How Other People Screw Us Up in a Relationship (Part 1)

I was in an abusive relationship. Not physically abusive. But abusive nonetheless. My partner was controlling, manipulative, and disrespectful of boundaries. When I would express that I wanted to change something, I’d get one of several responses.

The first was a trauma reaction of her own — she’d take what I said to the furthest extreme and base her reaction on that. “I want to stop treating time as implicitly belonging to one another, but to deliberately dedicate time to one another. Don’t assume we’re doing something after work, or that we’re having dinner together, and instead ask if the other would like to have dinner together or do something after work.”

Now, when I first expressed this thought, I had actually just read this article and realized that some of these things applied to us. So I sent her the article and sat down to talk about it after she read it. She shut it down with “I don’t like it” and refused to elaborate.

The second time, I opened with this one point, and addressed how it made me feel when time was assumed to be available to the other person. When I assumed her time was available and it wasn’t, it left me feeling disappointed or hurt. When she assumed my time was available, it made me feel like I couldn’t make other plans. I explained that there were times where I had been invited to a friend’s house after work, and was thinking about it, and she’d ask me what I wanted to have for dinner, which made me totally close down thoughts about other plans.

So I thought I’d explained this in a reasonable way. I explained how it was affecting me. I explained how I thought the deliberate allocation of time would bring more focus to our shared time, causing us to make plans instead of just sitting around showing one another memes on our phones. I explained how it would make me feel better. The answer I got was, “I’ll just assume you’re always busy, I’ll make plans every night with other people, so I’ll never be home and we won’t see one another.” By this point in the relationship, I’d gotten this sort of reaction often enough that it just frustrated me and I abandoned the discussion.

The next time I brought it up, I more or less said the same thing, but this time I was dating someone else and had de-escalated the relationship to a friendship and live-together situation. The response that time was, “You’re going to run off every time she calls, whether we have plans or not,” “You’re going to be off with her constantly so we’ll never see one another,” and something between a request and a demand for my time for literally every upcoming event she could think of or find online that she was remotely interested in. I tried to clarify and reassure, with the first two responses, but by the time we got to the third, I could see that the discussion was no longer in good faith. By this time, however, I wasn’t interested in her comfort level. I just told her it was what I needed and it was how I was going to handle my time from then on.

Subcultures, Small Social Circles, and Weirdness

Subcultures are known for behaviors that seem, to people not immersed in them, to be strange, nonsensical, and even mildly threatening. Members of a subculture often have their own ways of communicating with other members, with specific baseline assumptions and subtext that don’t translate outside that particular subculture, or, in some cases, even to other members of the subculture in a different region.

Small social circles have this same problem. If you spend all your time talking to just a few people, you build baseline assumptions that apply to those people, but are less likely to apply outside that group. You make unconscious assumptions that affect what you say and how you say it.

And if most of your discussion of a certain type is with just one person – relationship discussions, for example, you are not prepared for having those same discussions with another person and getting the same results. I used to talk about how much I’d learned about how to discuss feelings and needs, and how good I felt like I was at it, based on my successful and productive discussions. It was painful watching other people struggle through the communication issues I had overcome.

Then I realized that I was only great at having those discussions with one person, as soon as I tried to apply those same techniques to someone with a wildly different discussion style. That new person drove me nuts. It seemed like they didn’t understand anything I said. I felt like I was constantly re-explaining things to them because I wasn’t getting the “right” responses indicating understanding so we could move the discussion forward. Even what I thought should be simple discussions turned into arguments.
Finally, they said something to me that made me realize that what I was doing just wasn’t working for them.

So I had to adapt and learn a new communication style. And I had to do it again with the next person. And the next. Then I starting dating someone I’d been friends with for years, and I had to learn how to adapt the communication style we’d settled into to be able to discuss the more delicate things one has to discuss in a more emotionally intimate relationship. I’m still working on that, months later.

