Why We Mate: An Adaptive Challenge

Why We Mate:  An Adaptive Challenge

Humans have been hooking up a long time.

Like most animals, the need to keep our DNA here on Earth after we are gone drives us to seek out partners and procreate. Unlike most animals on the Discovery Channel, however, you may have noticed that we do it a bit differently. Positions and mating rituals aside, humans are part of a very small percentage (about 3% of all animals) that exhibit long-term pair-bonding.

Evolutionary biologist, psychologists and anthropologists have all put some serious efforts into researching why, despite our biological proclivities towards random couplings, long-term monogamous mating is the mode in most human cultures and societies.

Why?

Depending on the research, there are several different theories that point out how the evolutionary benefits of a long-term partner outweigh the cost of not spreading your love around.   One theory is that having a main squeeze for life better allows us to solve adaptive problems.  Adaptive problems are those that may be recurring over time that might be difficult to identify and navigate and greatly influence your chances for survival.  In early humans, this might have looked like the means of procuring food or surviving extreme temperatures. These are problems that may require collaboration that are best solved by the passing down or sharing of knowledge over time, which makes long-term mating a great strategy over the years.

Our modern-day problems may look very different to our ancestors’, but being part of a two-person team can still provide these benefits, both in the short-term for the two individuals involved, and generationally over time.  This only works, however, if you are able to recognize and strategize when adaptive problems arise.

In his seminal work on leadership, Professor Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School identifies most challenges in life as either technical or adaptive problems.  Technical problems are those that can be solved by knowledge or experts, while adaptive problems are those that require new learning.  In our own lives, we face a variety of each of these daily. A strange rash on our arm may require a visit to a doctor to diagnose (technical problem), but learning that the rash is due to a food allergy, which requires us to explore our diet, identify the culprit, and change our eating habits requires new learning and an adaptive solution.  

As a couple, we may not always realize that we are approaching a shared challenge with these two different mindsets for solutions.  A typical argument in my household involves our dirty kitchen. My partner views this as a technical problem. His solution is to hire a housekeeper.  I see this as a more adaptive problem, in that the overall division of housework seems inequitable. Both views deserve discussion, but not necessarily the same discussion or same solution.  

Technical problems are easier to identify, easier to fix, and generally easier to implement solutions for.  They do not, however, lend themselves to adaptive solutions, which provide the biggest benefit in (and reason for) long-term relationships over time.  While adaptive solutions may take longer, and require overall changes of roles or perceptions, it’s here that we can cash in on the evolutionary value of our partnerships.  

Take a look at your top three “challenges” in your partnerships.  Do you fight about money, housework, parenting styles? Choose one to explore together (over a glass of wine or in a low-stress setting).  What triggers and snags come up regularly for this shared challenge? For example, if you choose to explore your problem of different parenting styles, do you see this come up most around extended family, school work, or screen time? See if you can divide them up into two columns: technical challenges versus adaptive challenges.  Chances are, each of these will probably have aspects that fall into each. In your technical challenges, see if you can identify either a source of information or an “expert” that can help address these. Then, take a look at the specific adaptive problems you’ve identified. Here is where growth can happen.

Adaptive challenges will not be solved tonight.  Finish that wine and plan some time to really explore these in the future, but first, identify what new learning would be most helpful to know moving forward.  Do you need to explore your own thoughts or your partner’s feelings or experiences a little deeper around this topic?  Are there pieces of information, such as books, blogs or input from some other source that might be helpful? Do you need to examine (or re-examine) priorities before moving towards a collaborative solution first?  Gather ideas and input (both individually and together) and commit to coming back to this with fresh eyes. This could happen during a set time (such as your State of the Union planning) or over time, as the issues come up.  Regardless of when, you’ll be much better prepared for the “how” to address these type of adaptive challenges once you recognize them for what they are and seek out the resources needed to address them.

 

Tips for your First State of the Union

Not a bad place for a good discussion.

Setting aside time as a couple in what we call ‘The State of Your Union’ is not meant to solve all your problems in the first year.  In fact, don’t even think of it as a way to solve problems as much as a new tradition for positive communication. Like any tradition, you get to take what parts you like and make it your own. While we encourage you to follow our layout for the weekend (particularly your first year), know that everything is adaptable to best suit your needs.

