Building and Entertaining Couples

A friend told me recently that she’s looking for a husband to settle have kids, but she’s facing a problem: most of the men she goes on dates with fail to excite her intellectually in the first hour of conversation. They’re not totally boring — my friend is interesting enough to meet interesting men — but if she’s going to settle down for life shouldn’t she wait for the most exhilarating guy she knows?

No, I don’t think she necessarily should. Especially not if her goal is to have the best husband to build a family with. And it’s not because interesting men make for bad fathers due to some law of conservation of husbandly quality. I think it’s couples who tend to be of one kind or another: a couple that builds together, or a couple that entertains each other.

Before giving more detail on those, it’s interesting that most people intuitively get it. It’s a rare Twitter poll that doesn’t have several people in the comments complaining that the given four choices don’t capture the full gamut of human experience, yet over 90% of respondents in a relationship picked one of the two choices.

I suspect that this dichotomy is much less salient for people not currently in a relationship. They often imagine their future partner being anything and everything for them, a questionable hope that I discussed at length before. But the longer people spend in a relationship the more it tends to become oriented towards one or another.


"Entertaining" couples measure the relationship by the quality of time spent together. The most important aspect of their partner is that their company is always better than being alone, and these couples spend more time together and do more fun things together like date nights and vacations. People in these relationships focus more on their appearance, humor, conversation skills, and sex. They prefer quick conflict resolution, agreeing to disagree, and make-up sex. These relationships work better for partners who share similar sensibilities and enjoy the same lifestyle and roles.

The quintessential examples of this are two high-powered career individualists, think Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. The failure mode for "entertainment" relationships is lack of commitment leading to frequent breakups, as each partner chases the next exciting thing. The success mode is the party-throwing couple at the center of all their friends’ social life, never failing to delight everyone but mostly each other.

"Building" couples measure the relationship by the fruits of its enterprise, whether it’s happy children, a successful business, or a lovely house. They care about commitment and contribution first and foremost, and are happy knowing that their partner is committed and contributing even if they’re not in their immediate presence. People in these relationships focus on cultivating skills and long-term projects. They value reaching a consensus and hashing issues out thoroughly. These relationships can work for two very different people whose strengths and preferred roles cover for their partner, like a stay-at-home parent and a wage earner.

The failure mode for "building" couples is being stuck in boring drudgery, slowly building resentment without the courage to disrupt their routine. The successful exemplar is the couple whose house all their children’s friends want to have play dates and sleepovers in. These couples are often respected locally, almost never famous globally.

An Aside on Cucumbers and Grapes

There’s a concept in polyamory literature of "relationship cucumbers" and "relationship grapes" inspired by the famous video about monkeys and fairness. Cucumbers are the mundane day-to-day acts of maintaining a relationship, cooking lunch and playing with the kids and falling asleep on the couch watching a movie together. Grapes are the exciting experiences, the extravagant dates and elaborate kinky sex nights.

People in open relationships can fall into a trap where new secondary partners get all the fun grapes while the primary partner listed on your tax return just gets to do the taxes with you. Obviously this creates jealousy and resentment for the cucumber monkey. But if the "grape" partners don’t have a primary partner of their own they often grow even more jealous of the "cucumbers", the quiet contentment of a mundane Sunday spent together. It’s much easier to add excitement to a marriage than remote lovers to your taxes.

The common trope is that polyamory is for the lustful and flaky who hate commitment, but I know many people who are attracted to open relationships precisely because their relationship orientation is building. They can fully commit to a primary partner, knowing that they can both make up for whatever entertainment their relationship lack with friends and lovers.

Two of my single friends recently started dating girls they really like. My ‘polyamorous’ friend talked about how excited he is to focus exclusively on his girlfriend for a good while, to build a strong and secure foundation for their relationship hoping it ends up being the real thing.

My ‘monogamous’ friend related it thus: "I have about 3-4 weeks before she brings up the ‘are we exclusive’ conversation so I’m going to get my full share of Tinder hookups in the meantime."

Entertaining Selection

A woman wants a husband to have 3 kids in a house with a picket fence with. So she goes to the bar with 10 strangers off an app and picks the one who’s most charming after three drinks and has an impressive job. Six months later she dumps him because the charm has worn off and he has little interest in either children or fences. She complains to her friends that "there are no serious men in this city", then proceeds to repeat the above several more times until she hits a lucky jackpot or age-induced panic.

A lot of people are looking for a building relationship, but all they know how to select on is entertainment.

This would be less of a bias if your grandma was picking your dates, but no one’s grandma is picking their dates anymore. Dating app profiles talk a lot about people’s current lifestyle: what shows they watch, where they like to travel, whether they’re a foodie or a rave bunny. They ask whether you "would like to have children someday", but not really about what work you plan to do to bring that about. Algorithmic dating apps match people on similarity; at this point 90% of OkCupid’s matching questions are about signaling the same niche political positions. It’s practically impossible to use the apps to filter for someone possessing the complementary skills you need to build together.

And finally, "entertainment" is just very salient when you first start seeing someone. It takes seconds to tell if a potential date is sexy, minutes to say if they’re funny, and years to fully know if they’re committed to the same future as you. The main purpose of my girlfriend-picking spreadsheet was to account for long-term building compatibility when I sensed that my intuition can’t really see beyond the horniness and chemistry of early dates.

What’s the solution? Well, simply being aware of this should help. Ask yourself which relationship you’re actually looking for, and look for that one and not the other. And send your dates a link to this post — make sure they’re looking for the same thing as well.