I’ve been working through Jordan Peterson’s new book Beyond Order (Amazon affiliate link), breaking down each chapter into halves so I can give each a fair treatment. This is a longer chapter, and as a bachelor I have some limitations regarding the subject Peterson is focusing on here.
It took me a while to work up to writing this second part; I read it over the weekend but it’s been a couple days of thinking about it that really made it come together. I’m afraid I lost a lot of Peterson’s original thrust, in part due to my inexperience and in part because I had other things occupying a significant portion of my attention.
With that said, this was still an interesting and thought-provoking chapter.
One idea that Peterson puts forth is the idea of negotiation as an expense in its own right.
When you’re in a relationship with someone, you’re going to need to give and take, though this is often less important than getting to that stage.
The important thing to figure out is what you can give that is important to your partner, and what you need to ask for in return.
But this is merely the first step. You can’t negotiate if you don’t know what you want.
But the actual process of negotiation is even harder.
Especially if a relationship has deteriorated or become less healthy over time, it’s easy to overlook what is really necessary in a relationship until a rift occurs between a couple.
The consequence of this can be that efforts to remediate problems become–and this is often an accurate assessment, though it is made in the subjective mind and not always reflected in objective fact–an attempt to control.
This does not work. As Peterson says in a couple different ways, the options are three-fold.
- Tyranny, in which you dominate your partner and make them miserable.
- Slavery, in which your partner dominates you and makes you miserable.
- Negotiation, in which a proper balance is achieved.
There’s really no way around this, and negotiation covers a broad spectrum of things. The secret here is trade-offs. Some things are negotiable, and others aren’t. But having negotiation where you can make the things that aren’t negotiable bearable.
And if the relationship has gone downhill, these non-negotiables often exacerbate the bitter arguments that occur during the negotiation process, which can lead to outright ejection.
It is difficult and painful because it takes courage and even some foolhardiness to continue a discussion when you have been told in no uncertain terms by your partner to go the hell away (or worse).Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The problem is that the alternatives to negotiation are worse. If you’re truly at a point where negotiation can’t occur, what you have is not a relationship but a state of war.
That’s not an effective lifelong strategy, and it’s not great in the short term either.
One limitation that often obstructs negotiation is emotion.
Now, the ability to build up your strength and integrate yourself has already been a major subject of Beyond Order, so I won’t spend too much time revisiting well-trod territory.
But emotion isn’t just internal and psychological. We can ignore the long-term effects of distress on mental and physical health for now. That’s not something that improves your odds if you’ve found yourself in a failed relationship, but it’s something that you’re actively trying to address.
Because the need for hard negotiations comes about from a lack of clear communication, and clear communication is intrinsically linked to overcoming emotion, we can assume that people who have gotten to the state where they are negotiating to end hostilities have started with a deficit in this department.
Peterson lays out two major things that you have to watch for in a partner when the time comes to negotiate. They’re not necessarily conscious defense measures, but they’re common enough in both deliberate manipulation and a more benign navigation through the complex waters of relationship troubles that they can’t be written off.
The first is the anger response. When you tell someone that you have a problem with them, the natural response is anger–especially if you are significant enough in their life that they would have to change significantly to ameliorate this situation.
The events that lead to a problem in a marriage are often minor, but they are repetitive and manifold. This means that they bear compound interest, and because they are habitual and a practiced part of daily life they often wind up being absolutely deadly.
Even something minor like doing dishes or taking out the trash iterates thousands of times throughout a relationship. If you explain that your partner is not doing this up to your standards, they understand (rightly) that your complaint is major (because it has happened quite a few times) and also requires a significant effort that ripples across future iterations.
And if your communication is poor, you likely have your own petty-writ-large offenses that they can pick with you, and you need to be willing and able to fix them without becoming that same sort of monster. One person shouting lasts a few minutes, but two people shouting lasts a lifetime.
An accusation made against someone who has a rightful grievance against you is grounds for some righteous anger, even if there isn’t any moral or philosophical disagreement!
Then you run into the insecurity response, tears that have a clear emotional link to sadness. I distinguish these from crocodile tears and falsehoods because while a manipulative partner may certainly fake their emotions, it is also possible to have this response without any intent to manipulate.
And it’s not wrong.
The proper reaction to hurting someone if you’re really not intending to is sorrow. And there’s the matter of regrets, past unmet needs, and the natural emotion that surrounds relationship all playing games with each other.
Peterson describes this in greater length and detail than I can both because of my limited ability to tell it and his mastery of prose, so I’m going to cut the exploration of this stage here.
However, both stages require someone firm in their conviction to navigate their stormy waters.
It requires someone who has integrated their shadow (their stubbornness, harshness, and capacity for necessary emotionless implacability) and can use it for long-term benefit. Do not mistake “nice” with “good.”Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
It’s important to think of Jung’s process of integration here.
Integration is not the same as “using” something. It’s a utilitarian relationship in some ways, but it’s more of the idea of mastery.
Mastering something lets you choose when to use it. If you master language, you can write plainly or with a flourish, and take the most powerful and elegant path to your goals.
And a lot of the things that we hold in our shadow are weapons. They’re aggression, implacability, and the monstrous side of ourselves that society tries to deny or ignore.
Those are good things to lock away, at least at first glance.
But they also need to be present. You need to know when to wield a sword–being an absolute pacifist, I speak metaphorically–and when the time is right you need to strike without hesitation.
A good way to think about this is that the elements of the shadow which are important to master are those which can lead us to immoral action.