Here are a few tips for your first State of Your Union:

Timing

This is the hardest aspect, especially for couples with young kids. Two uninterrupted hours together is difficult to come by, much less two days. We get it.  It’s a luxury to think you’d have that kind of time, and if you did, you’d probably have to spend it arguing about something in Home Depot.  Think about it, though. As much as the projects and activities on your list matter, setting aside this time shows that you prioritize your communication with each other.
Look for happy coincidences in your calendars. Maybe a slumber party or school-sponsored activity coming up has the kids taken care of for a night. Family reunion?  Let the cousins hang out while you two dash off for a bit alone. One of the greatest things you can give your children is an example of a healthy, loving relationship. Think of this time away as time well spent, and if you can only get those two hours together, be sure to continue reading.

Categories

Don’t try to tackle everything at once.
You’ll find it’s fun to add categories over the years, but if you’re feeling overwhelmed, start with just a few that you feel have the most impact on your lives and goals.  Finance and careers, as well as health and family tend to be big ones that might also encompass other issues that then come up naturally.
Take breaks.
We often have to step away after a long, possibly difficult discussion. If you find yourself just wanting to push through to the next topic quickly, it means you’re tired of working on it. Go do something else for a little bit. A stroll or even more vigorous exercise is great, but any way to tune out for a little while is fine.  This is why heading to a new and different location other than your kitchen table is an important part of a successful SOYU.

Location

Being somewhere new or a place you find relaxing helps to better frame positive communication.  You don’t want to feel like you’re talking about the same old stuff in the same old place. Taking a break to stroll around a beach or new city gets neurons firing and gives you a “big picture” attitude away from the little, niggling details of normal life. It takes you out of your normal roles and lets you see each other in the world as individuals.  If you have to skimp on timing and categories, at least give yourselves the gift of a new location. If funds are tight, consider housesitting for free somewhere, swapping places with another couple or camping under the stars (with wifi). A hotel in town mid-week can be quite a bargain as well. A fancy vacation spot doesn’t necessarily factor into SOYU success, though there’s a lot can be said about hotel sex.

Methods

Don’t be afraid to try different techniques for discussing both your individual goals and your goals together. Maybe you write them down individually, and then compare notes. Maybe one of you is a scribe, and you brainstorm and refine ideas before even starting to put anything into the template. One size doesn’t fit all, so try different ways. This is obviously a much bigger topic (effective communication), so we’d love to hear what works for you. Help out your fellow Unionists by letting us know (it can be anonymous), or discuss in our forum on this topic (coming soon).

The Danger of Putting Pen to Paper

I talk too much.

As a kid, I never shut up. As an adult, I use the rare moments of silence to relive the stupid things that have tumbled out of my mouth at work, at parties, in line for coffee…it’s a long list.

I have a lot of admiration for friends and colleagues that think of the perfect thing they should have said hours later. I long for that kind of regret. Words have power. In human speech though, power is often diminished, rather than amplified, by volume. A thoughtful, concise point carries more poignancy than a big dump of words. Written down, this point can hit a target in such a way as to trigger action.

Here’s where things get dangerous.

Writing things down changes a thought into a plan and leaves an inky line of accountability. A starting line. A place that demarcates the before and the after. When you write it down, you bring an idea into being. You birth it right there on the paper and give it life. At this point, you have to decide to keep it alive or let it die.

For this reason, regardless of what apps or files you usually use to jot things down in your phone or computer, when it comes to the most important things in life, you need a practice of putting pen to paper. When setting a goal in life or creating an intention, there is no better first step than ink on page. Here are a few tips for making that happen:

Use a great pen. This seems petty, but the weight and scratch of a quality pen in your hand will help to move itself across a page. It makes you want to pick it up and use it to write your own fate. It also separates what you are about to put down from all the other grocery lists and return address scrawlings of day-to-day life. Good pens can cost as little as $20 and can transform the role of writing into chronicling.