Along with communication, subcultures often develop some ways of handling certain interactions and social situations that are functional within the subculture, but range from inappropriate to completely destructive outside the subculture. These are based on the same sort of baseline assumptions as the communication styles — that this person is like us in this way, and is going to act or react in a predictable way.

This happens with small social circles as well, and, to a larger degree, within long-term intimate relationships. Then we get into a different intimate relationship, we behave in a way that seems appropriate or has a predictable reaction from the other person, we don’t get the reaction we expect, and we’re left confused and lost about what just happened. Or we hear or observe something, make an assumption about what’s going on, and react in the way we’re used to, and things derail from there.

Make those expected behaviors codependent, and those reactions trauma responses, and there’s a whole lot of pain to go around.

The Realities of Compromise

We’re told “compromise” is a key to successful relationships. Meet in the middle is what most of us hear, and that’s the fault of both society and people who write about this stuff. Meeting in the middle often leads to solutions that often leave both people less than happy. If it’s important enough that we hold our ground to the point of having a compromise discussion, it’s probably important enough that meeting in the middle is going to make us unhappy.
Another meaning of compromise is giving up something of lesser important to get something of greater importance. “I’ll find something to do by myself every other Friday night so you can go out with your friends, if you’ll go to dance classes with me.” Not “I know you want to stay out late with your friends on Friday nights, but I want you here, so why don’t you leave partway through the evening?”

How to Screw Up Multiple Relationships All at Once

I talked about how to screw yourself up in a relationship. But let’s make it even more complex — you’re not monogamous. One relationship ended, but you have others. Uh oh… Now you’re struggling to undo a bunch of weird shit that accumulated over the years with one partner, especially if they were a long-term partner and/or a nesting partner. Your other partners, if they’re lucky, didn’t find this stuff to be problematic. If they’re unlucky, they’ve been struggling along with it.

Or we start to get centered and realize what sort of an ass we’ve been to them. Or we start acting differently, so they do too. Or we realize that, as we find ourselves again, they’re not what we want. Or we’re not what they want anymore. Oof. Maybe it would have been a good idea to catch that codependency shit early and nip it in the bud.

Problem is, most of us think that’s how relationships are supposed to work. It’s the societal presentation of how relationships work. “We” this and “we” that. “Our” life. The whole relationship escalator thing. It’s so ingrained that people will tell you that your perfectly functional, non-codependent relationship is weird, or you’re doing it wrong. Or they harass you indefinitely – “when are you going to move in together?” “You’ll start doing things differently now.”

Dysfunctional power exchange is a norm in societal presentation of relationships – “They let you do that?”
It’s not possible to successfully run multiple relationships when you treat them like that. This is part of why many non-monogamous people won’t date someone that has a long-term entangled relationship, or will do so cautiously.

How to Screw Yourself Up in a Relationship

When interacting with one person a disproportionate amount (such as a domestic partner), our mental models of other people tend to get filled with stuff derived from that experience. We think people will react the same, communicate the same, have the same base values. We have the same aversive or maladaptive reactions to situations that seem similar to ones that have gone poorly. We try the same tactics to defuse tense situations. And those other people? They’re probably doing the same thing with us, to some extent or another, depending on how aware they are of how their mental models work.

And we go and base parts of our mental model of ourselves on the feedback we got from our interactions with that partner. This leads to even more problems, because we think we’re good at [cooking / talking / sex], but we’re really not. Not in general, though we might be for one particular person, or really, just our mental model of that person, so hopefully at least that one model is fairly accurate.

These two things, when a long-term relationship ends, combine to leave many of us as a bag of screwy ideas of who we are and how to interact with other people. Codependency is a bitch. We’re not who we are; we’re who we shaped ourselves to be with that person. We don’t know how to interact with people; we know how to interact with that person. And we didn’t even realize how weird our reactions to certain situations were getting. Our friends tried to point some of it out, but we ignored them. Everybody’s different when they’re in a relationship, anyway, right?

