In late 2017, I saw Chris Rock on his latest tour when it came to Oakland. Other than the surprise appearances by Hannibal and Chapelle, it was mostly passable but there was a segment that has stayed with me. Chris spoke earnestly about his divorce and his share of the blame. He shared a story of his wife making painstaking preparations for a dinner party that she was excited to host at their house. When the guests arrived, Chris dismissively continued watching TV leaving his wife to entertain “her” friends by herself. Chris thought his success granted him the right to act this way. His wife’s simple desire was he be an active participant in this dinner that she had enthusiastically organized.
While the details may differ, this story may rhyme with misunderstandings you have with your partner. Chris’s metaphor for marriage is a band. While everybody wants to be the lead singer, sometimes you are called to play the tambourine.
In a healthy relationship, roles are context dependent. At the dinner party, Chris was supposed to accompany his wife’s lead from his backing role providing a simple, steady beat. To humble oneself and be a role-player when necessary is of course part of the give-and-take of partnerships. By naming this process, the tambourine, Chris has given Yinh and I the shorthand language to recognize these moments or stretches in our relationship when one of us sacrifices for the shared desire to see one the other thrive individually. Conveniently, this fuels our natural impulse to reciprocate. If Yinh truly feels I appreciate when she plays the tambourine, she’s happy to do it, and I, of course, look forward to repaying her. You can feel less guilty when playing the lead, and more appreciated when you’re not. This is good design since any functional relationship will have leads volley back and forth.
I don’t think that men or women have a monopoly on gender-laden baggage. Every culture has different norms that implicitly or explicitly find their way into the minds of its youngest. We perpetuate the norms, not because we’ve reasoned them through and decided that they are optimal, but because humans have a bias towards whatever they learned first. Once an idea takes hold in your head, any alternate view needs to win by 2 to displace it. It takes conscious effort to loosen the incumbent’s grip on your mind so the multitude of available outlooks can have a fair fight with the one that docked mostly due to random circumstances.
If you wish to expand your thinking beyond the narrow environment you emerged from, your personal relationships are probably the best bang for your buck. Here are some of my favorite recent readings on relationships.
Relating to your significant other
- Just get over the title, I rolled my eyes enough for all of us when this book was recommended. A few years ago, I started reading it on a Friday night and knocked it out in about 2 hours. I have never read anything that so quickly gave me insight into how I should approach others and how I like to be dealt with myself. Most importantly, it was a very tangible lesson about how different we all are and if we care to treat each other as individuals than we owe it to one another to understand just how different we can be. This book better helped me understand not just Yinh (we discussed it openly) but family members and friends. People like to speak about empathy but this book gives you the tools to apply that idea by forcing you to sleuth exactly how your loved ones want to be related to.
- There’s a quote I keep nearby (I can’t remember the source). “Love is service, not a magic song”. The mystery of love is not going to be solved in a textbook. Its meaning will meander throughout your life. I unconditionally love my kids. But unconditional love is also unearned. And if the lesson taken is that love needn’t be earned what does that do for people with aggressively opportunistic tendencies. The paradoxes surrounding love often seem to pit romantic ideals against practical prescriptions. In every era, the contexts change but the underlying needs and questions endure. I really enjoyed these modern nuggets of practical advice:
- Khe Hy discusses the opposite of appreciation in a relationship — resentment. I found a lot to digest in this piece (hint: booking a restaurant and saying you took care of “date night” is to completely misunderstand your partner’s wider needs). The concepts of bids in a relationship required reading a couple times as I recalled instances when I may have ignored them. The article is a joy to read and highly relatable.
- “My wife predicts divorces & failed relationships with stunning accuracy and I have learned a few of her tricks.” Visakanv deconstructs marriage without whitewashing reality. Mercifully, he offers tips to increase your chances of enjoying the tremendous, hard-earned rewards of fulfilling marriage.
Relating to friends
Guys, don’t ignore friends. And cut yourself some slack, you’re not a robot.
- The health of your relationship with your partner can depend on you having your own friends. A short, vulnerable reaction post.
- “The biggest threat facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.” Read more.
- The meaning of being macho varies with the beholder’s age and even by generations. I’ll leave the armchair psychology to comedian Bill Burr. (credit: @visakanv)
The self-talk I give myself (I’m trying to get better; I make mistakes all the time)
The content linked to in this flow has been very influential to me. Feel free to take, reject, or change my mind.
- The first step in improving your relations with others is to care about doing so. It takes effort. Everyone would agree that zombie mode in a marriage is poor form. This is true for all relationships. What you give is what you get. Newton’s 3rd Law applied to human bonds.
- See our differences as a gift which gives our lives tremendous depth.
- What other species has beliefs and then in doing so bothers to vary them so greatly across its members? More than ever, I believe the key to understanding one another is to use a resolution that recognizes how multi-dimensional people are. To reduce yourself to a cardboard-cutout of the identity of some tribe is to waste your life. Don’t expect others to reduce themselves to stereotypes for your convenience either. Surprise people not for the sake of it, but because you think for yourself and don’t ‘check all’ to your tribe’s affiliations. White knights and devils are usually neither. One-dimensional characters are only in the movies. Except Keanu.
- It has been said that genius is the ability to hold two competing thoughts at once.
- If this ever sounds abstract don’t forget this decomposition of political correctness. At the personal level, not being politically correct is an act of aggression. At the collective level PC culture is the aggressor. How you deal with others is scale dependent. Individuals <> groups. This scale dependence applies broadly. Your politics in your town don’t need to be your politics nationally. Sweden is not the U.S. Riffing from Taleb, you can be a socialist in your household and a capitalist in business.
- Be humble in your beliefs.
- There are certain things I no longer believe to be true. Beliefs you had 5 or 10 years ago may even embarrass you today. Be warned, this will also be in true in the future! You change. That’s why you gain so much from re-reading a book. The book didn’t change; your perceptions did. As my h.s. English teacher reminded us young punks, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” (Heraclitus). Overturning beliefs can be a painful growth process. Don’t make the job harder by having a fat identity. A quote probably misattributed to Twain: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
How to be a better partner and friend
- Understand the purpose of a conversation. People converse for many reasons that have nothing to do with you giving your opinion. Sometimes they want your comfort, sometimes they want to be heard because in their life they don’t feel like they ever are, sometimes they want you to make small talk because they don’t want the circumstances at hand to be awkward. You don’t have to indulge these bids, but you are a fool to not recognize them for what they are.
- If you want to listen better, reduce the distractions. Never forget Eric Maddox, the U.S. interrogator whose ground-breaking work ultimately gathered the intelligence to capture Saddam Hussein. For a description of the interview click here. It’s an amazing conversation which will give the act of listening new meaning. And if that isn’t enough motivation, remember that to be an elite listener is one of the most effective ways to make yourself more attractive. Find my transcription here.