(Originally written 06-17-19; revised and published 01-19-21)
We can roughly think of comfortability (as taken from the Comfortability Scale, and referred to as comfort henceforth) as a function of trust and power. Trust is how much you trust someone, and power is how much power they have over you, in the sense of being able to negatively affect your life. Specifically,
Comfort increases with Trust
Comfort decreases with Power
Comfort ~ Trust - Power
It’s obvious that your comfort with someone increases as your trust in them does. Here, trust encompasses a number of ideas. For one, the less likely you think someone will tell others personal information about you, the more you trust them. As discussed in the Comfortability Scale post, if someone will tell others what you told them, you might as well be talking to all those people as well, and thus your comfort with that person must necessarily match a lower bound on your comfort with arbitrary other people, which is likely quite low on the scale.
Trust also deals with acceptance. For example, if you’re homosexual (or have any other characteristic that is often poorly received by others), you necessarily must not trust those who do not accept you as much as those who do. If they’re really against you or what you believe in, they might harm you directly, through physical means or otherwise. Less extremely, they might be less willing to assist you during times of need, or help you succeed in other situations.
In any case, you are less able to trust those who not accept you fully to act in your best interest. As an extreme example, mirroring the harshest examples in the Comfortability Scale post, how rare is it to expect someone to accept that you’re a serial abuser and killer of children? I’d certainly consider that a deal-breaker. If that describes you, you shouldn’t expect me to not report you to the police, no matter how close we are.
The other part of the equation is power, or more precisely, the ability of someone to negatively affect your life. In this sense, if someone has no power over you, you can be perfectly comfortable with them.
However, we must be careful to distinguish between active and passive power here.
Active power is the ability of someone to do actions that affect your life negatively. For example, they could tell your employer sensitive information, or inform your partner about your infidelity.
Imagine you’re talking to someone on death row who is completely physically restrained and unable to communicate at all, sitting on an electric chair that will turn on to execute them in an hour. You are locked in a soundproof room and no record of the conversation will ever reach the outside world. In this scenario, you could tell them anything. It doesn’t matter if you tell them you’re a serial killer or abuser and show them all the proof in the world; nothing they do could ever affect your life. They can’t physically harm you or call the police. Nor can they tell your family or friends what you’ve done. They’ll be dead in an hour, and afterwards, to the outside world, you might as well have told them how much you enjoy baking cookies with your Grandma’s favorite recipe. Such a person has no active power over you, and as a result you can be completely comfortable with telling them anything, as long as you’re willing to admit it to yourself.
Such a contrived situation involving a completely powerless person is difficult or even impossible to find in reality. As long as someone can talk, they can call the police on you and say you committed a heinous crime. They could tell people about your most embarrassing sexual habits. They can broadcast to the world the abuse you received as a child. They could tell your partner that you cheated on them. If they’re mute, they can probably write. If they can’t write, they could probably find some way to communicate with the outside world.
More subtle is the idea of passive power. While active power is the ability for someone to negatively influence your life through action, passive power encompasses the idea of someone negatively influencing your life without action, in a passive way. When I say “without action”, I don’t mean deliberate inaction, but an influence that is completely passive.
The ability to induce shame is a great example of a kind of passive power. Imagine your beloved father is on his deathbed, and similarly to the death row inmate above, is unable to communicate but can understand you perfectly. He also will die in exactly one hour, and as in the previous example, has no active power. Yet, in this case, we can see that even in this state, you probably would not be completely comfortable telling your father everything; perhaps you’d feel ashamed for telling him aspects of our personal life, or maybe a great failure of yours you are too ashamed of to share.
In this case, even though your father has no active power, he has the ability to make you feel ashamed without doing anything but listening. If your father in this case had very traditional morals, for example, you would probably never be comfortable telling him stories of your wild escapades on vacation, even if he couldn’t do anything about it.
We strive to make the people we care about happy and proud of us, and so we don’t want to disappoint them or make them feel bad. Passive power encompasses the idea of the ability to make someone feel ashamed, think we are disappointed in them, or otherwise feel bad based on the things we tell them. The more we care about someone, the more easily they are disappointed in us, and the more easily they can feel negatively based on what we tell them, the more passive power they hold over us.
As such, our very traditional father might hold plenty of passive power over us, reducing our ability to be share things with him. Our extremely open-minded and wild friend probably has much less passive power over us. A prisoner on death row we’ve never met may have a small amount of passive power over us, given the inherent passive power any human could have, with this minimum power being higher the more easily ashamed we can be. Meanwhile, a cat, computer or diary, unable to be negatively influenced emotionally by the information our words convey, has no such power. You even hold passive power over yourself; some things are hard to admit or even consider, and we tend to avoid and block out those thoughts relating to them.
