The Cloud of Relationships

Relationships are tricky, sometimes. OK, so that isn’t news. But I think there’s a way of looking at the complexities of our relationships that makes them a little easier to understand.

When I ask people to describe how relationships work, they often describe them as a connection between two people. It looks something like this:

A and B

While thinking about the relationship between person A and person B in this way can be useful, it leaves out something important. There’s also a relationship between each person and the relationship between them. To put it another way, there’s the way that A feels about the relationship, as well as the way the relationship affects A. It might look like this:

A, B, A & B

And then, there’s how B feels about how A feels about the relationship, as well as how B is affected by how A feels about the relationship:A, B, A&B, B & A&B

If this is feeling too theoretical, here’s a more concrete way of looking at it. If A & B are having a happy time in their relationship, then A feels happy about the connection, B feels happy about A feeling happy about it, and so forth. But what happens when there’s some friction?

Imagine that A is angry at B. In response, B feels sad. That makes A feel ashamed, which makes B feel scared that the relationship might end. Or imagine that A is worried about the relationship. That might make B feel angry, which might make A feel scared, which makes B feel more angry, which makes A panic. It’s easy to see how these patterns often become feedback loops that spiral out of control.

When we think of relationships as a linear connection between two people, we lose sight of the many different layers to the emotions that come into play. How you feel about how the other person feels about how you feel can often be a big factor. Rather than thinking of them as lines, I like to think of relationships as a cloud of connections between people. I find that this makes it easier to understand the complexities of the feelings that show up. It also makes more room for multiple emotions, some of which might seem contradictory, because they can all exist within this cloud.

As if this wasn’t enough, things get even more complicated when there are multiple people. That doesn’t only happen in polyamorous relationships. It can happen among family members, friends, roommates, etc. How I feel about the relationship between you and your boyfriend, how each of you feels about that, how you feel about how the other one feels about how I feel… It’s easy to see how many different directions the arrows are pointing. It makes our relationships fractal rather than linear.

Of course, we need to find a balance here. We could get so caught up in looking at the many layers of emotion and relationship that we never do anything else. On the other hand, if we ignore those different arrows, we miss a lot of important information about ourselves, the people in our lives, and the connections between us. That’s especially important when we’re having difficult feelings or conflict with other people because of the way the feedback loops get rolling.

One way to find that middle zone between too-much and too-little is to see whether the situation is creating feelings of resentment. Resentment is the biggest relationship killer and it’s worth taking some time to make sure it doesn’t start to grow. If resentment is forming along any of those arrows, that’s a sign that there’s something there that needs addressing.

Another good way to manage this is to look for the places where there’s misattunement or disconnection in the relationship. To put it another way, look for the places where there’s shame because shame is the emotion of disconnection. It’s a signal that things are out of step, which gives you a place to start working towards resonance.

When you start thinking about relationships as clouds of connection, rather than a line, it becomes easier to look for the resentment and the shame because you can hold space for them without thinking that those difficult feelings are all there is. You can allow them to be part of whatever is happening while also holding the pleasure, love, and joy that also exists in your relationship. That gives you much more opportunity to build resilience to shame and anger, and to move forward.

So to get you started on that, you can begin by paying attention to how you feel about how your partner/roommate/sibling/friend feels about your relationship. How does the way they feel affect you? And if you can do that, pay attention to how they feel in response to that. Or pay attention to how the way you feel about the relationship affects them. It might take a little practice, but the payoff is worth it.