Minimalism and Relationships: It’s Not Just Stuff Holding You Back

A serious minimalist mindset should carefully consider how we invest our time and energy in life. Our relationships cannot be immune to such scrutiny.

For a long time, I struggled with the intersection between minimalism and relationships. While I embraced the concept of minimalism with my stuff, my job, my distractions, my decisions and even my communications, I always faltered when it came to people. The idea of removing people from my life because they didn’t ‘add value’ seemed so utterly brutal.

The premise for this reluctance was simple: people can’t be treated like business decisions. We can’t cast people into the trash like our stuff. What’s more, people can change of their own accord. We can control our volume of stuff, distractions and decisions (the latter to a lesser extent). People, on the other hand, can surprise us – for better or worse.

But while I weaved my way through every other stream of minimalism, I was deftly dodging the elephant in the room. If I really valued my time, why wouldn’t I make decisions that are best for me? With whom we pass our time is surely as crucial as any part of this question.

As I’ve focused on achieving financial freedom, I’ve started to take this question more seriously. This blog is testament to this change in thinking. It isn’t just a learning resource; it’s a pragmatic recognition that our time is finite. And that lends a great deal of perspective.

When we turn a pragmatic eye to our relationships, the truth is thinly veiled. We make mistakes, we ignore realities and we underestimate people at our own expense.

The mistakes we make

We allow proximity to rule us. As we grow up, the friends and acquaintances we make tend to be defined by distance. We share the same schools and neighbourhoods, and later we share the same universities and offices. In short, we’re much more likely to form relationships with people we encounter more often. This is the so-called proximity principle in action – and come to think of it, it’s pretty logical.

So what’s the problem exactly? Well, the proximity effect has an enduring hold on us. People change, and too often we allow our proximity to sustain relationships, even if they are doing us harm. (Joshua Fields Millburn, one of two bloggers known as The Minimalists, eloquently touches on this in an essay on his website.)

We preserve the unworthy. As relationships endure, our red lines can shift. We put up with things we shouldn’t in the interests of preservation. We’ve invested so much time already that we can’t bear the thought of all that ‘wasted time’ if it ends. Our boundaries shift in the face of the “preservation mentality”. And soon enough, what we’re preserving isn’t worth preserving at all.

We hate letting go. We grant the past and future too much power in our choices. Good memories can have an undue influence on our decisions in the present, no matter how shitty a relationship has become. Our fear of the future – of being alone – can leave us feeling trapped. The relationship becomes the proverbial safety blanket.

We enter vicious cycles. Our convictions in the present should never get sandwiched between the ghost of past and future. Nor should we preserve the unworthy or allow the proximity principle to bind us to relationships. If we yield to the power of these mistakes, we enter a vicious cycle. People who no longer serve a healthy role in our lives play a leading role. They begin to change us for the worse.

The realities we ignore

We outgrow people. The truth, of course, is people change. We change, and our relationships change with it. Our habits, our interests, our willpower, our preferences – they all change. And sometimes people don’t keep up. Our common interests slowly diverge, leaving a shell behind. In the end, all that’s left to keep us there is the history that binds us – and that’s never enough.

We have other options. But though long-held social circles and partners can create the illusion of limited options, the truth is quite the opposite. We live in an age of extraordinary connectivity, where proximity no longer needs to be the leading factor in developing our relationships. The world is a big place. We needn’t preserve unhealthy relationships for the sake of distance and sunk cost.

We can fix some. Of course, if the relationship is worth keeping, we should try to fix it. Some things can be fixed. Forgiveness, setting boundaries, and improved communication can all be enough to fix some relationships.

We can’t fix them all. But some things cannot be changed. Sometimes people move in opposite directions, developing irreconcilable differences. If we spend an eternity futilely trying to fix them, we waste both sides’ time.

The people we underestimate

So we sometimes make mistakes and ignore realities. We’re human, after all: dynamic, individual, sometimes unpredictable. It would be amiss of me, then, to commoditise human nature. But it would also be amiss of me to ignore that people can exhibit dominant behavioural characteristics – characteristics that can be dynamic from person to person.

As I’ve considered my own minimalism toolkit, I’ve identified four behavioural traits and responses. These, I believe, are the people whose behaviours we underestimate the most.

Avoid dodgers. Dodgers take. You give the world and they give nothing. And they are not permanently in this state. They’re in it with you. Don’t waste your time giving energy to someone who doesn’t give an ounce back.

Reduce drainers. Drainers disagree for the sake of disagreeing. They’re unreasonably pessimistic, despite a positive reality that surrounds them. Of course, a dominant behavioural characteristic of draining should not be confused with a genuine depressive state. Recognise the difference between a friend in need and a negative seed.

Collaborate with doers. Doers, well, get things done. They’re go-getters, and they’re positive and realistic. They’re interested in your life and you are interested in theirs. When you spend time with them, you leave with more energy than when you arrived.

Seek out debaters. Debaters hold different views, but they do so thoughtfully and respectfully. When we seek out the view of a debater, we broaden our horizons. We begin to understand well thought-out arguments that contradict our own. We combat against the dangers of confirmation bias.

Minimalism isn’t minimising

So I’ve turned my attention to the people in my life. I’ve made some changes. But you’ll see by now that minimalism in relationships needn’t mean less people in your life. On the contrary, to me it’s about pursuing, growing and sustaining meaningful relationships that make me happy.

And as for those relationships that end? These needn’t be ruthless business decisions that feel like handing over a P45, but rather a calm consideration of where it’s worth investing time and mental energy and where it isn’t.

Indeed, often the person on the other side of the relationship, whom we have neglected somewhat in this post, has reached a similar point. We all want happier relationships – it’s easy to forget this rather obvious point while swept away in how a relationship is impacting us.

So apply the concept of minimalism to the people in your life. Seek meaningful relationships. Make less mistakes, ignore less realities and underestimate less people. You’ll be happier for it.

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