The relationship system

I think about systems a lot — they are essential to my work as a software architect but more than that they help me understand the world.

I had never thought about a relationship as a system until I had one break down suddenly, unexpectedly and with painful consequences — this is my (somewhat nerdy) attempt to understand how things went wrong — not why, that would be a much longer post.

So lets first establish what a system is;

A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole. [1] A system is described by its spatial and temporal boundaries, surrounded and influenced by its environment, described by its structure and purpose and expressed in its functioning.

Two entities both alike in dignity

In this abstraction the two primary entities are the people involved — our two star crossed lovers if you will.

Picture them as amorphous blobs floating in 3D space. Moving seemingly at random until two get close enough to be influenced by each others orbit, this could be a first date, a workplace conversation or more likely these days by sliding into ones DM.

Speed and gravity may vary

Not all entities move at the same speed, some are slow moving and take a long time to encounter another entity and do so with caution and precision, others are fast moving; moving in and out of orbits, and bedsheets at warp speed. Equally the gravitational force produced by each entity may differ, this could be equated to charisma or what the French call “a certain I don’t know what”.

A weak gravitational force makes it difficult for people to make initial connections with other entities and may simply pass by. Initial social contact is an active and involved effort for these entities.

For entities with strong gravity, making initial connections is effortless, once captured in orbit it can be difficult to break free — regardless of preference.

Beware fast moving entities with strong gravity — I learned this the hard way, more on this later.

Maintaining stable orbit

Even though the two entities have entered one others orbit and the relationship has begun, it is still in its most fragile state.

Our entities are constantly trying to break orbit and gravity alone is not enough to hold them together (well in theory, I know some couples who maintain on gravity alone).

A bad date or misinterpreted text message could send our entities careening back off into the void.

With every interaction or step forward, new bonds are forged. Think of bonds as tethers that hold the two entities in orbit at equal distance.

Initially the tethers are weak and seemingly inconsequential. Maybe a shared experience or common interest. A good date or doing something special for a birthday.

As time goes by the number of weak bonds accumulate to entwine the two lives, this affords the creation of stronger bonds. Bigger life events create stronger and stronger connections, moving in together, first overseas holiday, meeting the parents (assuming it goes well). You get the idea.

Force of attraction

When a sufficient number of bonds have been created and maintained, the entities no longer try to break orbit, pressure slackens, the system creates a unified whole, and a positive feedback loop, this is when the relationship reaches a state of flow — it feels effortless and it is wonderful — this is what I consider being in love (happily at least).

That’s not to say arguments or problems don’t happen but both parties are confident that no one event could be significant enough to break orbits. Some people manage to stay in this state their entire adult lives never breaking orbit, some people never achieve it and others only maintain it briefly before internal and external influences start to interfere.

It is easy to get complacent here as it feels like things can stay this way forever, but no relationship exists in isolation — outside influences are always interacting and internal pressures can be just as corrosive to the bonds. Under the influence External and internal influences can seek to weaken seemingly strong bonds between our entities and if not kept in check can have devastating consequences.

Internal factors such as stress, depression, anxiety, jealousy, insecurities or just general laziness and complacency can have a corrosive effect on bonds.

The bonds themselves are subject to decay and atrophy, memories fade, communication can break down or be neglected and experiences change with new context.

Conversely, bonds are not exclusive to our two primary entities, they are also created with other entities as they pass in and out of our orbits.

These can be seemingly benign influences such as friends, colleagues, family or work commitments & expectations, others can be more problematic such as an extra relationship affairs, shifting preferences & priorities or extended periods of separation.

These external bonds create outward pressure from our two primary entities, when strong enough can being to pull things apart.

Breaking point

If the external pressure is strong enough and the internal bonds have weakened sufficiently then our two entities can be pulled apart.

This can be a slow process, putting distance between the two entities until the fire has been extinguished or as in my case it can be a violent slingshot manoeuvre — breaking things in the process.

A relationship retrospective

So now I have a framework for understanding things, let’s try and apply it to my recent situation.

We were orbiting each other for years before any significant bonds were established. We barely noticed each other for the first year or two. She is a very fast moving entity with a strong gravitational pull that most (men) can’t help but be influenced by, whereas I am a little slower moving but also have strong gravity of my own — our combined gravity was enough to serve as a foundation for long enough to establish some initial bonds.

And establish they did, at first small but as time went on we went from strength to strength. We travelled the world, parents were met, we moved in together. Plans for the future and longer term commitments were being made. We had reached flow.

I mean it’s not like we didn’t argue, who doesn’t, but they weren’t important — despite feeling so at the time and seldom lasted more than an afternoon.

Then COVID hit, we had a forced separation of both time and distance (half the planet and six months) during which time we did our best to maintain our bonds — but distance is hard and establishing new bonds, near impossible. Despite assurances to the contrary that the distance and time wouldn’t weaken us, forces were already hard at work.

During this time internal and external influences were doing their thing, slowly corroding the bonds that kept us strong and creating new ones causing an outward pull.

When we were finally reunited I was aware we had work to do to get back to where we were before our separation but underestimated things; just how fast moving she could be, the weakness of our bonds (six months is a long time) and the external forces pulling her away from me.

So I was completely blindsided when she catapulted herself out of my life for good, burning the boats behind her, and left me scratching my head wondering what just happened.

Despite attempts made to try and recover things and work through it, by the time I realised what was happening she was already too far away and moving at light speed away.

Beware fast moving entities with strong gravity.