(Note: these articles refer largely to normative modern western culture. When I say “most people” or “most relationships,” I’m speaking descriptively, not prescriptively. There are absolutely exceptions to all of it, and if you’re in one of those, or in a subculture in which that exception is the norm, I don’t want to give the impression that there’s anything wrong with that)
One of the things I’ve noticed after nearly a decade of therapy is that the word “preference” seems insufficiently strong for a lot of things people want that nevertheless don’t rise to the level of being called a need. For most people, not getting their preferred ice cream flavor won’t ruin an otherwise good day, but for some, coming home to find dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor can make the world feel like it’s falling apart.
This becomes most clear in relationship counseling, where two or more people are trying to live together and accommodate each other’s desires while having their own respected. On some level we know “I prefer a clean home” is not the same as “I prefer vanilla ice cream,” but people don’t often consider how this difference in intensity-of-preferences can impact relationships when they’re unaligned.
On the other hand, there are some “preferences” we generally understand to be inflexible and important. Asking a heterosexual person to enjoy intercourse with someone of the same sex, or asking a pansexual person to only enjoy porn involving heterosexual pairings, would be considered not just rude but basically impossible. In extreme situations someone might try to enjoy something they don’t, or have a physical reaction while being mentally uncomfortable, and this would generally be understood to be tragic.
That brings us to a commonly used word that is generally understood to mean more than simple preference: “orientation.”
I’ve found that a lot of difficulties people have in relationships come from treating things more like preferences than orientations. To be clear, even this is a spectrum. There are clusters on the far ends which can easily be labeled one or the other, but any sort of comprehensive universal list is impossible.
What we can do is notice the sorts of things that are more useful to treat as orientations. Here’s the list of things I believe most people in relationships explicitly and consciously treat this way:
- Attraction (sexual orientation included as implicit)
- Children (how many, and usually a rough idea of of when they’ll be had)
- Career (roughly how much money each person is expected to make/how many hours worked)
- Religion (decreasingly, but many would still end a marriage if their partner came out as atheist or converted to a different faith)
- Politics (increasingly, particularly among younger folk; “swipe left if you voted for X.”)
To some degree this feels like a good summary of the sorts of “impersonal” things it makes sense to be explicit and upfront about with your partners as deal-breakers.
But when we dig deeper into the day-to-day lives of those in relationships to observe the sorts of things that cause ongoing conflict, we see more. Here’s an incomplete list of what I believe people implicitly and often unconsciously treat this way:
- Pets (how many and what kind)
- Living location (assuming you will live together)
- Extended family (how involved will they be)
- Diet (Increasingly common for vegetarians and vegans)
- Cleanliness (both hygiene and home)
- Relationship type (Monogamy vs some form of open or poly. Some make this explicit, but for most people a monogamy is the unquestioned assumption)
Some of those may seem a bit absurd to put in the same bucket as questions like “should we have kids or not,” but consider how upset someone might be if their partner of many years suddenly decided that they didn’t want to have pets anymore. If that’s too easy (it likely feels synonymous for pet owners), what if over the course of a year your partner came to the inescapable conclusion that they want to live totally off the grid? Some people might be open to such changes or try to adapt. For most, this would end the relationship.
So, when I use the word “orientations,” what I’m referring to are preferences which have a high cost to ignore, and in most cases are unlikely to quickly change. Some people legitimately cannot relax, cannot find mental peace, if their environment doesn’t meet a certain level of cleanliness… and if two people have a substantial difference in what they consider “clean enough” looks like, they can end up in a state of endless conflict, even if it’s minor or suppressed on most days.
I think we also improve our empathy and understanding of each other when we view more things as orientations rather than preferences. In the below articles, I intend to describe how these preferences better fit the “orientation” model, and what sorts of problems can arise from mismatches in relationships without a natural alignment for them.
Edit: Jacob Falkovich has written a good post on Entertaining vs Building orientations.