Over the years, LessWrong has hosted some pretty great advice threads, including Best Textbooks on Every Subject, Boring Advice Repository, Useful Concepts Repository, and Best Software For Every Need.
Since relationships are extremely core to people’s happiness and well-being, seems worth an attempt at collecting good advice on this topic too. I’ve been unsure how to structure this thread, what follows is my guest guess, we’ll see how it goes.
How to contribute
This is a thread of advice specifically about being in a romantic/sexual relationship. Probably a bunch of it applies to platonic relationships too, but a narrow focus seemed better. Also, the thread is focused on BEING in the relationship rather than seeking out a relationship.
Please contribute content in one of the following forms if you want it added to the main post.
An argument, idea, model, or concept.
A verified story containing actions and outcome, e.g. “I held off breaking up with my girlfriend for six months and this made things 10x awkward and worse”. Longer stories seem good too but probably won’t be added to the core post text.
A link to or quotes from an external resource like a book, blog, or lecture; optionally with a review and/or summary
A combination of the above
I’ve seeded this post with a mix of advice, experience, and resources from myself and a few friends, plus various good content I found on LessWrong through the Relationships tag. The starting content is probably not the very best content possible (if it was, why make this a thread?), but I wanted to launch with something. Don’t anchor too hard on what I thought to include! Likely as better stuff is submitted, I’ll move some stuff out of the post text and into comments to keep the post from becoming absurdly long.
I think relationship advice is hard and also likely some of the best advice will be controversial. And also, of course, “consider reversing all advice you hear”. I think the “final” version of this page should contain diverse and conflicting advice.
Please disagree with advice you think is wrong! (It probably makes sense to add notes/links about differing views next to advice items in the main text, so worth the effort to call out stuff you disagree with.)
Ultimately, readers should apply their own judgment about what they ought to be trying.
How to submit content
You can leave a comment on this post. If you want to be anonymous, you can make an anonymous account, OR
Submit your content into this anonymous Google form
The main way to contribute to the post is the above two methods (commenting and using the Google form); however, the text of this post is publicly editable (just click that link). This is so that if the main text of the post needs editing (e.g. to update with valuable content), and the original compiler (me) isn’t on top of it, other people can jump in and improve it. I’m likely to pay attention to this in the next two weeks (starting June 20th, 2022) and less after that.
This is a link post for an evolving advice thread. Not sure how often I’ll update the content to match. Click through for the latest collection of advice!
Introspection & Communication are Essential
There are many traits I like to have in a partner, but there are two which I think are essential and without which any relationship will really suffer:
Each person has to be able to know what’s going on inside of them (wants/desires/ emotions/etc) and be able to communicate about it. I think my good relationships have all had that and my bad ones have lacked it in some way.
You can actually be a bit meta about it. It’s okay if you don’t know what you want or how you feel, so long as you know that you don’t know and can communicate that fact. “Hey, sorry, I’m not sure yet what I’m after or if I want that; we can try and maybe I’ll find out my preferences.” Sentences like that are good.
A relationship is fundamentally a negotiated agreement
The defining feature of a negotiation is that it’s an agreement either party can veto – so if the agreement is something you’d prefer not being in, don’t be in it. The important thing about this is you shouldn’t anchor on what “expectations of relationships are supposed to be like” and assume that’s the only package on offer. Figure out the range of agreements that you’d be interested in and see if they overlap with the other person’s, if they do, great! You have a good negotiated agreement.
At the beginning of a recent relationship, we just listed out all the things that we potentially wanted from the relationship. Each of us had a moderately long list, but there wasn’t perfect overlap – and that was fine, we were both happy to have a relationship built on the things we both wanted and seek the other elements elsewhere.
Balancing Each Other’s Wants & Needs
Avoid the Typical-Mind Fallacy
Honestly, being a good partner is so much just about overcoming the typical mind-fallacy: learning to model how your partner is different from you and how they want to be treated. Get to the point where you can move from the golden rule (treat them how you want to be treated) to the platinum rule (treat them how they want to be treated).
Each partner needs to maintain their sense of self
One of the big challenges of an intimate relationship is you have a merging of “selves” to some extent or other, and the challenge is for each person to neither have their own sense of self overwhelmed, nor overwhelm the other person’s sense of self. Even while you’re caring about the other person’s wants, you need to not forget yours. Even while you’re tending to your own needs, don’t forget the others. This is challenging if the people in a relationship have unequal skill/comfort in advocating for themselves and/or felt need to please the other. (related: Leaving people with more agency)
Bring the real you to the relationship
If you have to hide or pretend or cut off some part of you or whatever for the sake of the relationship, because if they knew how you really are or what you really want they’d break it off or run away, or disapprove. Then you already do not have that relationship; what you are doing is manipulating them into relating to a fake you, i.e. you’re hurting both of you (yourself by self-constraining, and them by robbing them of their agency and free choice).
(And yes, many relationships need time to grow, the claim here is not that you never hold back, sometimes a relationship is a sapling that can grow to take the weight of something and you’re holding off so as not to prematurely kill potential. But like, that kind of thing should have known stop conditions.)
Leave Someone Better Than You Found Them (excerpts from blog post)
That’s the “campsite” rule, coined by Dan Savage and practiced by responsible lovers everywhere. It’s a pledge to leave people in as good a state (physically and emotionally) as you found them.
There are clearly many ways to leave people worse. Not respecting boundaries, giving people unreasonable expectations and poor/inconsiderate communication are a few. While the importance of not leaving people worse cannot be understated—I’d like to consider what “better” would actually look like.
Leaving people with more agency
If our experience someone leaves with more agency—more of an ability to use their voice—I consider that a win. Agency is like a muscle that we grow through things like speaking up and expressing what we want, and don’t want.