And now we get to figure ourselves out again. If we’re lucky, we have a friend or two who have been around since before the relationship began and who are more centered than we are. If we’re really lucky, we remember who we were before. If we’re not lucky at all, we get to stumble around while we figure out what we really want, and not what “we” the couple wanted. And you wondered why nobody wants to date someone fresh out of a long-term relationship?

Now make that relationship toxic. Make the ex-partner abusive, manipulative, or controlling. Well, we’re in for a doozy of a time even figuring out what screwy shit we’ve internalized, much less undoing it. It’s therapy time.

Mental Models

Mental models are a cognitive science concept. We build mental models to represent reality in ways that we can process, or that make it easier to make decisions. These mental models are by their nature incomplete – limited by our knowledge and biased by our experience.

One of the characteristics of a mental model is that they can cause selective perception – information presented to us that is contrary to our mental model is disregarded. When we’re presented with new information that doesn’t match our mental model, in a way that has to be acknowledged, it can cause cognitive dissonance.

So, given that our knowledge of everything around us is always incomplete, we should be constantly updating our mental models. This means we must learn to recognize, understand, and deal with cognitive dissonance.

Many people never get past this step (because cognitive dissonance is a hell of a drug), and so end up with extremely skewed mental models, which can cause confusion, maladaptive responses or behaviors, and repeated cognitive dissonance.

We build mental models of people too. These form early on in getting to know someone, which means they’re based on extremely sparse information and experiential inference. They tend to be inaccurate to extremely inaccurate, especially when our interaction with a person is limited to specific social contexts (such as online or in an activity-based club).

When our initial interaction with someone is online – on a dating site, for example – our mental model tends to get filled with all sorts of made up bullshit. The sound of their voice, inflection, body language, how they look from various angles – this stuff is never accurate, and when we meet them in real life, we spend the whole first meeting repeatedly and uncomfortably dealing with cognitive dissonance as we update our mental model with one new piece of information after another.

This is, in part, why first meetings from dating sites can be extremely awkward, even after getting along and having easy conversation online. There’s an accuracy dip somewhere in between the initial conversation and much, much later, during which we’re already filling hole after hole in our mental model with made up shit. Talk with someone for a day before meeting? Not a problem. Talk with them regularly for years and years before meeting? There will be a few things, but probably not too much. Talk with them just long enough to decide we’re interested in meeting them (which is usually a few days to a couple weeks)? Now we’re in the dip. The bullshit zone. We’ve filled our mental model with a bunch of stuff we’re going to have to toss out if we want it to be accurate.

When we’re interacting with people, we’re basing our behavior on our mental model of that person, which is filled with inferred information drawn from our own selves and our experience with other people. This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing, because that’s what experience is for. The problem is that we should be constantly tossing out that filler when we’re presented with new – correct – information. In essence, when someone says or does something that’s new to us, we should pay attention and integrate it into our mental model. This is something that must be done throughout one’s experience with a person. Even with people we think we know well, if we don’t update our mental model when they show us they’ve changed, we’re going to have problems interacting with them.

This presents a particular problem within an intimate relationship (not only romantic relationships, but also family and close friendships). It’s extremely easy to think we “know someone”, when what we know is a collection of information from different snapshots of time, mixed in with a bunch of stuff we just inferred, and – sometimes – deliberately incorrect or incomplete information provided by the other person. It can be easy to lose track of what’s actual knowledge and what’s inference, not to mention sorting out what we were deliberately told versus what we’ve observed on our own, and inaccurate information we were given because someone wanted us to like them. (Aside: don’t do that. Just be authentic and open and don’t worry about the people who aren’t compatible with you.) And it can be easy to let selective perception run wild, because when we think we fully know someone, we get lazy.

Biases and Experiences with RPGs

Why do some people hate certain game systems or certain mechanics? For some, it’s because they gave them a fair try and truly don’t get along with them.

