Emotional Intelligence, Relationships

Theoretical versus applied… relationships??

Someone once explained the difference between theoretical mathematics and physics, and applied mathematics and physics, as the difference between assumptions and concrete knowledge. In theoretical math/physics, there are hypotheses that are fitted with variables based on assumptions, to see if any of them shore up the equation. When one set of assumptions fails, another is fitted into the equation to see if *it* works instead. (I’m neither a mathematician more a physicist, so my understanding of this process is suspect at best; I like to say, “I have two degrees in Not Good At Math”.)

In applied math/physics, however, you can’t have equations based on unknown or assumed variables, however; you HAVE to solve for the unknowns in order to apply the equation. Engineering, for example, requires all variable be known before anything is built because if an *assumption* is introduced that later proves to be wrong, things go to hell in a handbasket very very swiftly. Matthew once told me the legend of the Engineering Iron Ring: engineers signed off on a bridge once that was built on faulty equations; it fell down, and lives were lost. (Wikipedia repeats that legend, but dispels it as the root of the Iron Ring itself.) The Iron Rings are meant to symbolize engineers’ civic responsibility to remove as much risk as possible by making sure they do NOT build on unknowns or assumed principles. They MUST solve for the unknowns before putting people’s lives and well-being at risk.

Unsurprisingly, it is no different when building relationships, interpersonal bridges between separate lives. Or at least, it *should* be no different, but in truth, we make assumptions and interpretations then build wildly-creative things on top of those assumptive variables ALL THE TIME. I often say that, as much as Nature abhors a vacuum, the human mind hates one even more so when there are gaps in our understanding of other people, for example, we have two choices when it comes to solving for the unknown in the equation: we can either seek direct information from the source (which, while only as good as the source’s self-awareness, is still at least coming from the source), or we can circumvent the courage and intimacy required in connecting with another human being and PRESUME we know what’s going on. We assume an understanding that is based on OUR experiences and expectations, on what WE ourselves would do or want in that situation… and then we make decisions and choose courses of actions based on our SELF-sourced assumptions, and continue on.

One of my counselling instructors in grad school referred to this as “sock puppet conversations”. Instead of taking the risk of having conversations with people *outside* our heads, we create “sock puppets” to stand in for those other people in our internal conversations, and pretend what we’re getting is externally-validated data while ignoring the fact we’re talking to the mental equivalent of our own hand.

We fail to effectively solve for the unknown, because we make assumptions instead. We think they’re safer choices because they spare us from having to interact in potentially vulnerable or intimate ways with another human being, but what we’re doing is swapping risk up front for risk later on if (when) we then proceed on a course of decision/action based on incomplete or incorrect or just plain unknown information… information that might prove critical to the success of whatever follows, information that might put at risk the lives and well-being of the people involved in the relationship.

People who take actions on my behalf without first ascertaining if those actions are (a) what I want, or (b) valid or welcome actions in the moment or situation at large, are engaging in theoretical relationships; they have failed to solve the unknowns in the equation (i.e., my *actual* needs and wants). Even if what they’re doing is intended to be nice and helpful, if it’s the wrong thing at the wrong time then it’s still an extremely risky venture, like trying to pave the road across a bridge when you haven’t finished building all the valley-spanning underpinnings first. At that point, when someone is acting without knowledge of what is actually appropriate to ALL parties in the situation, it becomes apparent that perhaps what they’re offering is not a bridge to another human being, but rather a free-standing platform that is all about them, what THEY have to offer, how good THEY are at taking care of other people (without first ascertaining if care-taking is wanted, or if their version of care-taking is appropriate to the situation or other individuals). It’s more often at times like that about THEM assuaging their own anxieties ? that much becomes clear because if they were LESS anxious about the situation, it would have been more likely they would have come seeking directly-sourced information in lieu of assumptions.

Let me provide an example of this kind of interaction from a too-common communication pattern I see a lot:

“I don’t know what’s going on with you, but you must be angry at me, so I’m just going to give you the cold shoulder/stonewall you/leave you alone/be mad back at you until you get it out of your system/tell me what’s wrong/treat me better.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

A subtler, more insidious version of this script within a family relationship system might look a lot like this:

“I don’t know if this is actually what you want, but I presume as a parent it’s my duty to take care of my (even adult) kids, so I’m going to do all these things for you that you didn’t explicitly request.”

[statement of ignorance/unknowing] [assumption/presumption] [decision/action based on presumption]

(And here we have the option of taking a massive detour into the toxicity of expectations tied to something I’ll call “transactional affection”, and also tied to boundary issues ? as implicit expectations so often are ? but I’m trying to keep things to one hot mess of a topic at a time, so I’ll try to remember to come back to transactions in a later post.)

What’s happening in these kinds of scenarios is that someone is creating a sock puppet of you, and having a relationship with the theoretical-you they have created: a theoretical-you that looks and functions as *THEY* assume you will work, not guaranteeably how you yourself work. That is a theoretical relationship. The bridge’s underpinnings are built on unsolved-for equations with potentially whopping huge gaps in provable, factual, reliably-sourced information (again, assuming the source is, in fact even remotely reliable, and yes, there’s irony there).

In applied relationships, the principle remains to solve for the unknown through more effective processes. Optimally this involves confirming assumptions against the source BEFORE engaging in any decision-making or resulting actions tied to potentially-erroneous assumptions. It involves building supportive processes for vulnerability and intimacy, for willing engagement, and curiosity that invites and encourages one’s partner to share their own inside information. The addage (as I so often reiterate to many of my clients) goes , “You cannot make informed decisions without *information*.” And in differentiating between theoretical and applied relationships with real OTHER PEOPLE, it’s crucial to let go of the thinking that unconfirmed assumptions are qualified information. They are a form of information, absolutely, but not qualified. Qualifiable, absolutely… but only through the effort of engaging the other person(s) for exploration and confirmation.

In truth, almost every relationship will fall somewhere between theoretical and applied status. What’s important to remember is that we’re NOT dealing with sock puppets, and there’s an inherent danger in making assumptions just because they feel safer in the moment. Intimacy is rooted in vulnerabilities, and vulnerabilities mean taking chances, including the chance that our assumption does not, in fact, solve for the equation in front of us. Sharing information is a form of vulnerability; stepping aside from our assumptions to be open to learning something new, something outside our presumptions, something we may even dislike learning (about ourselves or the other person), and being willing to deal with the implications of having and understanding the information we have shared. Relationship underpinnings are understandings of valid and viable information, sought and shared, verified or validated within the context of other things we know about the relationship and its participants. I’m trying to think of any other branch of applied math or physics where the known data set needs to be revalidated or recalibrated semi-regularly, but with any evolutionary system (humans and relationships both exemplifying such), and I’ve just had friends in the field tell me through FB that generally in mathematics at least, there’s not revalidating of known data, but it happens all the time in both theoretical and applied physics, so… this may be the point at which at least my mathematics analogy falls apart 🙂

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