Sharing your desires with a new lover is often a courageous act. It can be scary, because we may have been shamed for those desires in the past. When we accept our lover’s desires with open arms, it will not only feel great, but it will make it a tiny bit easier for them to own those desires with their next lover. By repeatedly welcoming someone’s desires—especially the ones that carry shame—we can help those people learn to accept themselves in a way that creates a new kind of safety and trust as they move through the world.
Celebrating the Word “No”
On some level, we’re all people-pleasers. We want to be a yes to everything our partner wants because we don’t want to be a party pooper, but that’s not always what’s true for us on a deeper level. Sometimes we’re just a “no” and we need to honor that. What a great lover can do is not just listen to our “no” but encourage it.
Replacing “Yes” with “Fuck Yes”
One of the side-effects of creating a culture inside the relationship that welcomes the word “no” is you begin to raise your standards for “yes”. For example—here’s something I often share with new lovers. I encourage us both to let go of “yes” meaning “I’m okay with it”, especially when it comes to things like pleasure, our bodies and sex. Instead, “yes” now becomes “fuck yes” and we only move forward with something when both parties are fully on board.
Leaving Yourself Better Than You Found You
One of the beautiful things about doing all this for someone else is you get to experience those lessons as well. Even though I’ve been “doing this for a while” I still struggle with everything mentioned in this essay. I say “yes” when I really mean “no”, I don’t completely own my desires and I settle for less than “fuck yes” all the time.
Re ““yes” now becomes “fuck yes” and we only move forward with something when both parties are fully on board.”
I think this is good practice for relationships in early stages, and doesn’t always make sense for later on. In particular, if you want to continue having sex over decades of marriage, expecting “fuck yes” every time will mean that at some point you’re having little or no sex with your spouse. And I think the lower-interest partner should be free to decide they prefer to have sex they feel lukewarm about, just as they should feel free to watch a movie their partner loves even though they’re not that into it.
Honesty & Communication
Collaborative relationships require honesty
A relationship should be collaborative optimization over the wellbeing of people in the relationship, and the thing about that is that if you’re collaborating, you really shouldn’t be hiding pertinent information for the other person. That’s kinda adversarial.
One of my greatest feelings of guilt is from my first serious relationship when I was 18. The girl I was dating was really into me and told me she wanted us to get married a month after we started dating. I thought that was kinda crazy – we were 18, and also I knew she wasn’t the one. But I didn’t say that, because I didn’t want to damage the relationship. I let her think we might get married for two years, and I’m pretty ashamed of that. It wasn’t right to her.
You can be honest about feelings you’re conflicted about
I was once very unhappy at a coworker but didn’t feel like I should bring it up because I wasn’t sure if I endorsed my feelings. Someone gave me advice they got from the Radical Honesty movement: I should share everything I’m feeling, both the first-order emotion of anger and the second-order emotion of being conflicted over that anger.
Use a “Dating Doc” to set relationship expectations
This is related more to courtship/relationship initiation, but I think pretty relevant to communicating expectations/desires/intent in relationships is the new trend of people writing up “Dating Docs” that describe what they’re after in a relationship. Here are some examples people were ok with sharing:
a Twitter thread with some examples.
Reveal Culture (and the other “cultures” too) [blog post]
I have things to say about the Ask/Guess/Tell Cultures model, and an addition/amendment to propose: Reveal Culture.
Cultures are built on shared underlying assumptions.
Ask cultures don’t work if you’re missing the part that says “it’s totally 100% okay to say no.” The conversational strategies associated with ask cultures require that shared assumption. All guess cultures, too, have shared assumptions at their core (although perhaps very different norms about how specific information is communicated). As do reveal cultures.
These assumptions, laid out below, have to do with what you can trust in the other person. To the extent possible, #1 in each case has to do with the other person’s needs/wants, and #2 has to do with your own needs.
Ask Culture assumptions of trust
“If you need or want something, I trust you to ask for it.”
“If I make a request that doesn’t make sense for you, I trust you to refuse it.”
Guess Culture assumptions of trust
“I trust that you will give me appropriate hints about your needs and wants and I trust myself to notice & interpret them.”
“I trust you to notice my subtle cues (indirect language and nonverbals) to what I may need or what, and to provide or offer it if possible.”
(Many Guess-based cultures perhaps have other assumptions that are founded in part on the above two, such as “if you ask me directly for something, I assume that it’s either of grave importance or that you’re expecting that the answer is an easy ‘yes’.”)
Reveal Culture assumptions of trust
“When you share information with me, I trust that you’re doing so sincerely and because you think it will be helpful for my model of you as a person and/or my ability to navigate this situation.”
“When I share information with you, I am trusting that even if it is difficult for you to hear, it won’t overwhelm you—that you’ll be able to process it and make sense of it, possibly with help from me or others in our community.”
I think that if you can’t non-naively make these assumptions a decent amount of the time, then you don’t have a foundation for a Reveal-based culture. If, in a given situation, for a given piece of information, you can’t actually trust the #2 thing, then you don’t share that information.
If you want honesty, make sure not to punish it!
If you want people to best honest with you, it’s really important that you not punish them at all for being honest! This can be really hard the truth reflects a reality we don’t like. But suppose your partner wants time apart from you, it’s better to know that than to have them be afraid to bring it up, then resentfully continue to spend time with you and the relationship degrading.
It’s hard though. My best guess it to always thank someone genuinely for being honest with you.
Steer towards forbidden conversations (excerpts)
I once thought it was a really good idea to sacrifice six months worth of two people’s happiness in order to postpone an awkward break-up...Our relationship grew more strained. My affection started fading, so I faked more affection than I had, and this soured the affection that remained. She sensed that something was wrong, and made increasingly desperate attempts to connect. I grew disgusted with her inability to see through the charade even as I kept it going, as she struggled to heal a relationship that I insisted wasn’t broken while subconsciously signalling that it was...What followed was one of the most difficult conversations I’ve ever shared. I broke up with her, and I can assure you that the pain and awkwardness that I hoped to avoid with my clever plan was realized tenfold.
