Limitations of the Relationship Checklist
The relationship checklist imposes geometries that may not exist
In Elia’s photo above, the preset geometry of the chess set is toyed with. It is made haze, fractal. Distinctions between pieces are erased, but we can still make apart the individual pieces.
The concept of the relationship checklist, like the chess set, usually takes on a common, concrete form. Geometries within the form are discussed, but often not the form itself.
Questions we can ask within the form:
What traits should be on the checklist? (aka, what should you look for in a partner?)
What traits are “red flags” (aka, what traits outweigh the other really nice traits that are checked off?)
How many of the traits you want should they have before you agree to date / agree to marry?
What is the priority stacking of traits to look for? If they have some, but not others, what criteria should you use to determine which are more important?
I do not think these are bad questions whatsoever. Questions within the form can be good questions! Finding serious answers to these questions can be very good, and can often start a journey of figuring out how people work. If you are stuck on these questions, I recommend giving a ring to Kathy Crosswell (email@example.com), a trusted conflict mediator and relationship expert, who has special techniques for unblocking people on these questions and helping them figure out what they want.
I do find the frame of using a relationship checklist to decide whether to go into a relationship or enter a marriage to be limiting, for the following reasons:
This framework gives no north star about what happens after the relationship is entered. It does not give clues about which traits should be developed, and what that development would mean for your personal life or the flourishing of the relationship.
This framework does not show what you “get” after certain checkboxes are ticked. It gives no guidance on how to use certain traits to develop other traits, and how to use traits to get concrete experiences or qualities of life that you want.
This framework is hard to use, because there is no “go” condition that actually gets satisfied. Rather, the “go” conditions either get closer to being achieved (red flags ignored) or farther from being achieved (more checkboxes added) depending on the feelings of the person. Therefore, the checklist is not the actual criteria being used, and some criteria outside the checklist is.
I would like to propose an alternative. I do not think we should be thinking up checklists. I think we should be thinking up continents.
The continents are large land masses that you can build on. One may not be enough, but three might be, if they are the right ones. Eight may not be enough if one of the key ones is missing.
Below, we’ve outlined some possible continents in detail to explain the idea. Basically, instead of thinking about a checklist, you can think about what you actually want to be doing with your partner, and then try to check if that is likely to happen based on what you and they want.
This is a frame shift away from maximizing for the best possible person you will encounter. Rather, it will maximize for the kind of person who gives you the kind of relationship you want to be having.
One benefit of this schema is that you will have a more clear idea of when something feels “enough” and when something feels “untenable.”
For example, if you want to have a very deep, wholesome, relationship with a person in which you both spend a lot of time embracing a shared spirituality (shared spiritual dinners, shared style of prayer), even if you meet a person who is rich, attractive, wants children, and gets along with your family, you will not be happy in this relationship because you will be missing a key shared continent on which you wanted to build your relationship. In this situation, the other good continents do not make up for the missing one.
With the relationship checklist model, this problem would often not come up. “Same religion as me” may come up, but the checklist does not account for what the other person plans to do with you because of their religion.
The checklist also would not show you how to weigh this missing piece against other missing or present qualities on the checklist.
Another example for using the continent mode: if you wanted a relationship where you host friends all the time and use your love with your partner as a basis for community connection, then somebody who prefers to travel solo all the time or is very introverted may not be able to help build that continent with you.
The continent model shifts attention away from what the other person has (internally or externally), and shifts attention to what you both would like to build together.
POSSIBLE CONTINENTS MAY INCLUDE:
Texture of shared sexuality
Household-building enjoyed together
Shared work completed and spread to community
Shared understanding of intimacy with other people
Experiences shared with family and extended family
Texture of childrearing
One benefit of the continent model is that you are not picking a partner based on trying to collect the most points for what is good. Rather, you are paying attention to what is good for you and contrasting this with that which is good, but does not actually count for much with you specifically.
For example, if what you want is a relationship in which you
do not have to worry about where your partner is
are left alone to do work for long stretches of time
reliably see your partner for dinner
are not pushed in ways that make you uncomfortable
then a woman being the world’s number one ranked sex expert will not count that much for the kind of life that you, specifically, want to be living.
The beautiful color of your eyes may not count for much to a person who is blind.
Inheriting a large estate from your father may not count for much to a person who wants minimal interaction with her in-laws.
