The Relational Stance

There’s a con­cept that’s pretty core to my un­der­stand­ing of re­la­tion­ships, which I’m sure must have been writ­ten up some­where but I don’t know of a good ex­pla­na­tion. Here is a first pass.

The con­cept is, well, ‘re­lat­ing’ – the mean­ing that you as­cribe to a re­la­tion­ship, and the stance from which you are ori­ented to­wards it.

I think re­lat­ing is par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant when you choose that mean­ing de­liber­ately.

The Coworker

If you have a coworker you who make jokes with, and get rea­son­able amounts of work done with, that… could just be some ran­dom ac­quain­tance who you pass the time with...

Or it could be some­one you choose to make a larger part of your life (a friend, or trusted col­league, that you would help out in time of need, or go to bat for).

Or it could be some­one that you don’t ex­pect to go to bat for or help in crisis… but nonethe­less, when you re­flect upon them, you de­cide “this per­son is an im­por­tant part of my life. If I left this job I wouldn’t stay in touch with them, our re­la­tion­ship is ephemeral. But I might still as­cribe im­por­tance to them be­ing part of my life, right now. Their jokes are silly but some­thing about them makes life bet­ter in a way I deeply ap­pre­ci­ate. The lit­tle kind­nesses, or com­pe­tences, that they demon­strate at work are mean­ingful to me.”

There are many ways you could choose to re­late to a per­son, in­de­pen­dent of what kind of ac­tivi­ties you do to­gether and com­mit­ments you’ve made.

The Ro­man­tic Partner

The origi­nal con­text I got this idea from was some re­la­tion­ship ad­vice book I stum­bled upon as a teenager, which said “Love is not an emo­tion. Love it a choice.”

Some­time later, I fell in love for the first time. Over the course of a few months, I no­ticed a few differ­ent things go­ing on in my head:

  1. I had a crush on them, i.e. feel­ings of limer­ence and infatuation

  2. I had some kind of strong and more sig­nifi­cant-seem­ing feel­ings, that I thought might be love.

  3. Sev­eral months later, I found that al­though the limer­ence feel­ings came and went with­out warn­ing, and the stronger #2 feel­ings came and went on slower timescales (weeks or months), there some other as­pect of my ori­en­ta­tion to­wards them that didn’t go away at all. And it wasn’t a feel­ing, it was some­thing differ­ent. There was a par­tic­u­lar way I cared about them, felt they were a good per­son, wanted them to be part of my life, wanted them to suc­ceed and be happy even if I wasn’t part of their life.

And at some point I asked my­self “is this #3 thing love?”

And I thought about the line “Love is not an emo­tion, love is a choice.”

And then (#4) I de­cided I loved them, and then, in de­cid­ing it, it be­came truer.

I think Thing #2 and #3 were both rea­son­able things to call love, as well. At least, I don’t have a bet­ter word for them. But they were no­tably differ­ent things.

Thing #3 was similar to thing #4. But it didn’t have de­liber­ate in­ten­tion­al­ity to it. It wasn’t ex­actly a choice. It was a men­tal stance. Differ­ent from a feel­ing. And also differ­ent from any par­tic­u­lar set of ac­tivi­ties or com­mit­ments we might have been do­ing.

Re­lat­ing to peo­ple is men­tal stance. It can be in­ten­tional, or re­flex­ive. It can come with com­mit­ments, or not. It can be mu­tu­ally in­ten­tional, or asym­met­ric.

The Re­la­tional Stance is when you make the more gen­eral choice to con­sider how you re­late to some­one. If some­one has be­come part of your life, and you’ve ac­cu­mu­lated some feel­ings and im­plicit com­mit­ments and re­flex­ive stances to­ward them, you may de­liber­ately ask “what do these feel­ings and com­mit­ments and stances and ac­tivi­ties mean to me.”

Maybe you de­cide they don’t mean that much to you, they’re just an in­ci­den­tal part of your life. Or maybe you de­cide they are an im­por­tant part of your life.

Self-Reflec­tive Relationships

In ro­man­tic con­texts, there’s a stereo­typ­i­cal mo­ment where you lay your cards on the table: “I love you.” And they might, or might not say back, “I love you too.”

There’s a harder part that may come later – what does that love mean? Does it mean that we’ll see each other once a week? Does it mean we’re on the Re­la­tion­ship Es­ca­la­tor where we date for awhile and then move in and get mar­ried? Does it mean we’ll have a whirlwind sum­mer ro­mance that burns quickly and bright, and leaves a pleas­ant mem­ory in its wake?

What does this mean about what sort of things we will do to­gether, and what com­mit­ments we’re mak­ing?

There are a bunch of prac­ti­cal ques­tions there, and a bunch of im­por­tant feel­ings-ori­ented-ques­tions there. If you want a whirlwind sum­mer ro­mance and I want a longterm com­mit­ment, well, hmm. Per­haps I feel sad about that.