What Does This Relationship Imply?
Hopefully the above convinces you that this equation relating power and trust to comfort makes some kind of sense. With this in mind we can attempt to explain some phenomena.
The Comfort in Anonymity
Anonymity brings great comfort, as power is generally nearly nonexistent. For example, think about how easily and deeply one can connect with a complete stranger, telling them things they would never tell their partner or friends. Two people can meet one night and stay up with each other talking about their most personal life issues while on vacation, only to never meet again. In such a case those two people have essentially no power over each other; it doesn’t matter if they bring up their infidelity, criminal history, etc. as the other person has no way to affect their life.
Similarly, you can find people sharing the most intimate parts of their lives online, particularly in anonymous communities. People tell the Internet their innermost desires and secrets: their infidelity, their most embarrassing sexual fantasies, their desire to divorce, their hatred of their kids, their crimes. Over the Internet, random people have nearly zero power if you are anonymous (at least, in theory, if you properly cover you tracks.) On the dark net, where it’s generally extremely difficult to trace people, you can find some terrifying things, where content thrives that could only do so in an anonymous community of people with no real-world power over each other.
Still, even in such situations as described above where little power exists among the participants, information is only shared to the extent such that the power dynamic is maintained. Criminals who have done horrible things will share information with each other that most people would place above 90 on the Comfortability Scale, but won’t easily share things generally at the very bottom that could compromise their identities: their name, address, face, family, etc.
In this sense the scale in these situations is warped, and almost inverted; the normally least harmful information becomes the most harmful, and in the absence of trust, information must be restricted to ensure an absence of power. As such, these are not perfectly comfortable relationships, but still quite intimate ones in a certain sense.
The Irony of Intimate Relationships
Disclaimer: I’m young enough (and single enough) to not have experienced a long-term relationship of the duration and maturity that I talk about below. Still, I don’t think that not having experienced such a relationship invalidates the following conclusions.
We know that comfort increases with trust but decreases with power. We can see that often, power and trust are correlated, in the sense that the people you trust the most also frequently have great power. If you’re in a long-term romantic relationship, your partner probably knows a lot more about you than the vast majority of people, if not all people. As a result, they have the ability to give people lots of potentially compromising personal information about you.
Of course, ideally they wouldn’t, but as evidenced by the fallout in particularly bad breakups, they definitely can. Furthermore, such power doesn’t involve just releasing personal information, but also includes things like ending the relationship, releasing intimate photos and videos, ruining financial standing and restricting access to your children. Rarely does an outsider hold such influence over your life.
Now the fact that you are in a long-term relationship with someone, especially in a marriage, implies that you most likely place a high degree of trust in them, whether warranted or not. Generally they will have (or should have) earned that trust over time. But as stated, such trust often accompanies high levels of power as well. As a result, in these sorts of relationships, someone may share many very personal things with their partner, but hide other things that could endanger the relationship and incentivize their partner to use the full extent of their power. At a certain point, the extreme power the other person has in these relationships implies there are certain things you cannot say to them, for fear of losing them and everything else they have power over.
We tend to idealize long-term romantic relationships as those in which we can be completely open and share our entire selves, as the pinnacle of openness and acceptance. However, ironically, there are certain topics that we’d rather breach with nearly anyone else in our lives than to our partners, due to the effect that telling our partners would have on our lives (or even their lives, assuming you really care about their well-being.)
The easiest example is infidelity. Thankfully, I have never been on either side of infidelity in a relationship, but it seems that in general, people don’t tell their partners when they cheat. I mean, why would they? It’s much easier to sweep things under the rug rather than admit you cheated, for whatever reason you did, whether it was a moral failure, a dissatisfaction with your partner, an action out of spite, or whatever reasons people come up with.
When you cheat, you’ve at least shown to the person(s) you’ve cheated with that you’ve cheated, and maybe others too (e.g. in front of friends cheating at a bachelor/bachelorette party, to a friend you confided in after the fact, etc.) Of course, you could just simply not cheat to avoid this, but as discussed in the Comfortability Scale post, we must still consider the realm of possible actions when discussing comfort. Besides, infidelity is a reality — an unfortunately common one — and hence is not an impractical edge case.
More examples include telling your partner you’re not attracted to them anymore; maybe they’ve let themselves go after a while. Or perhaps they don’t perform as well in bed as some of your previous partners and you’ve always felt a bit unsatisfied with them in that regard. Perhaps you’ve fallen out of love with them and in love with someone else. Maybe you felt they were the best you could do, but really you wish you were more attractive in the first place so you could have gotten someone “better”. Some people certainly tell their friends such things, but why would they tell their partner and break their heart over something like that? There’s little to gain and plenty to lose with such honesty.
