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Relationship Design in Uncertain Times

Updated: Feb 13

What If Your Relationships Felt as Graceful as Fred and Ginger?

by Maureen K. McCarthy, Co-Founder, The Center for Collaborative Awareness

Relationships are never guaranteed but stepping into one feels even more precarious when you meet the year your doctors say you will be dead from a rare, genetic lung disease.

There are many things we do in our relationships as a way to exert a modicum of control over our future. It is our brain’s deep-seated desire for certainty coupled with our deep-rooted social nature. Society helps shape how we behave as we follow agreed-upon norms of how to date, get engaged, and get married. Culture is ultimately a collective agreement on how to better predict our future no matter what form a relationship takes, be it business or personal. We believe following the norms protects us from uncertainty. So, what do we do as the landscape we currently live in becomes more and more unpredictable? I personally found the answer at the cross-section of clarity and design.

When I met my husband, Zelle, the year I was supposed to die, the traditional ways of embarking on a relationship were not an option. Contemplating a new relationship as you put your affairs in order feels bizarre and somewhat unfair to the other person. As my disease progressed, and I lost precious lung capacity, I would need to rely more heavily on others for simple daily tasks. That level of uncertainty was daunting, and it enveloped more than just health concerns; it impacted my finances, my ability to work, the care of my two young children, and the rapidly escalating levels of pain in my physical body.

But it also brought an unanticipated gift — we did not measure each other up against forever.

The forever myth is an interesting one, as we know it doesn’t always play out, especially in a world where we live far longer than our ancestors. Buying into the concept of forever is another way we manage uncertainty and calm our nervous system. We try to lock things down to ensure they will be there for many years to come. In the absence of measuring someone up against forever, you begin to decide if you want to be with them today. It becomes a very present moment experience of saying, “Do I want to give you a call, have dinner, watch a movie with you today?”

There is something beautiful about being present and choosing someone for today, yet without the cultural norms to help guide our future, Zelle and I did not really know what we were doing. What kind of relationship is this? We were both interested in a monogamous, committed relationship, but to what were we committing?


Mindful Design

Two months into the relationship we were watching an old Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film that spurred an intriguing conversation. Through their iconic musical films of the 1930’s and 40’s, Fred and Ginger toyed with gravity. Their fluid movement is so graceful and effortless that they make it seem as if anyone could get up and do it. As the Washington Post wrote in Astaire’s obituary, “Theirs was the most rarefied form of communication ever invented. Who could watch without wanting to be one of them?” Which is the question Zelle and I asked ourselves: what if our day-to-day relationship could be as graceful and effortless as Fred and Ginger dancing? If we build a good foundation, could our day-to-day dance become effortless and graceful? That night we agreed that our ultimate goal, our commitment to one another, was to stay in a state of grace with each other for the rest of our lives. And grace in this instance was not spiritual or religious, it was purely the grace of Fred and Ginger.

I went home that night feeling very connected to Zelle and then woke up with questions on my mind. Everyone starts their relationships believing they will be in a good place till the end. It is the dopamine hit we get during the in-love state that convinces us that everything will be good forevermore. Yet why do some relationships work while others do not?

What would Zelle and I need to mindfully design in order to make good on our commitment to being in a state of grace? And how can that help you design your best relationship in this changing world?

When you apply a design lens to your relationship, you become more aware of the degree to which design influences everything around us: our cars, smartphones, furniture, even the wastebasket in your bathroom was designed by someone. Everything benefits from great design — it reduces frustration, stress, and wasted energy while optimizing usability, effectiveness, meaningfulness, and fun. Yet we had not come across anything that we felt would assist us in designing our relationship.

Our culture does not teach us how to mindfully design who we are together. Instead, we tend to fall into it as we lean back on the cultural norms to help us feel certain. In our more complex landscape, many of the old ideas of how to be in a relationship do not feel accessible to us. The general definitions and rules about who and what we are together are also becoming broader and less traditional. We are living in the midst of a cultural transition and it can be quite confusing for everyone.