Forbidden Conversations are those conversations that you just can’t have, because they’re too awkward. Think of a specific person close to you—a parent, a partner, a boss. Is there something you’re hiding from them? Is there a conversation topic that you steer away from? Is there a revelation that you flinch to consider them learning? It is that mental flinch which demarcates a forbidden conversation.
One of the easiest ways to become more agentic is to train yourself to steer towards the forbidden conversations, rather than away from them.
Steering towards forbidden conversations is difficult, but I might be able to help by providing a few pieces of information.
The first is empirical: after having a great many Forbidden Conversations on purpose, I can happily tell you that they have only ever served me well. Having these conversations was very difficult, at first: my hindbrain would scream that the conversations were BAD, and pump my veins full of adrenaline while my mind searched frantically for excuses to delay the conversation until some other time. I’d have to manually force the words (“let’s talk about our relationship,” or something) through my lips.
However, in almost every case, having these conversations was not only less-bad-than-expected. These conversations proved actively good. I’ve spent the last few years actively steering towards the taboo parts of conversations, and this has served me well.
Non-Violent Communication (NVC): List of Books
These are all almost the same book. They talk about the same thing (NVC) and the best is one of the top two. Don’t let the name scare you, it’s basically what you are looking for in communication (despite sounding like the opposite of what you want). If I had to pick one book that made everything all make sense, it’s this one concept. If you are looking for the keys, look no further than here. If the name screams “useless” then hopefully it’s time to wonder why I would suggest a book that sounds useless. Things that now make sense: Guilt, Anger, Upset, Resentment, Apology, Forgiveness, Sadness, How to talk about your interpersonal problems, how to meet your own needs and so much more. If you only read one book, read this one. I have probably spent 75+ hours on learning NVC this year, independent of the time spent thinking about it and practicing it in my life. – Books I read 2017 - Part 1. Relationships, Learning
Summaries of Non-Violent Communication (NVC)
Don’t use silence to communicate if you can avoid it
Ghosting (or distance generally) might save you an awkward conversation and potentially avoid someone reacting badly, but if there’s any chance you’ll continue to see the person again, you’re just trading the avoidance of some upfront awkwardness for much more ongoing awkwardness. Decide if you want that. Preferably even if you decided to deescalate, you only entered into a relationship with someone who could take no/de-escalation well. If so, say something when you want to disengage. This is considerate and preserves what remains of the relationship, and will make it much easier to change your mind in the future if you ever want to.
One of the things that has been pretty useful for me in life, is a general heuristic of realizing that conflict in relationships is usually net positive. (It depends a bit on the exact type of conflict, but works as a very rough heuristic.) I find it pretty valuable too, if I’m in a relationship, whether it’s a working relationship, a romantic relationship, or a friendship, to pay a good amount of attention to where conflicts could happen in that relationship. And generally, I choose to steer towards those conflicts, to talk about them and seize them as substantial opportunities.
I think there are two reasons for this.
First, if startups should fail fast, so should relationships. The number of people you could have relationships with is much greater than the number of people that you will have relationships with. So there is a selection problem here, and in order to get as much data as you want, I think going through relationships quickly and figuring out whether they will break or not is quite valuable.
Second, I’ve found that having past successful conflicts in a relationship is a very strong predictor for that relationship going well more generally, and for my ability to commit to the relationship and get things done within it. In fact, I find it a better predictor of my capacity to coordinate with that person than the length of the relationship, the degree to which we even enjoy spending time with each other, or other obvious indicators.
Facilitated mediation is great! Have a low bar to gets some
If you’re having a gnarly conflict, get mediation. Even if it’s just a trusted friend, having a third party present can help keep strong emotions from overwhelming the conversations by holding space, and the held space can help each party feel listened to and more comfortable expressing their feelings.
Don’t think that your relationship has to be in a really bad place before you get couple’s therapy – heck, do it proactively even when your relationship is going well!
Questions to induce a breakup
In the spirit of the classic 36 Questions to Fall In Love, here are some high variance, negative expectation value questions to answer with your loved one.
<infohazard> LINK </infohazard>
I seriously don’t recommend doing these. I made up these questions by trying to generate questions that have the potential to be permanently harmful to a relationship via opening up jarring and awkward conversation on topics where people are sensitive in ways that are hard for their partner to predict, so that their partners can hurt them and not know what to do to comfort them. In my experience, these questions are like Russian roulette: most of the time they aren’t very painful, and they’re kind of thrilling to ask and answer, but then one out of every couple of them is pretty hurtful.
(A while ago, I proposed question 14 on a fifth date with someone who I was really excited about dating; she told me her sentence but didn’t want to hear mine. And then we did one through five the other day. Other people have declined to try them out.)
I think this would probably be a bad idea, but I’d be extremely amused if someone went through this whole list with their partner and they both answered honestly the whole time.
Commenter: Why are you sharing this?
Poster: I think it’s funny, and many of my friends agreed, and I thought it was reasonably unlikely that people would make themselves unhappy with these, except by their own conscious choices which I felt were their responsibility
Relationship [Re]Negotiation / Planning
Have an explicit negotiation at some point early on
There’s a lot to be said for guessing games in courtship, they’re a lot of fun – intrigue, romance, uncertainty – but at some point I think there ought to be an explicit discussion of what each party wants. I don’t know if it should be the 1st “date”, but probably before the 5th (by which time you’re getting pretty invested) where you figure out what each party is there for.