For others, it’s because they didn’t understand the rule, didn’t play it right, or had a bad referee. For instance:

Well, I mean… real talk: I hate, HATE, critical hit and botch tables. And I have ever since MERP/RoleMaster. 10 minutes into playing my very first MERP character (a Bree Hobbit Burglar), I was chasing an NPC bad guy thief across the rooftops of Bree in the middle of a moonlit night to get The Thing and stop The Plan and I botched, rolling, “your fall turns into a dive; you land on your head and die.” No Save. No HP loss. Just instant death. Because table.

(From Reddit)

Sure enough, that result is there on the Moving Maneuver table. At 120. Now, MERP (along with Rolemaster) is a percent-based system. So, how do we roll 120 on a table that should run 1-100? At the bottom of the table, there’s a list of modifiers based on maneuver difficulty, where the relevant modifier is, by the rules, presented by the gamemaster before the task is attempted. To get 120 on this table, the player would have had to roll 100, then apply the +20 Absurd difficulty modifier. This is the worst possible result you can get on this table, and you can, literally, only get it when attempting an absurdly difficult task.

Am I saying the story didn’t go down like this posted said? No. There are a few possibilities, though:

  • The gamemaster didn’t give the difficulty before the task, as stated in the rules – which means he didn’t know the rules, or ignored them to withhold the difficulty.
  • The player chose to willingly attempt an absurdly difficult task, and therefore to accept the repercussions.
  • They played the rules very, very wrong.

And now we have a player who hates critical tables (and probably Rolemaster as well), because something went wrong, once, in a game.

That’s all it takes – one bad moment – for someone to form a lasting impression. It’s important to speak up when something rubs you the wrong way about a game, or when a rule doesn’t make sense, or doesn’t fit the sort of game the group agreed on. (Your group did discuss what sort of game everyone wanted, right?) Take a moment, discuss things, and work together to resolve the differences, whether it be re-reading a rule to understand it more thoroughly, re-rolling something because information wasn’t clearly communicated, or even stepping back a bit in the fiction to correct something.

(The player also, by telling their story, may have swayed someone else with little experience away from Rolemaster, especially if they’ve heard lots of other people (many of whom have admittedly never played it, and are just repeating what they’ve heard) talk about how bad Rolemaster is to play.)

Opening Locked Doors in Early D&D Systems (or, Not Every System is for Everyone)

While reading about Mythras Classic Fantasy (an updated version of the BRP monograph), I ran across this:

The door is locked. No, you are not a thief so you can’t pick the lock; do you have a Magic-User with the “Knock” spell? No? Oh, well you can’t open a locked door then.

“Doors are common in most dungeons. Many doors are locked, and most doors are stuck. If locked, a door cannot be opened until a thief unlocks it or until a magic-user casts a Knock spell upon it… If not locked, a stuck door can be forced open by any character.” – Dungeon Master Rulebook (BECMI), 1983, page 16.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this about Dungeons & Dragons… right up until there’s a locked door and our level 1 party doesn’t have a Thief. It’s a game more than it’s about reality – these oddities arise from the need to give Thieves a role and desire to keep away from a skill system. Remember: I’m running a BECMI game right now, and loving it!

Now, the Dungeon Masters Rulebook does say this in the “Procedures and Rules” section.  The Players Manual, on the other hand, in the “Adventuring Rules” section, says (on page 57):

Normal doors can often be forced or broken open, but a strong bar of wood mounted on the other side will prevent this.


To open a normal door, just tell your DM that you are doing so. The DM will assume that you are turning the handle, pulling the ring, or pushing on it gently. If it doesn’t open, you may tell the DM “I’ll force the door.” Your character is then using Strength to open it, which may be successful if the door is merely stuck quite (quite common in dungeons). If the door still does not open, it may be locked, barred, or closed magically; or your attempt might have simply been unsuccessful, based on a dice roll.  Try again!

