the character in our head, not the person.
Our own personal change accelerates this dynamic. We grow to enjoy new types of music. Our career goals transform with experience. Our values, needs, desires, and aspirations are all budding and wilting and flowering faster than our partner’s comprehension. Not only do they interact with a limited piece of who we are, but with an outdated blueprint. They talk past us, to the past us.
This gap, between the messy, expansive, evolving reality of who we are and the boxed, assumed, specific model of who we are thought to be is the central source of conflict in many relationships, be they familial or romantic, friendly or transactional.
The question becomes: how do we cultivate and preserve a limitless sense of another human being?
Perhaps the first step is to admit the limitations of our own knowledge. To remain aware of the explosive gap between form and reality, character and person. We will never map a partner’s borders. The romance is in the search.