I think people you date are a bit like musical instruments, in that there’s a spectrum between ‘easy’ and ‘hard.’
‘Easy’ partners are low cost – in that engaging in a relationship with them doesn’t cost you a lot of energy you. I don’t mean energy as in ‘they don’t talk a lot,’ I mean energy as in ‘they perform actions that make relationship-specific aspects with them very easy’ – such as excellent communication or being self-motivated about exercise. Aspects that might bump someone towards the ‘low cost’ side of the spectrum are things like equal status to you, physical and emotional stability, identity independence (separating their self worth from relationship to their partner), independent wealth, or their own social network. It’s sort of like playing a song on the accordion, where you press one button and an entire chord comes out, with the notes already in harmony. The instrument is constructed so that you have to engage with it minimally to get what you want out of it.
‘Hard’ partners are high cost – in that functioning in the relationship takes a lot of energy. Mental or physical disabilities, childhood trauma, poverty, significant introversion, jealousy, or practical dependence can all contribute to being a high cost partner, as maintenance of the person themselves must be done before maintenance of the relationship. As an instrument, they’re more like… the sitar. If you haven’t played a sitar before, it’s leagues harder than an accordion. Not only do you pick one note at a time, there are dozens of strings and just holding the instrument properly can be a lesson all in its own. The process of using the sitar requires understanding the instrument well, and engaging with it closely is an integral part to making it sing. The accordion may feel like ‘playing a song,’ but a sitar feels like ‘playing the instrument.’
The low/high spectrum is also not the same thing as casual vs. committed relationships, or compatible vs. incompatible preferences. Casual relationships can still require a lot of energy, and incompatible preferences can take very little energy to handle, if lubricated with good communication and self awareness.
Now, this might start to sound like I’m calling low cost ‘desirable and good’ and high-cost ‘undesirable and bad’, but I want to steer away from that sharply. Inheriting a lot of money from a relative might push someone towards the ‘low cost’ side of the spectrum, and getting into a car accident might push them towards the ‘high cost’ side – frequently a partner’s cost is affected by things entirely outside of their control, and having these things happen to a partner probably doesn’t affect how much the relationship is ‘worth it’ or how much you love them.
The benefits of low cost partners might sound ideal, almost romantic, but I think a lot of people find relationships to be like the sitar – it’s only fun when it’s hard.
High cost partners have the ability to provide an intense sense of specialness – if they require a lot of energy to date, then you are set apart from others more distinctly by being the one to spend that energy. Not just anybody could/would spend all this energy! There may also be a greater sense of satisfaction and meaningfulness when progression is made in the relationship. And often, the sense of ‘suffering with someone’ is tragically romantic and incredibly bonding – often we feel sharing our pain is a core component of achieving intimacy, and comforting a suffering partner – and being comforted by them in turn – can make you feel fused to each other so completely that it soothes that gnawing itch of constant aloneness. Such is the appeal of unhealed wounds.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone explicitly verbalize that they are looking for a partner who will cost them a lot of energy, but it seems very obvious from observation. For example, a few years ago I watched the dating life of one of my old roommates – she shifted through a lot of attractive, easy-to-date men, only to end up disappearing to love/take care of someone who was extremely high cost – aggressive and neurotic, with a few mental disorders. It took me a while to realize that she hadn’t been duped – she was doing this deliberately, and this is what she wanted. She didn’t date him in spite of the high cost, she dated him because of it.
I don’t think that any pairing of low/high low/low high/high is bad at all, but it does seem difficult for people who’ve ended up in the relationship rather accidentally, and not because they were actively seeking it like my old roommate actively sought it.
I’ve seen a few people who prefer high cost partners date a low-cost partner and end up a bit unsatisfied. Usually their complaint (not explicitly verbalized!) is that of lack of passion – their low cost partner is a little boring, or just friendly, or cold. And the other way around is just as bad – people who prefer low cost partners are unhappy when they date high cost partners, and the experience for them is exhausting and often feels like an unnecessary distraction, or a chore.
I think that often, in both of these scenarios, the people would still say their relationship is ‘worth it.’ Once you cross the familiarity threshhold, there’s no going back really until other factors break the relationship down from the inside, or they deal with it and grow old and die. The best cure is prevention.
This is why I think learning to explicitly identify the kind of labor you want to put into a relationship – without judging that desire at all – would be very useful, because then you can avoid getting into a mismatched relationship in the first place. This may be difficult, as I suspect most people would tell themselves they want a low cost one, because that seems like the ‘right’ answer.
I think the reason for this is that high cost relationships tend to feature more intense points of unhappiness, and there’s a big “unhappiness is bad” narrative going on, and it’s nearly taboo to say “unhappiness can be fulfilling and meaningful.” Go watch a tragic movie goddamnit.
And sometimes people who want a low cost relationship end up dating a high cost partner – often because they feel that they would be a bad person if they let the difficulties affect their love for someone, or out of a sense of duty, or an unawareness that low cost partners are an available option, or because they failed to recognize early enough that their partner was high cost. I usually see this in people who are so passively nice it ends up being a defensive maneuver. I belong in this category.
Fun fact: I once impulse-bought a sitar because it’s one of the most beautiful instruments on the planet and I thought I could teach myself how to play it. I was wrong.
Basically, my point is make sure you research the instruments you buy beforehand, so you can learn to recognize signs of whether it will easily make you a beautiful song or if it will make you bleed as it slowly absorbs into your flesh and you don’t know anymore whether it is you or the instrument who is shedding those tears.
Hey, I respect the intensity.