Your exquisite taste in scotch may not count for much to a person who abstains from alcohol.
Your really fancy finance job may not count for much to somebody who values work-life balance.
Having a million Twitter followers may not count for much to somebody who values privacy.
Your brilliance at winning arguments may not count for much to somebody who values harmony and wants to minimize conflict.
Your busy travel schedule may not count for much to somebody who really wants a partner who is always with them.
Having impressive social connections may not count for much to someone who is introverted or wants to get ahead on their own hustle.
Your four houses may not count for much to someone who prefers a minimalist lifestyle.
Your exciting conference schedule may not count for much to someone who prefers to stay at home with their dog.
Your impressive programming skills may not count for much to a person who has no interest in understanding what you are doing or why it’s impressive.
Your twenty-seven lizards may not count for much to somebody who has seventeen cats.
Your three degrees in literature may not count for much to somebody who thinks that fancy rhetoric is just fancy lies.
Your minimalist lifestyle may not count for much who has a large book collection, a sick media setup, and above-average health-maintenance needs.
The above list is kind of funny, but it is meant to illustrate that the things that you may find the most valuable about and for yourself may actually not count for much to another person, depending on what they themselves are looking for.
It is also important to note that this does not mean that you should change what you are doing, or that they should change their preferences (It is not clear if owning twenty-seven lizards is better than owning seventeen cats). What this means, though, is that if the cats plan to eat the lizards, a co-habitation situation where this may happen is not the right shape of situation to be in!
The above list plays with the supposed objectivity of “good traits” and reveals just how subjective a person’s preferences really are. Asking to find the “best person” therefore is an incoherent question. Asking to find a person you love a lot who wants to build the same thing you do with the same materials, is a much more coherent question.
We can use the above list to make a few additional points. It is important to:
Not overestimate how much work you are doing for another person, without checking if your pegs fit into their holes (A square peg doesn’t do much for a round hole).
Pay attention to how intimacy is expected to grow (or not!) based on if you are each wanting to work on the things that matter to each other. If you put more effort into picking out houses, and they want to live a minimalist lifestyle, then this new effort will not translate into increased intimacy, and you can expect your intimacy to either decrease or remain the same, but not grow.
Be as honest with yourself as you can be about what about yourself you expect not to change, and what about your partner you expect to change. Most people are biased in the other direction—they assume that they are more flexible and are doing more to work around their partner, than their partner is doing for them. Being honest with yourself about what you really do not plan to give up on (and what it would take for you to), is a good starting point when thinking about what you do not plan on changing about yourself for another person.
The continent model lets you see more clearly what weighing system you have been implicitly using, and in making the weighing system more explicit, allows you to edit it as you see fit. Many people implicitly weigh very highly one of these above all else:
Similar intelligence level
Similar social class
The different continents allow you to consider the above factors, as well as many other factors, and to dive deeper into learning how you want them to be interacting with each other to build the life you want over time. It takes a static analysis (checklist) and turns it into a dynamic analysis (continents developing over time).
You can build different things on the different continents, and they interact with each other in different ways. Some continents you can use to develop or unlock other continents.
The continent list above is straightforward enough (though each deserves its own set of probing questions to figure out compatibility on each). Below is a more complicated list that describes more hard-to-explain continents, and an explainer of what things can be unlocked with each.
Even if a partner seems very compatible, missing key continents from the below list can sink a relationship.
Sexual compatibility (You can rejuvenate your energy by having the right kind of sexual energy exchange with your partner. You can go out in public and make things happen “through the power of love” by having a warm intimate spheres others can enter, collaborate in, and benefit from.)
Social endorsement (You can lean on others for support for your relationship, and thus solve problems that would otherwise be insurmountable with just your joint pooled resources. When others are stakeholders in the survival of the relationship, the kind of support and advice they give has a different, higher quality texture.)
Mutual respect (You are inspired to be a better person to keep up with your partner or help your partner with their problems and projects. You choose not to stagnate, thus disrespecting your partner’s time and efforts. You respect that if they fail to get what they need and want out of their relationship, love is not a good enough reason for them to stay. You take seriously their goals and ambitions, notice when your partner is slipping, and are able to be cutting when your partner starts to lose faith in themself.)
Intentional monitoring (You track things that are important to your partner, and important for you to know about your partner. You notice when they are not sleeping, when get sick, when they are fragile, when they are breaking. You make a commitment to keep getting better at this over time. You pay attention when they tell you what they need, and prioritize getting them what they need. You track if you are becoming better at being a good partner to them over time.