The idea of designing who we were together became incredibly intriguing. I decided to write down a few things that would help build a better foundation, in essence creating a working design document for the relationship. There were 5 Components that I wrote about for myself; a bit about who I am, how I operate, and what I was looking to create. I wanted to share what I knew about myself and invite Zelle to write his half of the 5 Components as well. From there we could exchange what we wrote and have a good conversation to ask questions and learn more. We could use what we wrote as individuals to begin custom designing who we wanted to be together.


The 5 Components

I chose each of the 5 Components to help us find clarity when certainty was not available.

  1. The Story of Us There is always a story of how and why we come together. There are billions of people on the planet and many possibilities for what I could do with the last year of my life. Why Zelle? Why now? Why intimate relationship and not friendship? It felt supremely important to know why I was in and to capture it on paper. I also wanted to write about what I appreciated about him so that if I ever lost sight of it, I could read what I wrote and remember those good feelings.

  2. Interaction Styles & Stress Messages I have certain ways of being when I am in flow. By sharing these Zelle would begin to build an awareness of what it looks like when I am having a good day, feeling connected and joyful. There are also patterns I engage in when I am triggered or under stress. Sharing what I look like across the continuum in our design document meant that Zelle would not be surprised when I eventually acted like a lunatic. Because of course, I will — it is part of my stress pattern and has nothing to do with him. Even more importantly, the design document gave me the opportunity to create invitations around how he might help me have more good days, as well as pull me back from the cliff when I was under stress. Zelle likes to call the Stress Messages portion of the document the ‘What to Do in Case of Fire Manual’ because this set of instructions, directly from the source, told him what he might do when I am on fire. Instructions, by the way, are often the opposite of what it looks like I might want. Knowing ahead of time what the other person looks like in stress means you are less apt to engage your own stress response which can fan the flames. The invitations I gave him offered him possibilities, but to be clear, they were invitations and not demands. He has options, but it is ultimately his choice to engage them each time.

  3. Custom Design This component began with a list of my top values. I knew that we needed to have clarity on what mattered most to each of us, and then use those values as a lens through which we designed the relationship. People are never triggered unless they believe one or more of their values is not being honored, so let’s determine what they are. I really thought about what my top five or six values might be and how would I define them. I wanted each of us to know what really mattered to the other.My personal values of love, clarity, creativity, and joy helped me write about what I would like to explore or create in the relationship. I wrote about what I would like us to do together, new things I wanted to learn, and agreements we could consider that could make the relationship healthy and engaging. I didn’t know a lot at this point, but it helped open my mind just by making a start. I had never taken the time to think about what I really wanted in a relationship on a daily basis. I was also excited to find out what Zelle’s values and ideas might be. This is where the design process began to light me up. The design did not have to be fully formed or complex because this would be an interactive document that we would upgrade and change as we learned more and evolved.

  4. Questions for Peace and Possibility I have a visual in my head of being in a disagreement with someone and Gandhi or Martin Luther King happens to be sitting in a little chair in the corner of the room. What would I do differently? What would they say, and what would their mere presence remind me to take into consideration? Of course, they will never be in a room with me, but I believe this visual helps my own internal wisdom come to the surface. When you are in the midst of an argument, everything feels precarious. In this component, I wanted to capture my most emotionally intelligent self on paper ahead of time, so it would be available when my stress response takes my calm, compassionate self offline.I crafted a shortlist of questions and reminders that I thought would be useful if Zelle and I were triggered, and we wanted to come back to center. Questions such as, “Is there anything we need to say to each other that we haven’t been saying? Is there something we need that we’re not getting? Space? Acknowledgement? etc. or Let’s take a walk before we have this conversation.” This list is like having your best third-party mediator available when you need it, and that person happens to be you. My intent was to use our design document when we were in stress, but also as a way to use our stress, not as a warning system, but as a messaging system. Stress in any relationship means that something matters, and I wanted to harness stress to upgrade our design after an argument.

  5. Short-term Timeframe I added this component because I wanted to design a process where we could avoid sweeping things under the rug. In our culture, we are often taught to avoid conversations that might get painful. Yet I knew that if I went on a five-mile hike, and in mile one, I got a stick in my shoe, I would stop and take it out. And if that was the case, why would I not want to pause in my relationship to take the proverbial stick out of my shoe — a lack of clarity, a knot in my stomach, tension between us — and have a conversation so that the rest of the hike is really enjoyable?The Short-term Timeframe is an agreement that links back to our design document. How long am I willing to go before I bring it up with Zelle and use what we wrote to get us back to a good place? I chose 2 days as my Short-term Timeframe. This meant that I would go no longer than 2 days before I would:

  • Ask Zelle to help me find clarity. For me, stress does not mean there is a problem with the people. It means there is a lack of clarity between them.