Also! This shouldn’t be a one-time final thing. I suggest people have periodic check-ins where they reflect on how they feel things are going.
Quite a few people I know have regular scheduled “relationship check-ins” to raise any problems and make changes as they feel are warranted.
You’re not stuck with your relationship in one form forever!
You’re allowed to change your mind! Unlike other kinds of “contracts” where there are commitment periods of months to years, I think in relationships a person should be able update to say “I want something different” and then ask for it immediately. That said, try to be moderately sure about things before you move in together, get married, have a kid, etc.
Re “Unlike other kinds of “contracts” where there are commitment periods of months to years, I think in relationships a person should be able update to say “I want something different” and then ask for it immediately”
I’m not clear on whether this is meant to apply to marriage—I read it as including that. I think this is very bad advice for marriage, where the whole point is that you’re not renegotiating all the time. I don’t think people should be stuck forever (living in a city you no longer want to live in, being poly or mono when you don’t want to anymore, being in the relationship at all, etc) but in a marriage I think the process for renegotiating should be slower and more serious than “you’re allowed to change your mind whenever and ask for it immediately.”
Take time apart
Sometimes to get perspective on your feelings about something, you need some distance from that thing. Wise people I’ve known have taken time apart before making big decisions (e.g. deciding to escalate a relationship). At my work, we always ask prospective hires to take a week (or month) off to reflect before accepting a job offer.
This matters. Other people in our lives affect how we think (for better or worse), so definitely test being apart periodically.
Premortem (aka Murphyjitsu) is “a process for bulletproofing your strategies and plans”. (CFAR handbook). The idea is to first think how your plans can fail, then brainstorm ways to prevent these failures. For a deeper introduction please see Murphyjitsu section in the CFAR handbook.
My partner and I read the CFAR handbook together. We decided to do a premortem on our relationship. This might have sounded awkward (“Let’s brainstorm how our relationship can fail”), but keeping the end goal—improving likelihood of success—helped to avoid this pitfall. Since then we did 3 premortems and converged to a following procedure...(go read rest of post)
Share emotions while still taking responsibility for them
Not every relationship needs to have lots of emotional intimacy, but it’s personally one of my favorite things. I think something key allowing me (someone with strong emotions) to have this in my relationships is establishing that me expressing a strong emotion doesn’t mean that my emotion is a “problem” that my partner is responsible for solving, including if the strong emotion relates to them.
Someone once gave me the useful metaphor of imagining that your strong emotion is a small doll (like a velotrilquism dummy?). If you pull it out and throw it at someone else, they’ll go “aaaahh!”, but if you pull it out and place it on your own lap, you can show it to them without making it something they necessarily need to handle, you might even offer them to let them pet it. (Maybe the original metaphor was less weird and I’m just misremembering it?) You’re saying “I’m showing you this important, vulnerable aspect of who I am, but I’m not making it any more your problem than you want it to be.”
Resources I think have helped me with this are Acceptance & Commitment Therapy and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy – both good for taking strong emotions as object – and Non-Violent Communication, good for taking ownership of your feelings.
Letting Others Be Vulnerable (excerpts)
Social psychology tells us that relationships deepen with iterated sharing, as both sides open up and become more vulnerable. But what does all of that really entail? What counts as vulnerable? And when it happens, what does the whole deepening process feel like, to the two people in the relationship?
I think the first piece of the puzzle has to do with our internal models of others, i.e. the picture we have of them in our heads. The models we have are largely going to be based off of the edges the other person shows, as those are the most visible pieces of information. We’re often incentivized to improve the models other people have us because said model shapes how others treat us. Their model will determine the predictions they make, the recommendations they give, and how they behave. The more accurate it is, we might reason, the better they can help us out.
One reason to share more, then, is that we’re trying to give the other party a better picture of what we’re “really” like, so that they can interact with us in more relevant ways. On top of this, I think we also like to feel validated—knowing that someone else has a grasp of all the things in our head can make us feel less alone.
When we start to share information about ourselves, though, it’s likely not going to be stuff that makes us look good. Our best qualities are likely already on display at our edges. The stuff we keep beneath, then, is disproportionately likely to be the stuff we don’t want other people to see (at least not immediately). Herein lies our fears, our insecurities, our prejudices, and our perversions. It’s going to be things that are more likely to cause disagreement, to make people like us less.
This is the stuff we were perhaps hesitant to share at first because it likely didn’t help contribute to a harmonious interaction.
It’s strong, sometimes dark, stuff. For the person revealing such information, there’s a lot of trust involved. Vulnerability, I think, has a lot to do with how damning the information you’re providing is. When we share something that the other person could use to hurt us, we’re demonstrating that we trust them. Though they could, we don’t think they will. It might still be scary (after all, there is still potential risk involved), but we’re willing to swallow that fear.
From a feelings-based perspective, opening up can feel bonding. If you open up and the other party is receptive and acknowledging, you feel comforted. There’s a feeling of security when you know that the person on the other side is willing to listen and accept whatever it is you tell them.
But for the receiver to be able to be accepting is where I think the second difficulty lies, and I think this part of the share/receive model of vulnerability has been given less attention.
End of Relationships
Be prepared for a breakup
For a relationship of any duration or seriousness, it can be well worth having a conversation up front about what would happen if the relationship ended. You particularly might want to have discussed this if you’re living in the same house, working in the same work place, or have a lot of friends in common. Following a breakup, you might want a lot of space from your new ex and this might take some planning.
After a breakup, maybe get a bunch of space from each other
I don’t know how broadly this advice universalizes, but my experience is that when a relationship ends, I need to grieve it, and my brain gets really confused if I’m still hanging around the person I just broke up with. I think it’s nice and good and fine to be friends with an ex, but you it might take 1-6 months apart before you can do that.
