Zen and the Art of Relationship Maintenance
I read the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a long time ago. I loved it. You might not, so I won’t really recommend it. I haven’t read it recently, but every so often I start thinking about it.
The book describes two points of view: the rational and the romantic. Specifically, it’s about trying to find a balance between them, and motorcycle maintenance is used as an allegory for finding this balance. Here is some deep analysis from the Wikipedia article linked to above:
[The protagonist] understands that technology, and the “dehumanized world” it carries with it, appears ugly and repulsive to a romantic person... The book demonstrates that motorcycle maintenance may be dull and tedious drudgery or an enjoyable and pleasurable pastime; it all depends on attitude.
With that context, let’s talk about a different kind of maintenance: relationship maintenance. I assume you have heard the term “high maintenance,” usually in reference to a woman. It means that she has high standards, is demanding, perhaps emotionally needy. After years of marriage I am beginning to understand what high maintenance really means, and why it is an important concept to understand (especially for men). And, just to be clear, I don’t think its a bad thing.
Let me start with spending. Mercedes likes to spend money, and I like to save it. Interestingly, both of our tendencies are related to financial security. I feel secure when I look into the future, perform a few calculations, and decide that I can sustain my current way of life. Mercedes feels secure when her current surroundings provide subtle cues that things are going well, and having excess money to spend is a sign of financial health.
In other words, Mercedes has a romantic view of money, and I have a rational view of money. But I don’t want to imply that rational = good. As I have argued before, I strongly believe in limited rationality. Briefly, the world is really complex and our rational brains can only hold a few simple variables at once. Rationality assumes simplicity.
In some cases, we can provide a simple model of something that turns out to be very useful. Hence, my interest in budgets and planning. Financial planning sometimes seems complex, but in comparison to how complex the world really is, any kind of budgeting represents an extreme simplification of our financial circumstances. My brain likes simplification.
Since I like abstractions, my brain can hold a relatively large number of abstract ideas at the same time. I emphasize the word relatively here, because it is important to note that while I can hold a large number of abstract ideas compared to other people, when compared with the actual complexity of any real problem, the number is woefully deficient.
Mercedes, on the other hand, like other romantics, does not pretend to be able to capture the world in a set of oversimplified models. She relies more on intuition and subconscious cues. Her brain prefers processing large amounts of information, while my brain prefers processing small amounts of information (e.g., things that can be fit into an equation).
To me, this is the difference between rational and romantic. Rational = small but powerful bits of information. Romantic = large amounts of information that are hard to simplify. Thus, her brain looks more to the moment when determining whether things are all right. The moment is information rich. The future is information poor.
In addition to spending, Mercedes also demands attention. How this plays out is that she will think of something she wants me to do and then ask me to do it. If I don’t, she gets mad. Most of the time, the things she wants me to do are at least somewhat worthy of doing in and of themselves. But I think even more important than accomplishing a task, Mercedes wants to know, regularly and in the moment, that I am willing to spend time on her.
In other words, there is a connection between her preference for spending and her preference for seeking attention. Both forms of consumption are ways for an intuitive (i.e., romantic) brain to convince itself that things are all right.
So let’s get back to the concept of maintenance. In Zen, the author treats motorcycle maintenance as an exercise in rationality (because you can diagnose problems with a motorcycle using a logical analysis). But I see maintenance as complexity. Life would be simpler if once you built something it didn’t break or decay. The need for maintenance is a constant reminder that nothing is perfect, nothing is simple. Maintenance is also a distraction that prevents me from focusing, from making progress.
But maintenance is necessary because complexity is real. Our simple, rational models break down and need constant fixing. A romantic mind, one who thrives on processing large amounts of information subconsciously, is not too bothered by this. They own it and use it. A high maintenance person is one who embraces the complexity and chaos of the world. They demand constant attention because they know that without it, everything falls apart. Even a perfectly formed budgetary plan will fall apart unless it is constantly being maintained, revised, and yes, tested under stress.
Finding Zen in a relationship requires understanding why a relationship needs maintenance, what that looks like, and why it is probably an asymmetric process. It requires a balance between rationality and romanticism. But in a real relationship that balance looks a little different than you might think. Relationship balance means finding room to focus and plan, while making the constant need for attention a pleasurable and enjoyable pastime. It all depends on your attitude.