On relationships, needs and purpose

Every now and again, I find myself thinking of the great captains of industry of the modern age – Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and many others – and of how many people out there, as motivated, talented and insightful, must have been on their exact same path, at exactly the same time, developing similar visions. If today’s Internet trends allow for a rule-of-thumb comparison, there must have been hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of such people worldwide.

I keep it as a useful reminder that just because you really want something and you genuinely put your heart and soul to it, it doesn’t mean you will ever achieve it. Crucially, it’s not a matter of skills, of not having “done enough”, not having “tried harder” or of not being “the right person” or “the best”. More often than not, you did everything right and it really is mostly luck.

Take me. I really wanted to be a researcher. I wanted it so much that, in my early twenties, I worked myself into a depression. It was never a matter of competence or commitment: things just never seemed to go my way. I desperately wanted to be a researcher. It was all I had wanted since primary school. It was the meaning of life to me: I couldn’t be anything else. None of my mentors and role models had ever even told me I could be something else. Yet, precisely because I cared so much and because I understood the subject so well, I also, inevitably, ended up micro-managing the entire process.

My knowledge and my passion made me fixated about the universities, teams, grants and lines of research: in one word, how it should all happen. And for good reasons: I knew where my talents lay and I knew what I wanted; I would have not compromised for some watered-down solution that would have likely turned me into a PhD drop-out or pushed me further into depression. To this day, I still stand by that choice.

And then it happened. Faced with the prospect of not making ends meet, at the lowest of my illness, full of loss and anger, I snapped out of it and got a job. Suddenly, I started to breathe: a burden had been lifted. I started to feel excited about life again and realised that a life outside academia was possible and that I should not think of myself as a failure.

My knowledge and my determination had prevented me – in the immortal words of Mark Manson – from “giving less of a fuck”. I missed out on the subversive power of “not caring” and “letting life be”. And I did not become a researcher. Had I given less of a fuck, maybe I would have been able to accept an “ok” research position at an “ok” university on an “ok” subject and build my career path up from there, doing what I love. Or maybe not. Maybe that person just isn’t me. Maybe it would have fundamentally been a life of misery. Maybe there is something in academia that is ultimately toxic to me, that I cannot put up with, and that would not have allowed me to blossom as a human being.

Whatever the case, I did not get what I most wanted. And not for lack of trying or for lack of talent. One could almost say that it was ridding myself of what I most wanted that made me a happier, richer, more fulfilled human being.

Several years later, I found myself learning the same lesson all over again, this time in the sphere of relationships. Not without some bitterness, I have to admit to myself that my only successful relationship is the one I stumbled across. All my other relationships failed because they started for a reason, whether it was need for love or subconsciously mending my feelings of inadequacy. Once life had propelled me past those reasons, each relationship inevitably began to fold – and not for lack of caring or for lack of love in my partner of the time. Life had come knocking, and it demanded out.

My desire to be in a relationship had become the curse that pushed me into the arms of different versions of the same person, over and over again. Until I met Anita and what started as a game turned into the most extraordinary and successful relationship of my life. I let it happen, without even realising it, because I did not give a fuck.

Some of the best things in my life have happened because I did not go looking for them: I stumbled across them. With that comes a flashing warning sign: you don’t get to choose. You stumble across what you stumble across. Some of the things that you trip over will be completely irrelevant; others, perhaps years in the future, will have opened doors to worlds you couldn’t have even imagined. Which of these clues to pick up and which ones to drop is as much an art as it is a matter of chance.

This experience brought me to reflect on how we try and engineer the perfect relationship, often unknowingly, on the basis of legitimate aspirations, like sharing the journey or starting a family. We can’t help engineering a relationship, because by the time we want to be in one, we care – a bit like me and my doctorate. It dawned on me that, in order to be successful, a relationship must have no purpose. It really should start as the natural, irresistible communion of two people who just want to spend more time together for no reason other than it feels right and it makes them feel good. It should neither be the answer to a need nor the expression of a purpose.

We go look for relationships all the time because we feel lonely, because we want to love and feel loved, because of our need for validation, because of peer pressure, because “being single means you are defective”, because of our need for stability and financial security, because of wanting to start a family, because of feeling like we need to “move on” in life and “get serious”. None of this is a good sign. We should strive not to normalise these behaviours just because they are widespread. Yes: Wanting to meet someone to start a family is a bad idea. Not the dream of parenthood, not the desire of parenthood: the need of being a parent, and of finding a partner who can make it so.

By having a preconceived idea of what we want from a relationship (safety, love, companionship, a house, a future together, a family, etc) – a vision so often cemented by “working towards goals” with our partner – we are not setting off on a “journey together”; rather, we are turning our partner into the co-protagonist of a novel of our own writing. The distinction can be extremely subtle: “not having a purpose” is not the same as “not having a shared project“. A project is emergent and is a feature of the relationship itself: it is something both partners ignore at the start, and that reveals itself as the relationship grows and deepens. A purpose, instead, is independent of the relationship and existed in our mind even before we met our partner. It is baggage coming with us into the relationship. Having “shared goals” between partners amounts to having two matching sets of purposes, so it makes no difference in terms of the mindset: there is still baggage, unaddressed personal issues and lifelong expectations coming into the relationship.

Being in the “right relationship”, I argue, is not something we can choose or that we can arrange by shopping around for “the right partner”, whether by serially dating (if we are monogamous) or by being in multiple relationships at the same time (if we are not). It is, instead, an artifact of chance, disinterestedness and self-awareness. Life will beat you down over and over again and will start smiling at you precisely when you have stopped trying to control it and have become indifferent to achieving what you most want – whether that be your dream job or having children.

If gearing up for success concerns not only on our preparation but crucially a revisited attitude towards chance, then we must enable ourselves to embrace and smoothly let go of choices, people, things, and we must be compassionate and non-judgemental enough with ourselves to accept our mistakes and changes of mind. In order to be receptive to life, we must:

1. Notice the steering.
2. Understand the steering.
3. Give up on steering.

Developing this awareness requires time, and experience. Intellectual Understanding per se is not enough: Emotional Understanding must happen, and that requires a catharsis, that is, being beaten by life till we actually learn the lesson we thought we knew. Portia Nelson captures this shift flawlessly in her “There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk: The Romance of Self-Discovery”:

“I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But, it isn’t my fault.
It still takes me a long time to get out.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in. It’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault. I get out immediately.

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

I walk down another street.”

Explore, reach out, welcome connections humbly and see where they take you without trying to steer them, in the knowledge that they have a life of their own and they may never take you where you desire. Patiently accept them for what they can give you. Gently put them down if they turn out to be misaligned with your values and identity. Nourish them and watch them grow. Express your hopes, discuss your concerns, listen. And prepare to welcome the unexpected – including achieving exactly what you desired, when you least cared for it.

Much like atoms and stars, life will follow the path of least resistance: it will deliver exactly what you ask for, if you just stop demanding.


How do we model what we do not see? Learning to be patient in an impatient world


The Ethical Slut: A Practical Guide to Polyamory, Open Relationships, and Other Freedoms in Sex and Love, 3rd Edition

Our Resources

We are not here to tell you where to go or how to get there but, instead, to help guide you on your own unique journey. Access some road maps and learn more here.

Read More