My big experience of failing to do this was with after my first major relationship ended I continued to be close with my ex for 6+ months. This basically super prolonged my grieving and made it really hard to move on. So I certainly don’t recommend it.
I was very recently (3 weeks now) in a relationship that lasted for 5.5 years. My partner had been fantastic through all those years and we were suffering no conflict, no fights, no strain or tension...It was quite a surprise when my partner broke up with me one Wednesday evening…
Strategies (in order of importance) [abridged]
1. Decide you don’t want to get back in the relationship. Decide that it is over and given the opportunity, you will not get back with this person. Until you can do this, it is unlikely that you will get over it. It’s hard to ignore an impulse that you agree with wholeheartedly.
2. Talk to other people about the good things that came of your break-up. (This can also help you arrive at #1, not wanting to get back together) I speculate that benefits from this come from three places. First, talking about good thinks makes you notice good things and talking in a positive attitude makes you feel positive. Second, it re-emphasizes to your brain that losing your significant other does not mean losing your social support network.
3. Create a social support system. Identify who in your social network can still be relied on as a confidant and/or a neutral listener. You would be surprised at who still cares about you. In my breakup, my primary confidant was my ex’s cousin, who also happens to be my housemate and close friend.
4. Intentionally practice differentiation. One of the most painful parts of a break up is that so much of your sense-of-self is tied into your relationship. You will be basically rebuilding your sense of self. Depending on the length and the committed-ness of the relationship, you may be rebuilding it from the ground up. Think of this as an opportunity. You can rebuild it an any way you desire.
Stub. Needs more content.
How to Have Sex on Purpose [blog post]
(the most consent-relevant parts are further into the body)
A moment to talk about consent. Consent in BDSM is a really big deal, because the stuff we do would be torture without consent. It’s sad that it’s any different for sex, but not a whole lot of people could convince themselves “well, they seemed like they wanted to be dressed up like a ballerina and smeared with mashed potatoes, they did go up to my bedroom after all” to themselves. You’ve gotta be sure when you’re doing kink. It’s not just about having a good experience but about not committing a felony. Wait… isn’t that true for sex too? Again. If you wouldn’t punch a person because you were kinda sure they wanted it, don’t have sex with them either. Just be like, “So… wanna fuck?” Gotta tell you, I haven’t gotten a lot of “Oh, I was wet and humping your leg and imagining the things I’d do to you, but now that you asked, forget it,” from that. I have gotten “no,” but thank God for those “no”s! I’m especially glad I asked then!
If someone says no, freezes, pulls back, moves your hands away, goes passive or limp, or seems at all reluctant to do something or less than fully present, doesn’t make any moves towards removing clothing, stop whatever it is you’re doing. Treat “maybe” as “no.” Let your partner make the next move, if there is a next move. Trust that if “maybe” really means “yes,” they’ll find a way to let you know.
This might feel awkward and uncomfortable at first because (heterosexual) men are socialized to be the aggressors who must “perform” and move the action along, and women are socialized to be more passive receivers. There’s this (bad) cultural expectation that guys are always up for sex and will be pushy about it and women are gatekeepers and that sex is a favor they do for (or cruelly deny) to men.
Even when people know intellectually that it’s bullshit, it’s still very possible for that model to feel normal and even good when it plays out in the moment with someone you like. If you deviate from that script, you take a risk that your partner might not step so comfortably into the role of aggressor and that things might unfold more slowly than they otherwise would or require a lot more explicit communication. Trust that the weirdness is momentary. Trust that people who really want you will find a way to make it happen between you – if not Right Now, then soon. And honestly, if your partner is nervous or having second thoughts or worried about being pressured, being No Pressure Guy is the coolest and sexiest thing you can be.
Consent Once Doesn’t Mean Consent Always
Things like “consent from one time and one context doesn’t imply indefinite further consent” are very important to remember. Things change.
Polyamory takes what normal relationships do, just more so
Polyamory can be pretty good but I don’t think it’s always going to be easy. Multiple partners can allow you to get a wider variety of desires me (and have to say no less to things you want) but also jealousy is pretty well and not trivially solved for everyone.
I think polyamory basically requires all the same skills as needed for monogamous relationships (communication, introspection), but more so – you’re playing on hard mode with many people and their expectations/feelings in the mix.
Definitely be reluctant to “open up” long-standing monogamous relationships to poly. I’ve seen at least one marriage destroyed that way.
This is commonly known as the polyamory bible. It doesn’t have to be read as a polyamory book, but in the world of polyamory emotional intelligence and the ability to communicate is the bread and butter of every day interactions. If you are trying to juggle two or three relationships and you don’t know how to talk about hard things then you might as well quit now. If you don’t know how to handle difficult feelings or experiences you might as well quit polyamory now.
Reading about these skills and what you might gain from the insight that polyamorous people have learnt is probably valuable to anyone.
I would recommend Polysecure over More Than Two [Book]
Attachment theory has entered the mainstream, but most discussions focus on how we can cultivate secure monogamous relationships. What if, like many people, you’re striving for secure, happy attachments with more than one partner? Polyamorous psychotherapist Jessica Fern breaks new ground by extending attachment theory into the realm of consensual nonmonogamy. Using her nested model of attachment and trauma, she expands our understanding of how emotional experiences can influence our relationships. Then, she sets out six specific strategies to help you move toward secure attachments in your multiple relationships. Polysecure is both a trailblazing theoretical treatise and a practical guide.
Blogposts on Polyamory by Ozymandius
The blog Thing of Things by Rationalist Ozymandius has a bunch of relevant posts on polyamory. Probably just search for the best of them. Here are some I could easily pull up (probably not the best ones):
A lot of polyamory advice books are, frankly, terrifying. They make it sound like to be poly you have to be Emotional Competence Georg, who lives in a firm boundary and negotiates with his partners about 10,000 emotional needs each day.