But the thing I want to fo­cus on here is ask­ing “how do I re­late to that?”, which is some­what differ­ent from how I feel. There may have been a par­tic­u­lar fla­vor of the way I cared about you, and what mean­ing I found in our re­la­tion­ship, and the way I see you. I don’t have very good words for it. And if I find out that you see me differ­ently than I saw you, that might change the way I see you in turn.

And then you might get into a re­cur­sive, un­sta­ble loop.

Say that Alice first looked at Bob as a deeply mean­ingful but ephemeral sum­mer fling. And Bob had thought of Alice as a po­ten­tially longterm sta­ble part­ner, but one that he nonethe­less wasn’t that com­mit­ted to yet. He hadn’t yet re­flected on how mean­ingful the re­la­tion­ship was, and upon re­flec­tion, he isn’t sure.

Some peo­ple don’t share their their in­ner stances with each other. Some peo­ple don’t have the in­tro­spec­tive aware­ness to even know what their in­ter­nal stances are, re­li­ably (or their feel­ings, or goals).

But, say Alice and Bob are both pretty self-aware, as in­di­vi­d­u­als. And then they both com­mu­ni­cate their thoughts on the re­la­tion­ship. And now Alice is aware that Bob wanted some­thing differ­ent out of the re­la­tion­ship than she did. And Bob is aware that al­though she saw it as ephemeral, she saw it as some­thing profound. And that makes Bob con­sider tak­ing the re­la­tion­ship more se­ri­ously… but at the same time, Alice has no­ticed that Bob was com­ing into it with differ­ent ex­pec­ta­tions, and maybe that makes her feel a lit­tle more dis­tant, which Bob then picks up and feels a lit­tle more dis­tant...

...or, maybe Bob is like “No, wait, yeah, this re­la­tion­ship is im­por­tant to me. And it’s still im­por­tant to me even if it’s an ephemeral sum­mer ro­mance. And I do still hope that maybe you’ll de­cide it’s worth stay­ing part of each other’s lives af­ter our va­ca­tions end, but if you don’t de­cide that, it’s okay.”

There are mul­ti­ple sta­ble equil­ibria they could even­tu­ally reach (and mul­ti­ple un­sta­ble ar­range­ments where each of them is con­stantly shift­ing their stance, in un­pre­dictable ways that are re­ally stress­ful).

But, maybe, the re­la­tion­ship hits some kind of equil­ibrium where they’ve both hon­estly shared their stances and feel­ings and ex­pec­ta­tions with each other, and then up­dated in re­sponse to those things, and then up­dated in re­sponse that, even­tu­ally set­tling into some­thing sta­ble.

Mu­tu­ally In­ten­tional Friendship

“I like you.” “But, do you like me like me?”

In my neck of the woods, there is a script for ro­mance. There’s a less clear script for friend­ship.

But some­thing I’ve no­ticed my­self want­ing is mu­tu­ally in­ten­tional friend­ship – where I’ve con­sciously thought about what kind of friend they are to me, and I’ve told them about that, and they’ve told me what kind of friend I am to them, and we both con­sciously de­cide to be some­what bet­ter friends than we had been.

Friend­ship space is deep and wide. There’s a mil­lion vari­a­tions of in­ten­sity, and fre­quency, and mean­ing peo­ple might as­cribe to friend­ships. Some peo­ple are seek­ing soul­mate-level friend­ship, some peo­ple are seek­ing a bunch of ca­sual ac­quain­tances, or a mix of things in be­tween.

For­tu­nately, I think many of the scripts for ro­man­tic dat­ing roughly ap­ply to friend­ship, if you bother to do it: Meet peo­ple at par­ties. In­vite them on some low-key one-on-one hang­outs. If you both have fun, go out again. If there is some kind of mu­tual-spark, start hang­ing out more fre­quently. Even­tu­ally con­fess your feel­ings of some­what-higher-than-av­er­age-af­fec­tion-or-mean­ingful­ness and re­flect on the na­ture of your re­la­tion­ship and, I dunno man, figure it out.

The Per­son On the Street

A pass­ing stranger – some­one you have no par­tic­u­lar con­nec­tion with. Maybe the per­son you buy coffee from, maybe a home­less per­son, maybe a busi­ness per­son you bump into, maybe an ag­gres­sive per­son fol­low­ing you around.

How do you re­late to them? Are they just Some Guy? Do you con­sider your­self to have some re­la­tion­ship with them by virtue of grow­ing up in the same town? Or com­mon hu­man­ity? Are they some­one you’re ac­tively an­noyed at and want to avoid?

What is re­lat­ing, and the Re­la­tional Stance, again, re­ally?

Here I am at the end of the es­say and I no­tice that while I’m con­fi­dent that re­lat­ing is differ­ent from feel­ings, and differ­ent from goals and com­mit­ments and life tra­jec­to­ries…

...I’m still not 100% sure what re­lat­ing is.