While this section does not state clearly that you can force a locked door open, it implies it.  Of course, common sense says we should be able to break a lock by trying to force the door, hitting the lock with a hammer, or possibly chopping at the door with an axe (if it’s wood).

This rule on locked doors in the Dungeon Master Book appears to be a BECMI-ism (and the books are not in exact agreement on the rule), because it doesn’t appear in any other early editions of the game.

Moldvay says:

Doors in a dungeon are usually closed, and are often stuck or locked.  A lock must usually be picked by a thief.

and Holmes says:

Doors are usually closed and often stuck or locked. They have to have the locks picked or be smashed open.

Neither explicitly states that locked doors must be picked to open, which is unsurprising if one considers the approach to the rules as a framework during the era.

OD&D is, unsurprisingly, silent on the issue, since thieves didn’t appear until Greyhawk. It seems unlikely that players of the era would just say, “Oh, the door’s locked. I guess we can’t go that way,” or go looking for a magic user with Knock – the description of which says that it “opens secret doors, held portals, doors locked by magic, barred or otherwise secured gates, etc.” – the spell appears to be intended to be used for bypassing doors that are heavily secured or for which the opening mechanism isn’t obvious.

(It’s interesting to note that the description of what’s later codified as the thief’s open locks ability in Greyhawk is “open locks by picking or foiling magical closures” – which implies the thief can use the ability to open magically locked items or doors.)

First edition AD&D actually explicitly states that you can open locked door by brute force (Dungeon Master’s Guide, page 97):

A roll of 1 or 2 typically indicates success, anything above indicates the door still remains unopened. (Cf. PLAYERS HANDBOOK, Character Abilities, Strength.) Very heavy doors  might reduce chances by half. Locked doors might only open if two or even  three simultaneous 1’s are rolled.

Of course, at this point you’re probably saying, “well, this guy is probably used to running 3.5 or Pathfinder, or some similar system where everything is explicitly laid out in the rules, and he didn’t stop to think about if the rule made sense.”  And that might be a reasonable assumption, except he also says this:

I didn’t miss skills checks. Nor did I miss critical hits and fumbles, special feats, or any of the other additional rules that 1st edition D&D led me to believe I needed… and which 3rd, 4th, and even 5th edition retained.

When the players searched a location, they simply described what they wanted to do and I used logic (and the notes) to respond. A couple of times, as directed by the adventure, they had to make a Saving Throw to avoid a potentially dangerous consequence of poking their noses into things… but we really didn’t need any skill checks. In fact, the to-and-fro of description and decision was as delicious as it was simple. We were roleplaying.

Last night I finally and deeply understood the value of “rulings not rules”. The game flowed and the story of the characters unfolded naturally. It was good fun! And I really don’t know if I feel the need to play with all those extra rules.

Certainly, with later editions there are lots of cool abilities and powers for players to explore and unleash on their opponents. Yet, as Dungeon Master, this older way of playing was more rewarding because it was much more deeply engaging. Instead of reducing the action to a die roll resolution, we roleplaying it through decision, description, and consequence.

Aside from the inaccurate reference to  “1st edition D&D” – he’s probably talking about first edition AD&D, which has no critical rules, no feats, and no skills until you add the nonweapon proficiencies system from Oriental Adventures Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide / Wilderness Survival Guide (which is a far-from-comprehensive system) – he mentions how he finally understands the value of “rulings not rules” and continues on to say he doesn’t know if he feels the need for a bunch of extra rules.

This is all mentioned in the context of a BRP-derived game that he wants to use to replace D&D, which is fine – play the game you want (and I tend toward skill-based systems,  myself) – but you can’t treat early D&D systems as simulationist.  There’s a lot of leeway in the rules, even in first edition AD&D, which was intended to be a comprehensive ruleset oriented toward tournament play.

I’m not sure the author quite got the “rulings, not rules” mindset as well as he thought he did.  The original article listed six points where he didn’t get along well with D&D, so it’s probably safe to say it’s just not the right system for his style of play.