If you can’t share with your partner that you cheated on them (again, whether you actually did or not is less important than whether you could if you did), that you no find them attractive, that you settled for them, that you want to leave them, that you abused your children, that you killed your parents, or whatever other awful things you could convince them of, then you must not be completely close. There are things that you would hide from them.
What makes things worse is that such facts are generally the most personal. If, given the importance of a relationship, your partner cannot share their doubts, dissatisfactions, or transgressions against the relationship, then you must not know the true nature of the relationship. Such things are those you might tell to a secret lover or anonymously online, but ironically never to your actual partner, the one you’re ideally the most honest with.
This all comes down to power in the relationship. Despite a large degree of trust allowing you to share some extremely personal things, the large degree of power inherent to such relationships also means you cannot share certain personal things which could incentivize the exploitation of such power, whether out of retaliation, spite, or a moral obligation.
Lastly, recall that such power is not just the ability for someone to tell people personal things about you. It could also mean causing you to lose your partner, who, finding such information a deal-breaker, would leave you. It can mean causing your partner, perhaps the person you care about the most, to hurt themselves. It can mean losing a great amount of financial assets in a nasty divorce. It can mean never being able to see your children again. It could mean taking enough of your life away such that you have nothing left to live for.
That is true power, and the presence of such power means that there will always be a barrier between the partners in such a relationship.
With this development in mind, we can try to identify in what way we can maximize comfort in relationships. Based on my previous arguments, I think that in at least the large majority of long-term relationships and marriages, the highest levels of comfort are unattainable. I don’t think reaching complete comfort, or even close to it, is actually necessary to making sure such a relationship though; I imagine a 70 or so on the Comfortability Scale is more than sufficient for many people.
We know that comfort increases with trust and decreases with power. Hence, to maximize comfort, we must maximize trust while minimizing power. However, these goals are somewhat contradictory, as in general trust is earned through consistent non-abuse of power. Allow me to elaborate below.
When I meet someone for the first time, I’ll generally give them my name, show them my face, etc. If that person turns around and hands my personal information to scammers, then my trust in them will decrease accordingly. If instead nothing bad seems to happen, then I will gradually give them increasingly more power; for example, tell them an embarrassing story, give them some personal information, or invite them to my living space. If they come over to my living space and steal things, or tell others my personal information, they will then lose that trust. If they don’t, then they will have gained trust, and if they continue to do so given increasingly more power, then I will continue to increase my trust in them.
I don’t want to seem overly robotic and imply that I am constantly thinking about the exact level of information I am willing to share with any given person, testing people for their trust at every moment. I think people tend to go through this process organically, and in this way we naturally build trust. We are hesitant to over-share with strangers, but as we become more acquainted with them and become convinced of the goodness of their personal qualities, we end up trusting them more.
As a result of this process, we simultaneously end up increasing our trust in someone by giving them more power over us. How else could we end up trusting someone? Perhaps we could highly trust someone sworn to secrecy under a penalty of death, as in this case their power is fairly minimal, assuming they value their life. Or perhaps we can immediately place trust in someone like a therapist or doctor sworn to secrecy under legal repercussions, though this is not foolproof either; they could anonymously publish things or are maybe even required by law to call the police for serious enough admissions. We could also trust someone to a certain extent based on their trustworthy reputation, but this can also only get you so far. In any case, these are edge cases that don’t generally apply to most interpersonal relationships we are concerned with.
Hence it seems that trust is in general highly associated with power, and it is difficult to separate the two. However, I think there is at least one kind of situation with high levels of trust where although power is technically high, in practice it’s effectively quite low: Mutually Assured Destruction.
A Maximal Comfort Scenario: Mutually Assured Destruction
I’m not talking about nuclear wars here; I’m talking about effectively neutering the amount of power two people have over each other, by ensuring that both people have similarly high levels of potent power. While technically both parties have great power over each other, in practice actual power can be quite low if an abuse of power (or breach of trust) on one side guarantees a retaliation of great magnitude by the other side. Assuming both sides strongly desire avoiding such retaliation, this sort of arrangement can usually work quite well for maintaining a high degree of trust.
As an example, two people can become quite close by sharing increasingly personal information with each other, knowing that if one side spills secrets, the other side has enough information to severely negatively affect the other’s life.
