Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Published · 3-minute read

Starting Over

People sometimes try to ‘start over’, especially in romantic relationships and in their immediate family. Some major conflict happens, and they don’t know how to fix things, so they think all they can do is try to ‘start over’.

That approach is almost destined to fail because the people involved will keep running into the same unsolved problems. It’s akin to creationism: ‘let’s just wave a magic wand, and everything’s going to be fine.’ That’s not how it works.

Relationships are complex, knowledge-laden systems. As Popperians, we should expect improvements in such systems to happen piecemeal, over time. We can’t command them to happen all at once. And we can’t ‘start over’ because that would be a revolution. Karl Popper offers several good quotes on this topic:

[W]e cannot start afresh; […]. If we start afresh, then, when we die, we shall be about as far as Adam and Eve were when they died […].

Conjectures and Refutations, p. 173

(Were we to start the race where Adam started, I know of no reason why we should get any further than Adam did.)

– Ibid, p. 323

Some people say […] that it is their greatest wish to clean the canvas thoroughly—to create a social tabula rasa and to begin afresh by painting on it a brand new social system. But they should not be surprised if they find that once they destroy tradition, civilization disappears with it. They will find that mankind have returned to the position in which Adam and Eve began—or, using less biblical language, that they have returned to the beasts. All that these revolutionary progressivists will then be able to do is to begin the slow process of human evolution again (and so to arrive in a few thousand years perhaps at another capitalist period, which will lead them to another sweeping revolution, followed by another return to the beasts, and so on, for ever and ever). In other words, there is no earthly reason why a society whose traditional set of values has been destroyed should, of its own accord, become a better society […].

– Ibid, p. 462 f.

To be sure, Popper wrote these passages in the context of science and society as a whole. But, like science and our social institutions, relationships are, again, complex, knowledge-laden systems, so Popper’s remarks apply to them, too. We could just as well write: “[T]here is no earthly reason why a [relationship] whose traditional set of values has been destroyed should, of its own accord, become a better [relationship].” Relationships are part of our social institutions; they also follow a tradition. Tabula rasa won’t work – if you want to improve things, choose the status quo as a starting point and try to correct errors.

Note in particular that Popper speaks of the repetition that “revolutionary progressivists” would undergo over centuries. So, too, would the revolutionary progressivists who wish to ‘start over’ in romance and family over the years. (Think of the victims in abusive relationships whose abuser assures them they’ve changed – that ‘this time is going to be different’ – and who then return to their abuser’s violent embrace, over and over.)

Ironically, the same revolutionaries who are prone to want to ‘start over’ often want a guarantee that a certain state will be reached or maintained – some form of utopia. (It’s ironic because such a state won’t let them start over.) In romance, this (attempt at a) guarantee of utopia is marriage. Think of couples who are already in a bad place and then get married to fix things, thereby entrenching their mistakes because getting divorced is much harder than leaving a non-marriage: ‘until death do us part’.

Because relationships are knowledge-laden systems, they are partly autonomous. They have ‘a mind of their own’. Which is another reason you can’t change them at will or ‘start over’. They will resist. If the problem situation hasn’t changed, how could starting over possibly work? It can’t. You can’t just make problems ‘go away’. Try to solve them piecemeal. It’s hard enough to solve problems with oneself – solving problems in relationships is even harder.

Breakups are a form of revolution, too – a form of ‘starting over’, albeit separately. Romantic relationships are kind of set up in such a way that you cannot revert certain changes and have to break up instead. For example, once they move in together and realize it was a bad idea, most couples will break up instead of each person getting their own place again and continuing the relationship. It’s ‘all or nothing’. The same is true of marriage: you can’t just divorce and go back to where you were prior to getting married and try something else together – the institution of marriage is not set up for that. When people break up, they often have to go ‘cold turkey’. Casual relationships such as friendships, on the other hand, do not have this property: it usually doesn’t harm the relationship or the people involved if a friendship cools down a bit; it can often be revived later on, and, even if that doesn’t work out, it’s usually not nearly as devastating as a horrendous breakup.

So what’s the solution? Not enter into any serious relationships at all? That would be its own kind of revolution, since entering into serious relationships is one of our society’s core traditions. But you can try entering into less serious relationships – for example, as a first step, you could come up with a rule of thumb of not letting a relationship get to a point where either of you couldn’t walk away from it without serious heartache.

PS: I know little about David Deutsch’s Autonomy Respecting Relationships (ARR), but since I apply Popperian epistemology to relationships in this article, I expect some overlap with it. However, I started forming ideas about such applications before knowing ARR existed.


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