Things Fall Apart: A View of Why Relationships Fail

Not long ago, I wrote about how modern relationships don’t form deep roots because of the “trading up” phenomenon, which refers to the influence of dating apps like Tinder on people’s dating preferences. Instead of finding someone good enough and settling, people get addicted to “swiping right” and think they’ll be able to find some better (or at least someone else). However, this combination of unfounded egotism and boundless optimism prevents one from being introspective. If, for you, romance only exists in the confines of an app or on a physical level, you might encounter a slew of long-term problems that dissolve your relationship. This is because romance rests, in large part, on one’s understanding of their own mind; if you don’t even know yourself, how can you meaningfully expect to know — and connect on a sustainable romantic level — with someone else?

The answer is that you can’t. Without a core understanding of oneself, it’s hard to have deep personal connections. People constantly think that they know what they want. However, what people say and what they do are often at odds. Revealed preference theory, pioneered by American economist Paul Samuelson, shows us this mathematically. People will tell us that they want certain things: I might say “I’d like strawberry ice cream,” for example. This is known as a stated preference. People offer stated preferences that diverge from reality for any number of reasons, including fear of shame, desire to belong, and even unconscious desires that they themselves do not realize. So, while I state a preference for strawberry ice cream, I only said that because I know you like it and I want you to like me. If you ever saw me eat ice cream you’d know that my revealed preference is for mint chocolate chip. Revealed preferences are what people actually want, as shown by their empirically observed behavior.

We can see the difference between stated and revealed preferences in dating with a real world example. I was recently chatting with a friend of mine, who follows a pattern of relationships. She has a stated preference for tall, lanky Caucasian men who are a little bit geeky. She easily finds guys who fit that stated preference and begins to date them; these relationships last for about half a year and then fizzle out due to varying core personality differences. She then says, “Ok, I need to learn to be single,” only to soon enter another relationship with a similar type of guy with the same result. Thus, we can see that her revealed preferences must be different from her stated preferences if a pattern of behavior has emerged.

At this point, you may claim: Stop! I know what the problem is: your friend just sucks as a person. I would respond to you: Maybe, but probably not, because my friend isn’t Taylor Swift. No, instead, I’d make a simplifying assumption that we’re following the “subjective theory of value.” For our purposes, this theory states that the relationship value of a given romantic partner X is not determined directly by any of their intrinsic traits (intelligence, wit, humor, etc.) nor by any of their extrinsic features (educational pedigree, clothes, wealth, etc.), but by the value ascribed to partner X by partner Y for the achievement of Y’s desired ends. So, in my friend’s case, a relationship is merely an expression of the value she places on a partner rather than an expression of the value that partner places on her.

With that in mind, we can move on. It is, at this point, crucial to note that the failure of one set of stated preferences to provide longterm utility does not actually reveal the right set of preferences. It merely tells us that we have exhausted a failed set. No, to determine revealed preferences in romantic endeavors, empirical behavior is not at all a reliable indicator. Since relationships are not consumed in the way that, say, ice cream is, we cannot rely on observed behavior as a yardstick of revealed preferences.

Instead, we must appropriate an element of Freudian psychoanalysis: latent content. In dream analysis, the latent content refers to the hidden meaning of one’s unconscious thoughts, drives, and desires. Freud thought that the unconscious mind suppressed difficult and primitive feelings in order to shield our conscious minds and that, by uncovering the meaning of one’s most profound motives, an individual could successfully resolve his or her internal tensions.

While modern psychoanalysis is a complex hybrid of art and science, here are some ways to get started. When you have thoughts about your preferences, interrogate them. If I like mint chocolate ice cream, is it truly because I really enjoy the flavor or is it because other factors have impacted my preferences? In many cases, you’ll note that your preferences have been shaped by external forces; sometimes, that’s alright, but other times you’ll notice that a preference begins to feel artificial after you diagnose its causes. At that point, you can likely scrap that preference to make way for something else.

Another way into your own mind is through semiotic associations. Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. It explores why certain signs (visual and linguistic) have the meanings they do. For example, examining why a “thumbs up” on the side of the road means hitchhiking whereas the same gesture in a social setting indicates positive emotion is a semiotic inquiry. Human thought-streams more often occur in images than words; if you can slow your mind down enough to question the meanings of the images you see in your thoughts and dreams, you might uncover some latent preferences. Once you can act on your latent preferences, you’ll likely see your relationship quality go up because you can then be authentic with yourself and others.

Also published on Medium.


  1. Relationships are ironic in their nature. The physical attributes that you are initially attracted to do not determine its long term success. The quality we are truly looking for in our partners is how they make us feel and that my friend is impossible to tell from a glance. So – is Taylor Swift wrong in that she continues to fail but her knowledge continues to grow on what she is looking for? Or, are those with less relationship experience wrong because waiting for who they view as the right person does not increase the chances of a lasting relationship?

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Robert. Regarding your Taylor Swift point, my argument is that failure doesn’t teach you what’s right for you, it merely teaches you one set of possible wrongs to avoid in the future. So perhaps marginal experience doesn’t really help unless it does teach you about what you like?

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