Create a space for short-term vs. long-term ideas. Writing things down turns a dream into a goal. Some of these will be small things, but others will be solid one-liners that help direct your future. A journal or planner might be a place you jot down your daily thoughts and plans, but the front page or back page can be reserved for personal statements or words to live by.

Review your own writing. Hearing yourself talk about a dream, you might think yourself crazy, impractical or struggle to take yourself seriously. Reading what you’ve written down seems plausible and exciting. If your dream is particularly outlandish, it makes you sound brave, which makes you feel brave. Come back to what you’ve written regularly. Cross it of when you accomplish it, add new ideas as they come. This makes you the author of your own dream.

Writing things down changes them from a thought to a deed. The action of picking up a pen and putting it to paper is a verb for your subject. It will survive as living evidence, on display, intractable, known.

Try it and see.

The Unhelpfulness of “Happily Ever After”

The fairy tales end with two people falling in love and walking off to begin their new lives together.  

This narrative arc is repeated in modern-day rom-coms and most other literature for public consumption.  Despite the obstacles, adventures, tragic events or humourous mix-ups we’ve followed along their path to that first kiss, the curtain seems to drop just afterward, leaving us to assume all went well until they died many years later.  This is extremely unhelpful.

There are millions of different “how we met” stories, but so very few “how we stayed in love all our lives” stories.  Falling in love is easy, but staying in love is harder- that’s why it’s so helpful to have examples, and somewhat surprising that more of them don’t exist.

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Releasing to see the Rocks

They called them raft rippers.

Enormous rocks lurking just below the rollicking waters of the middle fork of the Salmon River, lying in wait to ruin a rafting trip by slicing into the inflatable vessels that we floated down in. It was May, so the water level was high in the river canyon, and the rocks were hidden just underneath. We only knew that they might exist from tales when the water was lower.  Knowing where the raft rippers were, and the best way to navigate around them, kept the rafting exciting but not perilous.

These hazards exist in every relationship.
Some are always visible, such as finances and careers.
Most lay somewhat hidden by the rushing water of everyday life.  

You might be thinking, ”what’s that got to do with going away for a weekend to talk about plans for the year with my partner”?

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When to plan? We have suggestions.

Stating the obvious: picking a date to create a plan for your next year is going to be dependent on you and your partner’s schedule.

We’ve found that the beginning of the year naturally works well. The first holiday after the New Year is the long weekend for Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January, and that has consistently been good to us, as both of us get a day off work. Perhaps that works for you as well!

What dates work for you, and why? Let us know, and help out your other unionists!

Agile in Love: The Value of the Retrospective

There’s a lot of reasons why we don’t run a marriage like a business (can you imagine the overtime pay?!), but there are a couple of great ideas worth bringing home from the office.

Photo credit: Luigi Mengato

Almost every well-managed business in any industry will take the time to review and reflect on the work from the previous year(s). Perhaps it’s around tax season or at the end of the fiscal year, or when working with shareholders or advisory groups. The idea of the retrospective comes from the need to decide what impact past decisions have had on the overall outcome of events and garner any insight from that process to help shape future decisions. It also gives an organization a chance to celebrate what’s gone well and identify areas that need addressing.

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5 Tips to Keep from Just Drifting Along

Sailing off into the sunset is often the end of the movie, but the actual beginning of the true, long-term relationship. We assume there’s nothing but smooth waters ahead, but anyone in an actual long-term relationship knows this uncharted territory can be much tricker than simply falling in love. How then to navigate the waters of a lifetime union without running aground on major life events or, worse, just drifting aimlessly along?

  1. Have a destination on your map (create shared goals):

Rarely do we leave the house with no idea of where we are going; yet we often start our time together with a significant other just “seeing how things go.” Initially, this is a great way to test the waters, but a successful long-term relationship requires input from both of you in terms of where you want to go in life or one of you will feel like you’ve been taken for a ride. What do you, personally, want to do with your time on Earth? What does your partner want to accomplish? Where do these overlap and how can you make space on your map to visit all of these goals, together? Finish a degree, open a business, build a family. Goals, both personal and shared, shape our lives and should be verbalized early and often in a relationship. They will change over time as you deal with the changing tides of life, but knowing what they are will give you something to steer towards, together.

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