We're All Pavlovs and Dogs
How our relationships form our identity
We often compare breakups to grief because the end of a relationship is the death of an entire universe of inside jokes and daydreams about how the future might have played out. Whether they were a lover that didn't work out or a friend that drifted away with time, a breakup doesn’t mean that the person is gone (they're still alive), it means that they are gone from your shared universe and you lose the part of yourself that was once reserved for hopes of doing life together.
Relationships (especially romantic ones) change you; there's a part of you that becomes more like them and/or a part of you that is activated because of them. We say, “don’t try to change the other person!” but the reality is, we’re all complex and plastic entities that are constantly observing and reacting to our surroundings so we can adjust our own behaviors to be a little more likeable. We change others and we are changed by others, even if we don’t want to. This is human nature.
Relationships are mutually conditioning: you're the Pavlov to their Dog and vice versa. Their habits cause your reactions until those repeated reactions become your habits. And vice versa. Lives intertwine. Routines merge. Both parties find each other becoming increasingly predictable.
You notice this with your colleagues as well; work together with someone repeatedly and you find yourself checking email or Slack at the same time everyday because you know they typically reply 30 minutes after their lunch break. You’ve become the Dog to their Pavlov.
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A relationship is an entire configuration of reality.
The greatest significance of Pavlov’s classical conditioning is that animals can become responsive to stimuli that have no natural reason to be stimulating. That’s to say, reactions can be artificially wired.
But just because a reaction isn’t natural doesn’t mean it isn’t normal.
We fear getting audited and we fear being chased by a lion, but in no way are these two types of fear the same. One is instinctive, one is socially/historically/economically constructed with real social/historical/economic consequences if things go wrong. Just because one is less biologically instinctive doesn’t make it any less real.
Similarly, a large portion of the behavioral patterns we have embedded into our daily lives have no sensible or natural reason to be there, despite being very real in the way they trigger a reaction. For example, someone who grew up being bullied for their weight might become unconsciously defensive when a friendly acquaintance suggests that they try a new exercise; instead of taking it as a kind recommendation, they might think, “are they calling me fat?”
So, if relationships condition us, then it’s fair to say that relationships construct our reality; we interpret certain words in ways that no one else does, certain hand gestures are more significant than others. After all, the map of reality we keep documented in our psyches is formed from past experiences.
What we learn from the past becomes what we use to navigate the future.
People-gravity: my theory of general relativity
Who are you if you were the only person on Earth? Without the relativity of our friends, family members, teachers, pupils, lovers, ex-lovers, baristas, and colleagues, we have nothing to form our sense of self on. We might lean on adjectives like ‘funny’—but how would we have ever known whether or not we were funny if no one ever received our jokes with uncontrollable laughter?
Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity is the theory of gravity. It’s the fundamental idea that instead of being an invisible force that attracts objects to one another, gravity is a curving of space and changes with mass. Things don’t have an innate ability to attract; the movement between two objects affect them mutually with their respective masses and the distance between them.
The psychological connections we have with each other is as tangible as the physical. Our relationships are determined by the distance of our intimacy and the masses of our individual soulfulness, self-awareness, and ability to love. Like celestial bodies, the gravity that forms between us describes our identities.
We may be the product of other people’s conditioning (i.e., we are the Dog), but a huge part of how we evaluate ourselves is created from our observation of the repeated responses we tend to evoke in other people (i.e., we are the Pavlov). We are each other’s Pavlovs and Dogs.
Until next time,
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
Thanks for reading Pluripotent! There’s good stuff on the way…I’ll let you know when it’s here 💌 If you have once made a pledge, I appreciate you very much :)