  • Re-read our design document to reorient ourselves with the positive perspective of the other person from the Story of Us; reconnect with our Interaction Styles & Stress Messages to soften judgment and engage compassion, and check-in on our values to see how they are playing out in our design.

  • Use our Questions for Peace and Possibility, our most emotionally intelligent selves on paper, to get clarity on what was going on and emerge from the tension better off.

The grace of Fred and Ginger was a remarkable inspiration for the design of our relationship. I wrote the 5 Components in a notebook and gave it to Zelle the next day. I invited him to write his half and a few days later we had a remarkable conversation where we asked questions and got clear on what the other person wrote, taking notes along the way. We laughed…a lot! It felt like we were pioneers embarking on a journey into the unknown. Certainty became less interesting as we were hot on the heels of clarity. Every week or so we would add more to the document as we uncovered new things about one another, which of course impacted our design.

It was fascinating to see how dramatically different this relationship was from any other I had experienced. There were a curiosity and an opening to become lifelong learners of one another and ourselves. We tried a number of things and experimented to discover what worked and what needed to be upgraded or changed. We took the certainty that our minds were craving and changed it into clarity.


Lifesaving Design

If you haven’t guessed it yet, I have lived past my expiration date! Zelle and I have been together for twenty years and in that time we have mindfully custom-designed a life that is beautifully tailored to us as individuals and as a couple. There is still no cure for my lung disease, and with only 10% lung capacity left, I have been on hospice several times. But I am also one of the healthiest and happiest people you will meet. Zelle often says we need a control group Maureen and Zelle to prove that our design document is the most influential factor in keeping me on the planet. I have since created design documents with many people in my life including my children, family, colleagues, and clients. It has helped me design a life that is much less stressful on both my body and my mind.

We originally called our design document the State of Grace Document, but the name has evolved to the Blueprint of We Collaboration Document. So many people asked us about it over the years that we began teaching it in both business and personal relationships. It has since moved around the world with people using the same 5 Components in 100+ countries in many languages and cultures.

Zelle and I have been living in an uncertain world for many years. I don’t know if I’m going to die tomorrow or live another twenty years, but I do know that I am continually looking to find clarity within my relationships because it makes the world a much calmer, more accessible place to be. Zelle and I are still evolving our Blueprint of We. Our document today looks nothing like it did that first year because we have grown and changed on many levels. It really is a bit like Fred and Ginger’s effortless dance.

4 Ideas to Begin Designing Your Relationship:

  1. Write your own Story of Us. Why are you in this particular relationship with this particular person? What you write does not need to be pretty or elegant. Simply share why you are in and why you are drawn to the other person. Be open to questions if they want to learn more.

  2. Get curious with yourself about what you look like when you are stressed and what you might need in the midst of it. Write down some ideas and share it with one other person. Ask them to do the same.

  3. Create an experiment. For two weeks, create an invitation between the two of you to support each other in providing what you might need in times of stress. Maybe you need words of encouragement, someone to listen to, or a change of scenery. Whatever it is, do your best to notice when the other person is in stress and provide what they asked for to move through stress. At the end of the two weeks have a conversation about how it was for each of you and decide if you want to continue the experiment for another two weeks. Rinse and repeat.

  4. Choose and define your top 5 values. What you care about should show up in the design of your relationship. Talk about the values that are important to you with someone close to you and see how those values show up in your day-to-day interactions.

Maureen K. McCarthy

Maureen K. McCarthy is the Co-Founder of the Center for Collaborative Awareness and Co-creator of The Blueprint of We, a collaboration design document used by organizations and communities in 100+ countries. As a social scientist, Maureen has worked with organizations from Dropbox to the World Relief Organization. She uses the neural circuitry of social connection to harness group stress and builds trust in fast-paced environments.

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