The main post office for the Tampa Bay area is near my office; I tend to have to go there fairly often. Attached to the post office is a United States Passport Office as well. Might not seem like that has anything to do with relationships, but I’m getting there, I promise…
The Passport Office is a single tiny room, about eight feet by twelve feet, and there’s a desk and about four or five chairs in it. Whenever I go to the post office, on any given day there are about 25 or 30 people waiting to get passports.
Now, I’ve never had to get a passport, but even assuming the people who work in the passport office are phenomenally efficient for bureaucrats (which I doubt) and can process each person in about two minutes (which I doubt), that means those 30 people are waiting there for an hour or so.
There’s no room in the passport office for thirty people, so every time I go to the post office I see a lot of people waiting in the tiny concrete courtyard just outside the passport office. The courtyard is ringed by a low concrete wall, about three feet high.
The wall is plastered with signs that say “Do Not Sit on Wall.” It seems clear what’s happened here–people go to the passport office, they end up waiting for an hour (or, likely, a lot longer), there’s no room in the office for them, and there’s no place to sit. So, they sit on the wall, somebody somewhere didn’t like people sitting on the wall, a rule was made, signs were printed and stuck to the wall.
What’s interesting is that it seems the bureaucrats did not think about why people were sitting on the wall. People were sitting on the wall because there’s no place else to sit, and because standing on concrete for an hour or more is no picnic. Had the bureaucrats actually wanted to solve the problem, there was no need to pass a “no sitting on the wall” rule; all they really needed to do was put some benches out in the courtyard, and let people sit on those.
I’ve been in relationships with similar rules. It seems like a very human impulse to say “I don’t like people doing X, so the way to address people doing X is to tell them not to do X;” it’s much more difficult to say “I don’t like people doing X. Why are these people doing X? Why don’t I like people doing X? Is there some change i can make in my environment such that people won’t do X any more, or some change i can make in myself such that when someone does X, it doesn’t bother me?”
In the past several years, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort, whenever I’m thinking about or talking about relationship rules, to identify the “whys” behind my behavior, the behaviors of my partners, and the things about those behaviors that are significant to me or to them, and then put chairs in the courtyard rather than putting signs on the wall. The results, both in terms of the way my relationship structures look and in terms of my own personal happiness, have been nothing short of amazing.
Sometimes, a little change in worldview makes all the difference.