Shared ontology (You are both inside your mutual ‘perimeter of lies.’ You both endeavor to increase each other’s navigational information, such that you both can make maximally intelligent maneuvers.)
Net-measured light versus dark (You both have a compass towards light. You both work to keep the net balance of the relationship more towards light, than to darkness. You do not allow either of your darkness to extinguish the light in either of you.)
All-in or Mostly-in mentality (You both have a higher stake in working on what you have, than on abandoning it and building somewhere else. You both have good enough reasons to stay, for either the uniqueness of the relationship, or the depth of the relationship. You are not testing each other.)
Enhanced exploration (You feel like your mind is feeling sharper, your goodness is nobler, your love lovelier. You feel you are better with your partner, than when you are alone. Your imagination is more creative. You feel more and more free to share your feelings and ideas, versus less free, as the relationship develops. You feel like you can run experiments, of holding things tighter and looser, and seeing what happens. If these things are not happening, you pivot to encourage them to happen, in yourself and for your partner.)
Safety (You feel like your partner will be there for you. This is the, “take a bullet for them” feeling. Do you feel like they will protect you? Do you feel like you get to have fulfilling and deep relaxation, because you know they have your back? Do you feel like they will not suddenly abandon you?)
Spelunking (You can go into each other’s darkness and hold each other there. You don’t tell your partner to “just get over” their past, or assume that they should be able to if they only cared enough. You get better at holding more of your partner, and instead of assuming their darkness will just inevitably be the same part of them, build ropes over time that they can use to climb up)
I am eager to take suggestions for publication of a more thorough list.
Unlike a checklist, where you sometimes withhold certain benefits of a relationship from your partner unless you see certain things on the table, or withhold going all-in unless you have enough checkmarks, the continent model gives you much more flexibility for figuring out both the ideal shape of the relationship as it stands today, and gives you pathways for developing it in the near future.
You can use the continent model whether you are scoping a person out for a fourth date, or if you have been married for 20 years.
This continent model is not to be used to check if you are being treated right, or to check if you should be giving more or less in a relationship—though you can indeed use it to figure out if you are not getting what you need to thrive.
Rather, it paints a more general picture of what there even is to give and what there even is to get, that you are getting subsets of. You can then check with yourself if this is the right subset for you.
These continents each have a theme, but each theme is not a “yes-or-no” question, but rather a set of skills to be developed, or handshakes to be talked about and agreed on. Each continent does not have a “finish line,” but rather a directionality towards the specific interests of the couple.
The goal is not to reach some goal, but rather for you to have the kind of intimacy you want to be having.
Not everybody wants the same thing from a relationship, and even within a relationship, each party may have different interests.
Couples also do not start with the same established continents. In this way, there is no “ordering of acquisition” that I am aware of. Some couples start with safety and social endorsement. Some couples start with sexual compatibility and enhanced exploration.
The way you build the other continents from your starting continents varies with each couple. You can have sexual compatibility and an all-in mentality, but may need to build out various aspects of safety quickly as you go, or you will hit some rocks.
Each of these continents has many skills that go along with it, and they also play with the other continents in all kinds of twisty ways.
Safety may include anger management, as well as money management. Sexual compatibility may include regular mutual arousal, but can also include using sex for all kinds of energy healing and safety work. Having superpowers in some areas can offset deficiencies in other areas, but often at least one partner notices when the deficient areas are ignored, versus gaining slow but steady improvement. Enhanced exploration can be used to develop safety. Social endorsement can be used to develop enhanced exploration. Mutual respect can lead to an all-in mentality.
The difference between the continent model and the checklist model, is that the checklist looks for qualities in your partner. It does not say anything about the qualities in yourself, or the way that you engage with your partner. In the continent model, for each continent, there are ways you yourself can develop, ways you can encourage your partner to develop, and ways you can develop the intimacy between you both. You can also use the continent model to make more robust ‘checks’ on your partner. For example, if your relationship does not have mutual respect, and all attempts to improve it by learning skills yourself, teaching skills to your partner, and trying to improve the dynamic are not working, then this is a robust and large hint that something is wrong.
This model is in early stages. I started developing it after researching how couples deepen their relationships, at different stages of their relationships, and from different starting points.
Feedback is appreciated.