Being aggressive, for instance, is a tremendous thing when channeled into fair competition. But it is a horrible thing when used for greed and self-enrichment.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t be conscious of our nature and work around it, and some people are inherently conscious of different elements of their personality (i.e. have different things within their shadow).
But the important thing at this point is to understand that it is particularly a sort of will that needs to persist throughout these emotional confrontations. It needs to be mastered so that it does not result in tyranny, but it also needs to be present and ready to prevent slavery.
This is not an act of greed, but an act of edification. It is good to instill virtues in others, even if they are virtues they do not believe they possess. The odds are that if you had a perfectly virtuous partner, you would not need this advice.
But perfection is rare, and error is universal.
As someone who’s been on the receiving end of toxic relationships, I find it important to bring up–as Peterson does–that sometimes what you have is not a relationship but a one-sided invasion.
In this case, it may be time to escape.
Of course, this needs to be taken with consideration. Assuming there is no immediate risk of physical harm, it may be better to seek negotiation in perpetuity than to let a relationship fail. This requires some worthy skepticism. Perhaps you are not really negotiating, or your skills as a negotiator are insufficient but could improve to the point where negotiation is successful.
Or perhaps this has never been in good faith, or you need to escape your partner’s unintegrated shadow (or worse, integrated and deliberately uncontrolled vices).
Sometimes, you have married someone who is a psychopathic brute, a congenital and incorrigible liar, a criminal, an alcoholic, a sadist (and maybe all five at once). Then you must escape. But that is not a trapdoor. That is a catastrophe, like a hurricane, and you should move out of its path.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
As someone who’s had the unfortunate experience of a couple unbearably toxic relationships (one familial, one in the workplace with a supervisor), it’s never felt good to deal with these situations.
You need to have actual hurt to know that it’s real. Mere unpleasantness goes away when the day is over, and that’s still the territory for negotiation. But when one relationship threatens your life, or your other relationships (but not those which you should cast aside as a youth’s toys; starting a family often means changing the company you keep), it’s time to move on.
The problem here is that it’s usually expensive. The metaphor of a hurricane is apt. Ending a relationship hurts. In my case, having a major career setback (this decision wasn’t made for me, which is one downside of having someone in power over you who is a tyrant but won’t make the game easy) and losing a close familial bond were sufficiently traumatic to cause massive issues both during and after the incidents occurred.
You can tell when you’re hurting if you really look for it. You stop eating (or eat more, or a peculiar mixture of both), you enter a depressive, anxious, or manic state, your sleep schedule implodes, and you develop physical symptoms rooted in your mental and emotional distress.
When that’s happening, you need to find the cause and get it out of your life. Negotiate with it, if possible. But when negotiations fail–and most people acting in good faith will figure out that you’re having problems unless you’re hiding them, in which case negotiations will typically be quite positive–it’s important to move on.
I still believe in the value of negotiations here.
During my first year teaching, I almost burned out. I told my admin team I was going to be gone in two weeks.
They rejected my resignation, and in less than an hour of talk and advice (and the admin team more clearly communicating the standards I had to meet and the ways I was making my life more difficult for myself), I went back for two more highly successful years.
I cried for hours on the last day before I went back to get my MFA because I loved my job.
This is a balance that needs to be struck. Do not be hasty in throwing things away. The investment required to find something new is significant.
But a bad past investment doesn’t justify future investment in something that’s worse than nothing.
Romance is play, and play does not take place easily when problems of any sort arise. Play requires peace, and peace requires negotiation.Jordan Peterson, Beyond Order
The reason why it’s important to get all sorts of things right before advancing to romance–and people of my own puritan sort might want to plug their ears before reading the next sentence–is that romance isn’t sex. It’s not the romantic ideal we create for ourselves of candlelit dinners and walks on the beach.
It’s the ability to interact with someone and love them across time in a variety of ways. We might love our family in a particular fashion, we might love our friends in a particular fashion, and we might love a sexual partner in a particular fashion. The Greeks used to have distinct words for each type of love, but that’s a practice long forgotten in the modern day.
Your romantic partner will be the subject of multiple types of love simultaneously.
And that’s hard, because you’re choosing them despite flaws (yours included) and the uncertainty and opportunity presented by the outside world.
I like Peterson’s use of play as a metaphor, because that’s the sort of relationship you should have. You don’t always play, but when you do it’s predicated on communication (see Piaget, who is a revolutionary thinker on play and learning but whose work seems relevant here).
Romance is akin to the satisfaction after a long day of work. You don’t get it if you slack off and do things you know you shouldn’t, even if you can approximate the thrill. The paycheck comes in, or someone compliments you on your work.
But instead of receiving the reward authentically, the fraudster can only think: “Ha, what fools! They do not know that I did not contribute my all to my tasks.”
Or worse, the fraudster knows that they have deceived others and the whole thing could come crashing down.
Get everything down right, and you’ll be in good shape.
Don’t do that, and you’ve locked the highest outcomes behind the barriers of unmet potential.
Building a romantic relationship takes work, and one major element of that is knowing yourself and working to better yourself.
In a passage I didn’t explore, Peterson mentions the idea that you want to find someone who can help you work on your flaws while you help them with theirs. This seems compatible with romance as play (if you understand the relationship between games and learning), and is a major reason you don’t want to be alone, even if you don’t feel compelled to start a romantic relationship (e.g. if you are like me, where your interest in a romance is low but the desire for an earnest relationship is nonetheless present).