“Re­lat­ing is what mean­ing you as­cribe to a re­la­tion­ship”, I said at the be­gin­ning. But, what sorts of mean­ings might you as­cribe, that are differ­ent from your goals and com­mit­ments and life-tra­jec­to­ries? My an­swers come mostly in the form of fla­vors and felt-senses, that mostly don’t have good en­glish words.

But here is a stab at some clar­ify­ing ex­am­ples.

Mag­ni­tude of mattering

The most ob­vi­ous thing is “when you ask your­self ‘how im­por­tant is this per­son to me?’, what an­swer do you feel in your gut?”. If they dis­ap­peared from your life, or were about to be deleted from your mem­ory, how strongly would be you af­fected?


Do you ex­pect to see this per­son again? Will they be a con­stant part of your life? Will you see them once a year or so? In some sense this is a prac­ti­cal ques­tion, about what sort of ac­tivi­ties you’ll be able to do and how much shared life tra­jec­tory you’ll have. But there is some­thing of a fla­vor that comes along with that, that gets sharp­ened when I re­flect upon how I’d con­sciously choose to have them be more or less fre­quent in my life.

What word de­scribes your re­la­tion­ship?

Friends? Fam­ily?

Some­thing in­ter­est­ing I started to no­tice, over the past cou­ple years, was the dis­tinc­tion be­tween peo­ple who felt like friends, and peo­ple who felt like fam­ily. This dis­tinc­tion was sharp­ened by com­ing home for the New York Sols­tice, where I saw many friends I hadn’t seen in awhile. In some cases, it felt very much like com­ing home for the holi­days – the way see­ing var­i­ous cous­ins/​aunts/​un­cles/​etc feels at Thanks­giv­ing. In other places it felt more like “ah, there’s a friend I haven’t seen in awhile.”

After ex­pe­rienc­ing that, I started notic­ing as­pects of this with my friends who live nearby that I see more of­ten. Some of them feel like peo­ple I’m ob­vi­ously go­ing to re­main close with, even if we moved away and didn’t see each other for years. Some don’t. For some peo­ple, I feel a flicker of “hmm, we don’t feel quite like fam­ily yet, but I there is some­thing qual­iti­ta­tively fam­ily-like here.”

I might just be a bit con­fused here, and maybe the differ­ence here is just “friends vs ac­quain­tances and col­leagues?”. But there are at least some peo­ple where the word “fam­ily” feels ap­pro­pri­ate, but I’m less close friends with them than I am with some oth­ers who feel more “friend-shaped” than “fam­ily-shaped.”

In some cases, there were peo­ple that I didn’t think of as fam­ily-shaped, but when an­other “fam­ily” fla­vored friend treated them in a way I as­so­ci­ate with fam­ily-ness, I sud­denly felt a sense of fam­ily kin­ship.

Kin­dred Spirits?

You might only in­ter­act with some­one briefly, but some facet of them deeply res­onates with you. If you’re hik­ing and you pass an­other hiker, you might have al­most noth­ing in com­mon ex­cept that you both deeply love hik­ing, and that is enough to give the en­counter a fla­vor of con­nec­tion.

Same can go for peo­ple who share a pro­fes­sional ethos (dancers, pro­gram­mers, artists), or an ide­ol­ogy.


I’ve been list­ing pos­i­tive ex­am­ples so far, but there are plenty of re­la­tion­ships you might want to avoid. Are they a pro­fes­sional ri­val? An ex-ro­man­tic-part­ner with a weird vendetta?

Would you die for them?

There’s been ex­actly one per­son for whom my an­swer to this ques­tion was “I’d con­sider it”. That was a decade ago. Since then, my un­der­stand­ing of the stakes of the world has risen, and there is not cur­rently a per­son for whom this is true for me. But I can still imag­ine it.


Re­lat­ing is the stance you take to­wards a per­son, and the mean­ing you as­cribe to your con­nec­tion-or-lack-thereof. It can be un­con­scious, or in­ten­tional.

The Re­la­tional Stance is the more gen­eral act of con­sid­er­ing how you re­late to a per­son – look­ing at a per­son through the lens of “how do they fit into my life and what to do they mean to me?”

A Re­la­tional Choice is the de­ci­sion to re­late to some­one in a par­tic­u­lar way. After­wards which the way you re­late to them will prob­a­bly be differ­ent, both on the ob­ject and meta level.

Where Next?

Many as­pects of this still feel con­fus­ing to me. I’ve thought about this over the past cou­ple years, in­creas­ingly de­liber­ately. But I haven’t shared my thoughts on this with too many peo­ple and I’m not sure how much di­ver­sity there is in how peo­ple re­late to re­lat­ing.

But I’m fairly con­fi­dent that the un­der­ly­ing con­cept of “my stance and ori­en­ta­tion to­wards a per­son” is a use­ful con­cept to have. I have some fol­lowup thoughts, some of which fit into what might evolve into a se­quence on Friend­ship, and some of which will fit into the Notic­ing Frames sub-se­quence.