So I would like to say something reassuring to my crazy friends: you don’t have to be good at relationships to be poly. It helps! It definitely helps! The advice in More Than Two or The Ethical Slut is good for people of all relationship styles, monogamous and polyamorous.
However, I am needy, whiny, insecure, and approximately as good at communication as a potted plant. And I have been poly for several years and it has worked out fine. That’s for a bunch of reasons. Polyamory is sometimes easier.
An odd thing about polyamory is that you can have your heart broken, be wanting to punch the wall and throw things and curse every time you hear that bastard’s name mentioned while simultaneously being bubbly, giggly, happy, full of new relationship energy, tremendously excited by everything about this new person while simultaneously knowing that your rock is there, your secure base, who will always be there for you if you need them.
Providing Support & Expressing Love/Affection
Love Languages (aka how to express and receive affection effectively)
Love languages is a neat concept – the way people experience and express affection can be different, so it’s good to have a good model of your partner and what really reaches their heart.
Classically there are five love languages: words of affirmation, acts of service, touch, quality time, and gifts. In fact, I think there are many more.
One thing some people really care about is being “seen”, having someone understand their experience and anticipate their needs and desire. For others, it’s feeling “wanted”.
Personally, I realized relatively recently that playful teasing (or outright outrageous countersignalling) is important to me for feeling safe and comfortable and connected to someone; it really is one of my love languages.
Related to the idea of Love Languages is Personal User Manuals.
It’s a concept I learned in the workplace, but it should generalize. For your friends, partnerts, etc., write up a document that explains your default personal culture and preferences: how you like to communicate, what makes you happy/unhappy, etc. etc. Seems worth doing for relationships.
Learn to Listen: Problem-Solving vs Support
This is classic advice but just always worth remembering. At differents and across different people, partners want different things from conversations. Model them!
A couple I know actually defined between themselves a few modes nuanaced support so they could say things like “Would you like support-style A or B right now?”
Warnings & Cautions
Being a savior is risky / Trying to fix others is risky
It’s a not uncommon pattern for someone to see someone they’re interested in struggling with a particular problem and think they can help them solve it. This is risky. Mixing your interest with someone with a desire to help them...it’s tempting but I think sets up bad dynamics. It might involve escalating them while they’re in a vulnerable state, it might cause them to end up feeling obligated to reciprocate romantic attention when they don’t want to, or very likely, you’re not actually in a good position to help them and understand what’s going on less well than you think.
Six or seven years ago, early in one relationship the person I was with seemed to be struggling with psychological challenges I myself didn’t have, so I thought I can just easily impart how I approached those topics and thereby fix her. But I didn’t really understand and so instead I made it so she didn’t want to talk to me about her challenges for a really long time. I just didn’t actually understand.
In another relationship, the person had not that long ago left a very abusive relationship. I thought that I could be the complete opposite – loving, caring, considerate. Except that I didn’t actually understand how she felt or what she needed at that point, so my well-intentioned caring actually missed the mark and made her feel worse in many ways.
This isn’t to say you shouldn’t try to help others, but be careful when you’re combining it with your romantic interest
The other point to remember is that you can’t really fix other people, definitely not despite themselves. You can at best help them help themselves, and if they don’t want that, there’s not obviously much you can do.
Probably don’t make your relationship contingent on the other person changing
Sometimes you’ll meet someone who you think you could potentially like if they were different in this one important way, if they just improved a little (or a lot), and you think you can help them make those improvements. I won’t say this is never true, but it’s an anti-pattern, for sure.
There’s a kind of crazy book, The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship, that nonetheless has some spirit of wisdom to it:
“You cannot change other people [not literally true, but ok]. You love them the way they are or you don’t. You accept the way they are or you don’t. Try to change them to fit what you want them to be is like trying to change a dog for a cat, or a cat for a horse. That is a fact. They are what they; you are what you are. You dance or you you don’t dance. You need to be completely honest with yourself – to say what you want, and see if you are willing to dance or not. You must understand this point, because it is very important. When you truly understand, you are likely to see what is true about others, and not just what you want to see.”
The passage is literally true and loving someone because you want to grow alongside them and become more is great, but also there’s some spirit in that passage that feels right to me though it didn’t at first.
Have other relationships! Diversify!
Standard failure mode, especially for busy people, is to invest in their romantic relationship and neglect other social connections. Naturally a bad idea because you’ve got a single point of failure. What do you do if you’re having a rough patch with your partner? What do you do if they’re away or busy? What do you do if it ends?
Even when you’re busy and super excited about your partner, nurture other friendships.
Thinking you’re good at relationships is a recipe for not noticing when you’re being bad at relationships
Believing that you are X, e.g. kind and thoughtful in relationships, and particularly priding yourself on it, is a surefire way to fail to notice some occasions when you are not being X.
Examples: empathetic, considerate, “rational”, “I confront my problems head-on rather than avoid them”.
Such failures to notice will be consequential.
Well, I dunno, has been true of me. I assume I’m not *that* special and this applies enough to enough others to be worth the warning. For a long time I’ve tried to pride myself less on various traits and behaviors, but therein lies the meta-failure I very much have committed: by believing I have reduced my pride, I fail to notice where I haven’t.
Due to the above mechanics, I expect to be caught out failing to instantiate various traits that I valorize and have laid claim to. Not because I don’t really want or value having the traits, just because noticing failures is hard. You can call me out on things when I’m not being who I like to believe or say I am; I will endeavor to be glad rather than mad. I hope you will forgive me if in my failures I have wronged you. - FB post
How to have good and healthy sex is beyond the intended scope for this thread, but I welcome people to add links to external resources here (or submit them via comments with spoiler text/warning, or the Google Form).
