The life coach and I have recently been exploring the one most important topic of struggle in my life—at least in the past few years.
The topic can be phrased as a question, as follows: “what are the ways I can recognize when there is an opportunity to evolve an existing relationship into something else?”
Note: not “how to evolve”; instead “how to detect whether it can evolve”.
The consideration is not limited to romantic relationships. In fact, romance is, paradoxically perhaps, somewhat easier: the markers of mutual interest and attraction are somewhat more clearly coded in social norms (not that I am particularly adept at them, but that is a separate topic).
The topic is important in many more basic ways than romance:
- how to find out whether a brief contact can evolve into an acquaintance.
- how to find out whether an acquaintance or a co-worker can evolve into a friend.
- how to find out whether the boundaries of a friendship can evolve.
And all this, with the purpose of gradually developing a certain form of balanced, reciprocal emotional intimacy in the relationship.
Meanwhile, I am aware that “making friends as an adult is generally difficult”. But I am autistic and I just don’t “get” even the basics, and I found myself unable to figure it out on my own.
Moreover, I have multiple opportunity costs to deal with: with covid-related travel and meetup restrictions, I cannot run random relationship experiments as much as before. Also, given how exhausting I find any form of social interaction, which is getting even more difficult as I am getting older, I need to be a little bit more deliberate about it than the average person.
So the coach and I talked about it. Then the coach pushed me to approach my existing friends and talk to them about it, to gather further input.
And thus I iteratively developed some general model.
The model goes as follow: an opportunity to evolve a relationship exists in proportion to how many of the following criteria are found to apply to the current situation. They do not need to all apply; nor do they need to apply in a particular order.
- there is a shared struggle with circumstances. This can be a past or current, hardship, a shared challenge, a shared activity that requires effort, etc.
- there is a willing display of vulnerability during interactions.
- there is explicit, worded interest to spend time together and/or to evolve the relationship.
- there is continuity to the interactions (= frequency + advance agreement of future encounters). Bonus point if the frequency is increasing.
- there is straightforwardness during interactions.
- there is a power balance in the relationship, in aggregate. It’s OK if there is a power imbalance in one dimension of the relationship if it is compensated by a complementary imbalance in another dimension.
- the boundaries in the relationship can be freely discussed and re-negotiated.
- there are explicit, negotiated compromises on matters of difference.
- there are explicit, worded dares to explore the boundaries of the existing relationship.
- there are visible, explicit markers of attentiveness during interactions.
- the topic of emotions is open and not avoided.
- there is discussion and agreement on shared values at an ethical, philosophical and political level.
- there is mutual, explicit acknowledgement of personality.
Perhaps surprisingly, the following markers do not form immediate indicators that a relationship can evolve—they may be necessary in certain cases, but in contrast to those above, they are not sufficient:
- displayed confidence and/or self-esteem during interactions.
Another pitfall is that the criteria above only denote opportunity; they do not imply that the relationship already has developed in proportion to how well the criteria apply to the current situation. There is still “work” to do. However, some of the criteria outline a mechanism that one can engage to do this work:
- worded interest to spend time together: exploit by making plans to actually interact and follow through.
- continuity: exploit to support multi-session conversations on various topics, with adequate reflection.
- straightforwardness: exploit to talk about the relationship and one’s desire to evolve it.
- dares: exploit to “fake” (or act) the relationship as one wants it to be, instead of what it currently is.
- shared values: use as leverage to propose relationship transitions (“since we both … why not …”).
Disclaimer: I do not have experience with actioning these mechanisms yet—at least, not intentionally. This is merely an outline for future work.