Disproporational asymmetry in long-term relationships

6 minute read

So I’ve had a few unsuccessful relationships in the past, especially of late, where there was one particular pattern that made the relationship unsustainable in the long-term, despite the best intentions of both parties. That is disproportionate asymmetry of one kind or another. Let me explain.

When I use the word “asymmetry” I am speaking very broadly about a range of phenomena. It could be something as fundamental as asymmetry in traits, or benign as asymmetry in interest, or something as frustrating as asymmetry in effort invested, or as potentially dangerous as asymmetry in ethics/values, power, standards, treatment or accountability. I’m sure there are more dimensions in which it is possible to observe asymmetry.

I’m listing some examples of asymmetry for clarity as to what I’m talking about:-

  1. Asymmetry in intelligence/maturity. One person being very intelligent or mature and the other person just not being there. Let’s say they find each other very attractive for some reason. Despite that overwhelming attraction, this is eventually going to lead to frustrations in the long run. The mature person is going to feel not seen/heard and alone in that relationship and the not so mature person is going to either feel poor self-esteem in comparison or unable to relate to their more mature partner or feel like they’re being dragged forward at a pace that is not comfortable for them.
  2. Asymmetry in effort. Anyone who puts an inordinate amount of effort into the relationship with someone who doesn’t reciprocate is going to suffer eventually, even if initially they’re happy to be that way. And the other person is going to grow dependent on the disproportionate efforts of their effortful partner. This isn’t healthy for either of them.
  3. Asymmetry in ethics/values. Let’s say one person is very good-hearted and empathetic and vicariously suffers at the sight of others suffering, they’re not going to be able to enjoy the company of someone who values profit over ethics, regardless of how accepting they are. Their consensus over decision-making will suffer immensely.
  4. Asymmetry in power/control in the relationship. This is a relatively well-established red flag. One person makes all the decisions, and the other person doesn’t get to even protest, let alone participate in the decision-making. Theoretically, if the follower was to have an inordinate amount of trust upon the leader in the relationship; and if the leader were to have inordinate amount of self-control and love towards their follower in the relationship, they could live harmoniously, just as a healthy parent and child can live harmoniously in a relationship that is asymmetrical in the dimension of power/control. But in the context of a romantic relationship, where mutual understanding and independence are valued, this can lead to the partners missing out on fundamental joys of a more symmetrical relationship.
  5. Asymmetry in treatment. This forays into the realm of outright toxic relationships. Let’s say partner A is always kind and respectful to partner B even when they falter and is always happy to calmly explain the mistakes to partner B. And partner A is also happy to reflect on their own mistakes and change their ways. But let’s say partner B simply explodes in anger at the slightest mistake made by partner A. And the prospect of partner A pointing out the mistakes of partner B would lead to more harm to partner A than simply letting it slide. This can lead to an abuser-abusee kind of a relationship in no time.

I’m sure there are more examples for what I’m talking about (asymmetry in sexual drive, lifestyle, mental health, past trauma etc), but this should suffice in bringing clarity about what I’m talking about.

In my observation there is no such thing as a relationship between two well-intentioned individuals where only one person suffers. If one partner suffers for whatever reason, the other partner is going to suffer for different reasons. You either suffer together or rejoice together. Even if it is an abusive relationship, where it may seem that the abuser is depleting the abusee for personal pleasure, the abusee merely staying in that relationship allows the abuser to grow deeper in their toxic tendencies with immunity. And someone being toxic towards others is always a consequence of their toxicity consuming them first and overflowing onto others. They temporarily rejoice at the presence of someone else to abuse only because they don’t have to suffer their toxicity alone.

But even as I’m writing about the effect of asymmetry in long-term sustainable relationships, I am skeptical of a simplistic conclusion. As with anything, there are exceptions. There are individuals in long-term relationships with significant age gap where there is a natural asymmetry in maturity and lived experience. There are individuals in long-term sustainable relationships where one partner is significantly wealthier and savvy with money and the other person isn’t. Perhaps the asymmetry could be disproportionate, as I’ve indicated in the title. But it could still be healthy because there may be another dimension in which the relationship is symmetric that somehow counterbalances the other asymmetry. For example, let’s combine the two asymmetries I’ve pointed to as the exception here - a lonely old man with a lot of wealth and no one to share it all with falls in love with a very young woman who is struggling to pay her bills. There is clearly asymmetry in experience and wealth, but it need not lead to asymmetry in treatment or maturity. Someone young could be just as self-aware and mature as someone much older. And perhaps the young woman appreciates the benefits of being with this wealthy man so much that she shows all her affection, gratitude through how well she takes care of him and the old man cherishes her company so much that he showers her with gifts and experiences that she could never even imagine having by herself. So it could turn into a symbiotic relationship where the asymmetry could lead to phenomenal benefits for either partner.

There is an additional observation to be made here, which is that asymmetry has value. Imagine a couple who are nearly the same age as each other, they have similar upbringing and belong to the same social class, they both want to have a similar shared future and imagine symmetry across every possible dimension. Whether this couple could last the test of time isn’t straightforward to answer. I can’t imagine why such a relationship wouldn’t work simply out of the nature of it being a relationship between two similar people with similar strengths and similar weaknesses. There is nothing inherently bad about the relationship that is predominantly symmetrical. But I can imagine that in such a relationship, there wouldn’t be much in terms of exchange that contributes to each individual’s personal growth. At least not as much as there is in relationships that are richer in asymmetry. I say this because asymmetries create gradients that allow for strengths to flow from one end to the other. Asymmetries create room for growth. And by that token it takes someone who prioritizes their growth to want such a relationship. Because growth doesn’t come for free. It takes a lot of effort and initiative and an inherent desire for that growth for an individual to consciously invest effort towards their growth and enjoy that process. And it also takes a lot of tolerance and patience and commitment for the other person as they wait for their partner to grow and meet them

If this consideration of the value of asymmetry appears to be a contradiction to my primary thesis here, I have to bring the spotlight to the fact that I was talking particularly about disproportionate asymmetries. In other words, asymmetries that are too much of a gap for the individuals to succeed in bridging. And how much is too much is something that one must assess for oneself. Everyone has limits to how much they can change or tolerate in order to accommodate a relationship. And that is the reason why I speak about the effects of disproportionate asymmetries in the context of long-term relationships. It’s easy to put up with anything for a short period of time. But it can be quite overwhelming to sustain that amount of effort or tolerance in a relationship for long periods. At some point the balance between what is tolerable and what is of value may tip, leading to us asking fundamental questions about the worth of that which we compromise for.

Perhaps the most appropriate conclusion that I can draw here is that asymmetry is a factor to consider in relationships. It can be beneficial and balancing in many ways, especially if your asymmetrical relationship helps you grow stronger in areas that you’re weak by nature. There are of course asymmetries that you cannot bridge with your growth, and perhaps you may not even wish to change some things about yourself. And even in areas where you are willing to invest the effort that it will take to overcome the asymmetry, there’s a question of how much effort you can put in and how much you can withstand. There is no one answer that fits everyone.

What I’ve shared here are my cursory thoughts on the matter. None of what I’ve shared here is set in stone and is fully open for discussion. Feel free to comment down below to join the discussion!


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