A builder’s approach to relationships
Go for win-win, or you’ll get lose-lose
The idea of going for “win-win” in our relationships isn’t new. Most traditional communication frameworks push for this approach over various “win-lose” approaches. Here’s a common way this idea gets represented:
In my own work with couples, cofounders, and anyone looking to improve their relationships, I present this modified version instead:
The basic insight here is that no one ultimately benefits from a relationship in which someone’s needs are being steamrolled over.
This is easiest to see by thinking back to the relationships—whether personal or professional—where we were the ones on the allegedly “winning” side of these “win-lose” scenarios: e.g., when we were being aggressive jerks to someone we love, or when someone was passively deferring to us at their own expense. Maybe we kept airing our frustrations without pausing to listen to theirs, or maybe we were underperforming but they didn’t want to hurt our feelings by telling us.
Who actually “wins” in these scenarios? How do they play out? Sooner or later the other person’s frustration and unhappiness start to show; we feel less and less appreciated, or like we’re somehow a burden, combined with a sense of helplessness to do anything about it. Maybe we start doubting our own worth and capabilities, which then makes us defensive in ways that only breed further distrust and resentment in them. Worse still, we waste time stagnating when we could have been growing—whether through this relationship (if we’d been getting regular input and feedback about what’s not working), or through whatever other relationships or growth opportunities we might have pursued instead. And if we manage to get comfortable with this situation, we do so at the cost of significant damage to our own character—by turning ourselves into someone who is at ease being on the receiving end of martyrdom.
In this light, it might seem like a no-brainer that “winning” at the expense of those we love and care about isn’t really “winning,” in the long run. But this is not how most people—or, I daresay, even most psychologists and relationship coaches—usually think about it.
The “zero-sum” approach
This idea that “either everyone’s winning or no one is” runs counter to a deeply ingrained narrative within our culture: one that regards relationships—and human interactions generally—as zero-sum. Love is about “give-and-take,” we’re told, meaning that someone is always giving and someone is always taking. Our only choice is about how best to balance the giving and taking so that everyone gets their fair share of the relationship pie. With this comes the corollary assumption that the more we care about a person, the more we should want to give up for their sake: as Olaf the snowman cutely pontificates in Frozen, love is about “putting someone else’s needs before yours”—implying that your needs and theirs must inevitably conflict, at least often enough for you to be able to prove your love.1
Ironically, I’ve seen this approach kill the love between more couples, friends, and cofounders than probably any other factor, at least when practiced in earnest.
Part of what’s damaging about the “zero-sum” model is that it leads us to equate valuing someone else’s need fulfillment as a multiplier of our own with what is in fact its opposite: the surrender of our own need fulfillment as a kind of sacrificial offering.
For instance, suppose you and your spouse live and work in City A, but your spouse gets an amazing new job opportunity in City B. Here are two very different scenarios where you might agree to leave your current job and move to City B “for your spouse’s sake”: 1) Upon reflection, you realize that the joy and inspiration of seeing your partner succeed would be worth more to you than your current job, which is easily replaceable; plus the prospect of a fresh start is actually energizing to you. You also do some research on City B and realize that, while you would have otherwise preferred to stay in City A, City B is also a place where you can thrive. Furthermore, you and your spouse have established a mutual precedent of taking each other’s needs and preferences seriously and factoring them into your joint decision-making, so you’re confident that your willingness to compromise in this instance will not perpetuate an unhealthy pattern of deferring to your spouse’s wishes. 2) You love your job and have deep roots in City A, but you feel it would be selfish to put these considerations ahead of your partner’s needs. So you agree to the move, perhaps secretly hoping your partner will regret it after seeing how unhappy you are in City B. (I’m deliberately steering clear of the potential gender dynamics here, though suffice it to say that the “zero-sum” narrative fits very neatly with stereotypical gender roles.)
