The Minimal Threshold For Relationship

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m sure that many people have noticed how some relationships have withered away while others, through attentive nurturance, have thrived. What makes the difference?

In this post, I’d like to dig in a bit in hopes of espying something even more elemental than the question above–namely, what is the minimal threshold that any relationship needs to reach, or cross, in order to be a relationship in the first place?

Know that I’m employing the concept relationship in what strikes me as a pretty commonly used way. Therefore, I’m excluding from the start any “connections of utility”; the latter are “transactional” and, as such, are only mutually beneficial or advantageous so long as they remain so. Let these fall outside of the scope of this inquiry. Furthermore, I’m also excluding any ongoing obligations where said obligations are said to be what you “must” fulfill because of custom, need, or whatever.

I suppose I can add a qualifier, then, and call relationships of the kind I have in view voluntary ones. Well, I think this is enough of a preamble.

So then: what are the most parsimonious conditions that need to be satisfied in order for a non-relationship to cross the threshold to a relationship? (I’m not speaking yet of a “good” or a “great” relationship, only of a (voluntary) one.)

I. Greeting Presence and Farewelling Presence

The first condition takes us into hellos and goodbyes. Very simply, both persons have to be able and willing to greet each other with minimum presence. In person, this often means looking each other in the eyes and saying, “Hello” and “Goodbye.” In digital forms, there needs to be an experience of something comparable: someone addressing you by name, someone writing to you (and not sending a form email), someone saying goodbye to you, and so on.

It’s clear, alas, that not that many people are meeting others with presence in the way specified above. On that score, no relationship, in the sense I mean, is yet possible. Equally clear is what it’s like to be in the presence of someone who is meeting you with presence. So simple, so open, so plain, so welcoming.

II. A Minimal Exposition of Care

Here is where the inquiry becomes more involved.

To be sure, each must exhibit minimum care for the other. But that alone is not sufficient. That is, care must flesh itself out in speech and action. Thus:

  1. That minimum care needs to be expressed in at least the forms of (a) curiosity, (b) memory, and (c) imagination. Here, all of these virtuously circle back on, and around, each other–e.g., curiosity funnels back into care, curiosity comes from while reinforcing memory, and curiosity requires, while feeding off of, imagination. The same is true for memory and imagination.
  2. Next, from curiosity and imagination (but not from the “vector of memory” since the latter simply makes possible curiosity and imagination) empathy arises in the implicit question: What is it like for you to be you? All my questions that have to do with relationship are, in fact, attempts to keep answering this question. And, once again, empathy funnels back into curiosity and imagination, and curiosity, memory, and imagination funnel back into care.

Naturally, then, if all is going well, minimum care (via curiosity, memory, and imagination) and reaching its fullest expression in thinking, acting, and speaking out of empathy (what is it like for you to be you?) grows into moderate care and then into great care.

(A relationship starts becoming a good relationship when further virtues like keen perceptiveness, implication-drawing, anticipation, and generosity come into the mix.)

III. Capacity and Willingness to Engage in Back and Forths

Have you noticed how few people are willing, or able, to engage in back and forths? Well, this slowness is the key, even, to the most minimal of relationships.

Texting is a telltale sign of the failure of back and forths. Someone may just stop halfway or partway after he or she, perhaps, has “gotten” what he or she wanted. (Narcissism debars the possibility of even minimal relationship, so understood here.) For a relationship, even a minimal one of the kind I’m describing here, that simply won’t do.

The back-and-forth phenomenon suggests that one is willing to take some time with you, that one may be worthy of your trust, that one is likewise–perhaps–willing to put this relationship before some other things in her life, and so on.

Is this back and forth indefinite? No and yes. No, each back and forth should come to its natural end–with a clear, presence-filled goodbye. And also yes in that however long the relationship lasts will depend on the capacity and willingness of each participant to “keep it going.”

Thus, in fact, the pandemic also presents us with a question that goes beyond this philosophical inquiry–to wit, is it worth keeping up this back and forth with so and so?