One kind of mutually assured destruction situation can arise in environments like teams of criminals or groups requiring highly sensitive information to join them, like committing a crime or participating in some compromising ritual.* To gain membership into such a group, you first need to display that you are worthy of trust, perhaps by performing certain acts or enduring some kind of sacrifice for the group. You also need to give the group power over you, such that if you ever betray it, they can readily harm or even ruin your life -— or perhaps those of your loved ones.
In such groups, the leverage the group has over you is power, though the group generally has no incentive to use it as long as you don’t betray the group. As a result, the group can trust you to remain loyal, and hence can allow you to gain knowledge of its heinous actions and crimes. Assuming you value the things you’ve given the group power over, you will not exercise your power over the group by, for instance, reporting them to the police.
Such an arrangement can be broken if, for example, a criminal is captured by the state and faces an extremely harsh penalty. In the hands of the state, a criminal organization has much less leverage over such a person, and if given the option of “snitching” in return for a significantly lessened sentence, the criminal is greatly incentivized to do so for their own benefit. The state has greatly changed the power dynamics and incentive structures between the criminal and organization, and hence the nature of their interaction changes correspondingly.
* Interestingly, this is often a one-directional situation of mutually assured destruction. In this case, if you betray the group, you will in general be retaliated against, which incentivizes you to remain loyal. However, the group can often betray you (e.g. kill you) with little consequence, even if you are loyal. If you have sensitive enough information, you can make this a bi-directional situation by creating and informing them of a dead mans switch.
Increasing Comfort in Our Personal Relationships
Lastly, we can use the ideas above to figure out how to develop highly personal and intimate relationships in our own lives.
To maximize the comfort others have with us, we must maximize their trust in us and minimize our power over them. Though power and trust are highly intertwined, we see that we can reduce effective our power by increasing the power others have over us. Hence, if we do the following, we will put ourselves in a position to develop relationships with high comfort.
To maximize trust, show that you are a maximally trustworthy person. To do this:
- Always keep secrets. If you don’t, make sure the person who told them to you never finds out, though of course keeping them is foolproof.
- Similarly, don’t tell people the secrets that others give you. They can extrapolate this behavior to your trustworthiness in keeping their own secrets. *
- Be as accepting and open-minded as possible. No matter what someone tells you about themselves, accept it (though this doesn’t mean agree with everything.) Above all, don’t be judgmental, even if you learn something abhorrent.
- Keep your promises. Cultivate an image of reliability.
- Don’t harm them or act against their best interests, unless it is deserved.
- In general, don’t harm other people either. There are some exceptions to this, like in a crime network, where you must do so to seem reliable and capable.
- Never breach the trust someone has already given you. Prove yourself worthy of additional trust.
- Create an image of stability and safety. If you are desperate or unstable, you are more likely to do something unexpected at the expense of others around you. By being stable, you are a more reliable person to interact with.
- Give good, honest, and non-judgmental advice. Make others want to come to you with their increasingly personal problems.
- Be someone that people enjoy spending time and communicating with. You can’t gain trust if nobody enjoys your presence enough to put themselves in a position to increase their trust in you.
* Ironically, by hiding others’ secrets, people may also trust you less since you are purposefully withholding potentially sensitive information from them.
Reduce Effective Power
This is a bit contradictory, since in general we increase trust by showing ourselves capable of handling increasing power. However, we can still take steps in this direction to minimize power, while also increasing the relative power of others, like so:
- Reduce the negative impact you can have on others’ lives. For example, gain personal information of someone through their own volition (e.g. compromising images), destroy it without ever releasing it, then prove that you neither possess nor have shared such information. Of course, obtaining such information without consent would be a breach of trust.
- Show that your incentives align with theirs as much as possible, and that negatively impacting them negatively impacts you. As you don’t want to hurt yourself, you are incentivized to avoid hurting them. In essence, this artificially creates a situation of mutually assured destruction.
- Give them power over you, in the form of compromising or highly information, or ability to negatively impact your life. This also follows the idea of mutually assured destruction.
Should We Seek Maximum Comfort?
While doing the above will maximize mutual comfort between two people, I don’t think that this is necessarily a good goal to fully strive for. Personally, I generally want to live a life where others have a minimal — or at least, controlled — amount of power over me, so that I can be free to pursue my goals without interference.
However, this doesn’t mean that such insights are useless by any means. If you want to have intimate, fulfilling relationships, you can still achieve high levels of comfort by maximizing the amount of trust people have in you. Make yourself someone people enjoy spending time with, and act reasonably within their best interests; don’t be a servant, but never betray them. Give them as much power as you are willing to, but not so much that your hands are tied. In this way, they will happily be highly comfortable with you, as you have demonstrated yourself worthy of high degrees of trust.