Underwood: “And you don’t make decisions on emotions?” Tusk: “Decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. They’re instincts, … which can be of value. The rational and the irrational complement each other. Individually they’re far less powerful.”
This exchange between the manipulative protagonist Frank Underwood and billionaire Raymond Tusk in House of Cards highlights a key argument I’ve been raising during discussions on relationships for years—decisions based on emotions aren’t decisions at all. It sets the scene for a rational account on relationships I’ve come to refer to as ‘core values theory‘ during many heated conversations late into the night. My own understanding of the concept, based on nothing else but the experience of life, seems to have solidified sufficiently in order to recount it here. Although you are reading a software design blog, don’t expect anything IT related beyond the title “Hacking Emotions” from here on out.
What do you want?
Seems like a simple question doesn’t it? “What do you want in life?” The truth though is that the majority of people you ask this question either greet you with a blank stare, or simply state they “just want to be happy”. Try it out for yourself! Next time, rather than discussing the newest episode of Game of Thrones, catch a friend off guard by asking this very question. You might be surprised to discover a general consensus that we are all just pawns in the grand scheme of things; passive bystanders whose roles are limited to either jumping on the passing train, or waiting for the next one. “Carpe Diem” offers a rich perspective on life, make the most out of each moment, but does it exclude glancing at the train schedule so you know where you are headed?
The problem with the blank stare, or solely relying on emotions to decide on a course of action, is you assume a passive role in life. You let your environment decide for you and simply express approval or disapproval. You do not grow as a person—you do not learn what it is that makes you happy or unhappy, what your goal is in life. Ultimately, it is counterproductive; simply pursuing the experience of happiness does not guarantee it in the long run, as you do not gain an understanding of how to maintain it. A case in point being our current materialistic society; quick-fix possessions do not lead to true happiness, on the contrary, it is self-destructive.
In his book “The 7 habits of highly effective people”, Stephen R. Covey’s advocates becoming aware of one’s own internal ‘maps’: where you stand, and where you want to be headed.
Each of us has many, many maps in our head, which can be divided into two main categories: maps of the way things are, or realities, and maps of the way things should be, or values. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We seldom question their accuracy; we’re usually even unaware that we have them. – Stephen R. Covey
Far from being a book I would recommend, it still contains valuable ideas, including the suggestion of being proactive as opposed to reactive in life. Being proactive does not simply mean taking matter into your own hands, but also implies identifying that which concerns you, in order to work towards enlarging your influence on that which truly matters to you. It implies a positive stance in life, asking yourself “What can I do?”, rather than “Why does this happen to me?”, the result of which is a rewarding sense of empowerment.
Part of what makes us human is we do not have control over our emotions. It is outside of our circle of influence, but most definitely within our circle of concern. How then, to take a proactive stance when emotions are involved?
So, what DO you want?
Relationships, being one of the most fundamental building blocks in life, give rise to the strongest of emotions: love, hate, loneliness, jealousy, … and happiness. While I imagine that most people readily agree with the earlier quote from House of Cards, I have yet to meet anyone that truly applies it in all aspects of life, including relationships. On the contrary, mainstream culture seems to disregard any sense of rationality when it comes to love. Love is impenetrable to human thought, and should be left to destiny. Media does a good job of reinforcing this simplistic view, even in nontraditional “Once upon a time …” movies: “It just happened. […] I just woke up one day and I knew.” – 500 Days of Summer
Unless you aren’t looking for ‘happy ever after’, the problem is relationships (and marriages) also “just happen” to end because “the love is gone“. This common view on relationships is a reactive one.
One of my most controversial viewpoints in life is that relationships should not be dictated by feelings. I look at emotions as a manifestation of an underlying cause which you do have some level of control over. I am not declaring war on feelings here. Feelings (or lack thereof) are useful signposts put up by your body. However, it is your mind’s job to follow the right ones and decide where to go. A proactive approach by no means guarantees a ‘happy ever after’, but more importantly increases your awareness of what you are looking for and allows you to learn from past experiences (what to repeat, and what not to repeat). I do not believe in relationships built solely on top of feelings, and consider them a fruitless endeavor; emotional roller-coasters that make you feel alive, but in the end you still need to exit the theme park.
There is a need to identify who you are, what you want in life, i.e. to identify your identity—your core. As often expressed: “Find yourself before you find love.”
In a nutshell, core values theory advocates identifying objective values you expect your partner to have in a relationship, based on your expectations in life. They are testable, meaning, as you get to know someone, you can objectively judge whether or not they fit these criteria. They are ‘core‘ values in the sense that they make up your identity; changing them would imply changing your nature, your personality. Emotions do not come into play. Within Stephen R. Covey’s diagram it could be depicted as an unbendable center you are unwilling to change.
Ironically, a common response to this is “But how can you be so picky? If one thing on the list doesn’t work out, you give up? You do not open up yourself to new experiences”. The truth though is most people already have a similar list, but just aren’t aware about it. By externalizing and objectifying it for some reason it becomes a faux pas. Their list however is usually longer, transient, more restrictive than the core values I am talking about here, and includes subjective values like “it needs to feel right”, or “it needs to be love at first sight”. The ‘list’ is nothing more than a mental exercise, identifying key aspects in your life on which to make more rational decisions when clouded by emotion, or even in the absence of emotion. If anything, it is more in line with the idiom, “There are plenty of fish in the sea”, recognizing you are not after ‘the one’, but after anyone you can fully respect, and love.
There is some reasoning behind this madness. Firstly, you should not think less of your spouse; a relationship is built on mutual respect. In the case of conflicting core values I argue this is unsustainable. It easily turns into recurrent arguments throughout the relationship, where you want to out-argue the other, causing resentment and loss of respect. Secondly, you should not expect to change or ‘fix’ your partner in a relationship; do not expect the core values of your partner to change, it is outside of your circle of influence. Your energy should be focused elsewhere, where you can actually make a change, and where you can still discover yourself.
This ‘theory’ has some controversial implications. There is nothing wrong with dating someone you have no feelings for, yet are sexually attracted to. Consider it an opportunity to discover your core values. From my own experience I can tell you either feelings will follow, or you learn something new about yourself to take with you into subsequent relationships. But more importantly, a breakup should be indicative of discovering a mismatch in core values, which makes it less of a loss, and more of a learning experience.
This perspective on relationships comes at a price. Most people want to be swept off their feet, where emotions take center stage. I’m a rational person, and prefer placing rationality at the center. Either way, the stage is big enough, and there is room for both. It might seem hard to believe in a long-term relationship with such conflicting perspectives, but luckily, a rational center is not a core value to me. I know I can learn a lot from an emotional counterpart, and I like to think this works both ways.