Let’s just assume these are all NSFW (links hidden behind spoiler text cover)
Models and Concepts
Attachment styles is this relationship model that generalizes from infant attachment studies to adult relationships styles. The inference feels like wonky science, but I still feel like there’s something to it. Quick summary of attachment styles:
Secure: a securely attached person feels comfortable and at ease-with the relationship. They seek and respond to bids for attention/affection in a way that’s healthy for both partners.
Anxious-preoccupied: is anxious about the relationship and is preoccupied seeking reassurance about the relationship.
Fearful-avoidant: although they want the relationship on some level, they are afraid of the intimacy and “pull away”
Dismissive-avoidant: like the fearful-avoidant but more extreme, while they vaguely want the relationship they also kind of believe they don’t need it and put up a lot of walls.
Anxious-preoccupied and the avoidants classically make for a bad dynamic. In one order or the other, you have the anxious pre-occupied pursuing reassurance and the avoidants pulling away, thereby inducing more anxiety in the anxious-preoccupied who pursues reassurance further, inducing more avoidance, etc.
These are more “patterns” of behavior than essential traits of people. Anxious behavior in one person can induce avoidance behavior in an otherwise secure person, and vice versa.
There are several pitfalls here, but one is that you tell an anxious-preoccupied person about how attachment styles so they say “ok, I will inhibit my anxious behaviors so they will like me”. This will likely fail because it comes from the same frame of desperately needing to be liked.
Power dynamics between people in EA [excerpts]
It’s harder for junior people to give their real opinion
Opinions that junior people express will often be shaped (maybe unintentionally and unknowingly) by what they perceive senior people’s opinions to be or what they think the senior people want to hear.
Ask junior people to share thoughts before you give yours. Listen openly and show interest.
Give them more time and encouragement to lay out messy thoughts.
Set the stage for welcoming messy / unformed thoughts by sharing some of your own.
Give encouragement and appreciation when they offer opinions and especially when they disagree with you—make it a good experience for them.
Point to any tangible changes made based on critical feedback, so people can see you take it seriously.
It’s harder for junior people to establish boundaries
A senior EA I know notes that she’s effusive with hugs at work. She realized after a long time that one of the junior staff she was working with prefers less physical contact than most people, and that she was probably making this person uncomfortable by offering hugs that they didn’t feel comfortable turning down.
Social situations are also assessments
When junior people are in the same space with senior people, they often correctly feel that they’re being evaluated as potential future grantees or hires. Every lunch feels a bit like a job interview. The good aspect of this is that they would probably like to have a foot in the door, but the bad aspect is that it can make time in EA spaces pretty anxious because even minor social interactions feel high-stakes.
Half your age plus seven—common wisdom
Thoughts on dating younger people
Regarding dating younger people, I think there are some things which bump up the usual risk of relationships being rough, maybe by like 2x or 3x (so if you have a 3% chance of it being Quite Bad and a 12% chance of it being Normal Bad, you pop up to maybe 9% and 36%, respectively).
Like, I think that the only things that make it bad are the things that make any relationship bad: abuse of power differentials, coercion or mind-bending/gaslighting, selfishness of various kinds, failure to communicate, etc.
I think the most important things to track:
1. Try to note if there are Big Traumas or triggers in either of you; the main thing that sent me and one partner in the wrong direction was me not finding out in the early and mid days the sheer extent of her abusive upbringing.
2. Know the difference between your own coferences and your own preferences, like which things you Really Want versus which things you Kinda Want But Only If She Wants Them, and vice versa. Like, things get askew when asks are not really “just asks” or whatever; having clear selfsight there goes a long way.
Standard don’t-be-level-one-stupid advice on age gaps is, imo, level two stupid. The standard advice is, like, the older or more powerful person should be the “bigger” person, and be more willing to sacrifice and so forth. To take their own needs as object, create more space for the younger person. And this is absolutely true, but as a side effect. If you target that, you fall prey to a weird Goodharting thing where you’re always the “grownup” in the room and you’re not allowed to want things for fear of creating pressure, etc.
I think the don’t-be-level-two-stupid thing is know your own wants, needs, and desires. Know their relative strengths, and how eagerly/pressured-ly you are motivated by them. Be clear about what you want (not necessarily all right up front/first date, but reasonably early on) and seek the overlap. Be able to see where you can get A, B, and D from this partner, but not C or E, and then be smart about that. Like either get C and E elsewhere, or genuinely make peace about it, or whatever. Avoid fabricated options.
Put another way: I think people should be, and are, motivated both by wanting genuinely good things for their partner, and by wanting genuinely good things for themselves. Where people run into trouble is where they can’t tell the difference between these two buckets. They talk themselves into “this thing I really want just for my own sake is good for them” instead of, y’know, asking or checking, and believing the info that comes back. With age gaps or power differentials, it’s easy to accidentally overwhelm the less-experienced partner, if you’re not watching yourself for that. (So I claim.)
Thoughts on age gap relationships
Things that give me a baseline skepticism of age gap relationships including some examples of things going wrong:
very different social / financial stability-power, which leads to the younger person making more compromises or feeling more insecure
being at different life stages, and the younger person missing important opportunities or feeling pressured to do things they’re not quite ready for due to trying to sync with the older person’s needs (but I think this doesn’t apply as much for non-primary relationships)
younger person has less relationship experience and doesn’t realize what things are negotiable/normal, leading to them advocating less for their needs/wants than you’d expect
“what things are negotiable / normal” = concrete example from my life, not of bad behaviour, but it was like 4ish years into my sex life before a partner was like “hey, uh, you can say ‘no’ to sex whenever and I’ll still like you” and I apparently really needed to hear that spelled out explicitly?? similarly, I did some dubious-consent stuff with a partner before realizing that just because someone is a dude does not mean they are always DTF in whatever configuration and you should also check in… I feel like it would just be super easy to miss stuff like this if you’ve been dating people with more relationship experience for a while? but also this shows up in, like, “when is it okay to talk about jealousy” or “how often are you supposed to see a partner”. I was talking with a partner about this (in a general pattern way) and he used the metaphor of how travelling to a new country is supposed to open your eyes to all these ways you assumed things were simply done, but actually that was just your culture, what! I feel like the same sort of learning can apply to having multiple relationships?