Or suppose you’ve got a friend who’s struggling through a rough period and is asking for a lot of emotional support. Here are two very different scenarios where you might devote time and energy to supporting them: 1) You’re genuinely interested in the thoughtful way your friend is processing her challenges, and genuinely want to be a part of that process. Besides, you want her happy, confident self back in your life, and you value the deeper connection and intimacy borne of sharing in her struggle. 2) You find it incredibly draining to listen to your friend vent about her struggles for hours on end, but you feel guilty for feeling this way, so you continue to spend significant time with her despite the lost opportunity to fulfill your needs for deeper connection and intimacy elsewhere.
Or suppose you’re withholding negative performance feedback from an employee, even though this means needing to pick up some of their slack. Here are two very different sets of reasons why you might be doing this: 1) Because you want to see if they’ll rise to the occasion by identifying and addressing their own performance issues, at which point you could entrust them with a more senior leadership role. 2) Because you feel they “need the job,” and you know you might not be able to justify keeping them on once their performance issues come to light. Or you simply dread hurting their feelings, or are doubting your own capacity to give feedback, or worry that their weak performance might actually be your fault, and are using their “needs” as an excuse to avoid an honest conversation.
In each “version 1” scenario above, you’ve created net value for all concerned; whereas in version 2, by assuming your loss will be their gain, you’ve actually incurred a net cost for all concerned. In each latter case there’s a festering misalignment in goals or priorities that never gets addressed, so that no one is quite getting what they want out of the relationship.
Relationships are either “win-win” or “lose-lose”; they are never zero-sum.
What builders need from relationships
Traditional communication frameworks like the “assertive-passive-aggressive” triad offer some strategies for increasing the value and mitigate some of the costs associated with these scenarios, but they fail to challenge the fundamental assumption that relationships are “zero-sum.” By putting all three approaches on a single “win-lose” continuum, they imply that there’s a certain static amount of total need satisfaction to go around, and the “assertive” approach is one where neither party wins quite as much as the “winning” party would win in the other two.
This leaves people with no principled guidance on what and how much they should be compromising for each other’s sakes—nor on when to say that the relationship is just not working. It offers no way of differentiating between a relationship where no one is too fulfilled and no one is too miserable—a relationship of mutual stasis, if you will—and a relationship where each person’s growth and fulfillment is a catalyst for the other’s. To understand the difference more fully, we need a further modification of the framework:
A builder’s need fulfillment is not zero-sum; it is as limitless as her capacity to think, work, and create. What she fundamentally needs from other people (at least as a fully functioning adult) are not static, depletable resources, but dynamics that fuel her ongoing work of building her own best life. Everything she needs from other human beings—like knowledge, inspiration, understanding, competent collaboration, coaching, thought partnership—requires the active and willing engagement of both parties. Human beings need to build; and the only way to engage with each other as builders is through mutual value creation and exchange, not through freeloading or free labor.
As expressed by a young aspiring builder in my favorite novel, Rand’s The Fountainhead, which set me on my own builder’s journey when I first read it at age 15:
Don't work for my happiness, my brothers—show me yours—show me that it is possible—show me your achievement—and the knowledge will give me courage for mine.
What this means in practice
This modified framework gives us a powerful metric for evaluating and improving the health of our relationships. Instead of trying to weigh our needs against theirs in some sort of delicate balancing act, we can simply ask: are we energizing each other to build and grow? If yes, then we’ve got “win-win”; if no, then this is the first problem we need to communicate and resolve together, whether by changing the relationship or ending it.
Remembering that the only real alternative to “win-win” is “lose-lose” should also give us the moral courage to say “no” to whatever aspects of the relationship aren’t serving our needs, even when this means facing a lot of hard conversations and hurt feelings. When we’ve searching for the words to tell someone we don’t want to move cities with them, or they’re not performing up to par, or we’re not enjoying the friendship anymore, we can keep in mind that love is not about “putting their needs before our own”—it’s about valuing, respecting, and empowering the fellow builder within them, and expecting no less in return.
Ironically, Olaf later reveals the absurdity of this widely accepted idea, when he sees Kristof rushing back to Anna’s side and says “I guess Kristoff doesn't love you enough to leave you behind.” But I’m guessing the screenwriters intended this merely as a lighthearted poke of Olaf’s tendency to take things too literally, rather than as an indictment of the whole sentiment.