(this is my age gap failure mode that sucked) older person assumes that the younger person is implementing a certain relationship interface (e.g. “we had a talk where you said you were okay with us not being committed, so I’m assuming this is fine”), doesn’t check in enough that the underlying assumptions are true and is careless/hurtful as a result (there’s a difficult balance here where you want to respect the younger person’s agency but also need to be extra careful)
I had one relationship where I was like “cool, we had a really explicit expectations-setting conversation, she said she was fine with this arrangement, so she probably is” when in fact the situation was more like “she is accepting a on-net-bad-for-her relationship because she doesn’t feel like she can negotiate for anything else” and I think that if I had been more carefully modelling her as less relationship-experienced I would not have been so casual about “cool we set up this relationship check-in where she could bring stuff up and she didn’t, therefore all is chill”
younger person overweights older person’s opinions / mixing mentorship and romance, leading to them signing onto things they otherwise wouldn’t
I know someone who dropped out of school to do a coding bootcamp on an older partner’s recommendation, and this was not a good idea in the end, and maybe they would have given it more independent thought / trusted the suggestion less if their partner hadn’t been older? hard to know, tho
precocious young person really wants to be taken seriously as an adult, overrides their own boundaries in order to appear more mature by what they perceive their partner’s definition of that to be (I’ve seen this lead to two cases of quite severe abuse)
some things I think you can do here:
precommit to helping them break up with you if need be (my first girlfriend, 18 to my 16, talked me through breaking up with her; one of my partners talked a younger partner through breaking up with him)
since they don’t know about the heterogeneity of relationship culture, spend more time asking questions along the lines of “hey, just so you know, it’s okay if you [----]?” or “just to check, would you rather [-----]? I want to make sure we don’t just fall into [.....] because that’s how I often do things”
Inexperienced people can pick up bad habits from dating other inexperienced people
There’s another risk that a person who’s been dating romantically inexperienced/unskilled people (e.g. likely other young people) might have picked up some bad habits. For example, a good habit is that when you’re unhappy/want to say no/change your mind/etc, you say this explicitly and proactively; however, if your past partners have responded poorly when you’ve done that, you’ll acquire the habit of not actively expressing anything that might get a negative reaction.
If you’re unhappy in your relationship
If your relationship makes you unhappy, do something. The unhappiness is a sign that something should change.
I was once in a relationship where I was extremely attached to the person, though I was miserable due to some bad dynamics we had going on. The thought of ending it was unbearable, but I was also really unhappy. I kept thinking to myself “If I’m so rational, why do I feel so trapped in this bad situation?” Eventually, I got myself out of it, but I’d like to think that I won’t get myself into it ever again. I hope I’ve learned to really sit up and act when I’m that unhappy.
Please help fill this section out!
It’s not normal to be harmed
A classic and maybe even defining feature of abuse is that the abused person is made to feel that it is normal or even right for them to be harmed. They’re told “You deserve it.” Or “this is just what relationships or families are like.” Or “you aren’t being harmed, you’re fine.” Over time, abused people may come to believe this.
Don’t let the fear of leaving trap you
I don’t personally have direct experience of abusive relationships but I think I’ve observed a few things a distance: people end up trapped in abusive relationships because even though they’re unhappy, the thought of leaving feels worse. And that’s how you end up trapped. I think the escape is realizing that while leaving will be painful, it’s survivable and is for the best.
The other thing I’ve observed is people staying in relationships they don’t like out of fear of angering their partner. I don’t know how to solve that, but I just want to say “don’t let their anger control you!” You deserve better.
It’s likely a very large red flag if either you feel embarrassed to describe your relationship to others or if your partner would get mad at you doing so.
Sometimes, privacy is wielded as a tool to enable manipulation.
I’ve run into a couple people who exploited my good faith / willingness to keep things confidential, as part of an overall manipulative pattern. Unfortunately, I don’t feel comfortable going too far into the details here (please don’t speculate in the comments), which makes it a bit harder to sanity check.
Probably organize this section better if it grows to have more stuff. Anyone feel free to sort as they feel fit.
Rationalist/EA dating site where you mark interest in people and two people are only notified if they both expressed interest
Generally helpful book on the topic of Attachment Styles. Useful for understanding that different people have learnt (or deeply ingrained) different patterns of behavior in relationship and that the interaction of these patterns matters.
This is a crazy book. But has some great stuff on letting your partner be who they are recognizing that you’re not responsible for solving all your partner’s problems.
A surprisingly helpful book for adult-to-adult communication
Came up on a first Google search, pretty reasonable stuff
Another Google result that seems pretty reasonable
Haven’t read it but maybe good?
Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Love [book]
Read it five years ago and don’t really remember it. Focuses on chemical/evolution aspects and makes interesting comparisons of love to addiction. Maybe of interest to the especially limerent
The Ferrett – blog with a lot of great, thoughtful posts about poly and relationships
People post about conflicts and get the crowds opinion of who is being unreasonable
Summary/review of a long list of relationship books
same author as last one, mostly the same books too
post contains brief reviews/descriptions of each book
Relationships & Communication
reread: How to Win Friends and Influence People, circa 2007 - Dale Carnegie