To minimize the geekiness in this essay, I’ll talk as quickly as I can (possibly risking inaccuracy via that brevity) about a basic statistical concept.
When you’re trying to conduct a scientific study, proper experimental design is a must — if you want to be able to have any hope of trusting the results.
Beyond that, another helpful way for a study to yield meaningful results that are more likely to be able to applied accurately to real life is for the researcher to have a large sample size.
Generally speaking, larger sample sizes, all else being equal, lead to more precise findings (although past a certain point you do run into diminishing returns re: confidence intervals).
If you’re interested in learning more about exactly why that is, it has to do with some basic ways that probability functions. Degrees of freedom, the law of large numbers, and the central limit theorem are your buddies here. (I could get into those more in this essay, but I promised to minimize the geekiness.)
Anyway, because of this, it’s important when looking at scientific studies to consider the sample size. Were 11 people studied or 11,000 people?
This matters. It’s not everything, but it’s important to consider when looking at findings.
A Pattern Becomes More Meaningful If It Persists Among a Larger Number of People
Part of the non-mathematical reason for sample size mattering can be thought of this way: If you see a pattern among just a few people, it could very well be a fluke. But if you see a similar pattern among thousands of people, it’s far less likely to be all (or mostly) freak results and outliers.
Not impossible. But reaching a level where statistically it’s within spitting distance of impossible. (Provided of course the study design is good.)
Relationship Decision-Making and Sample Size
Anyway, it occurs to me that this principle also applies to relationships and our ways of dealing with others.
I don’t know anyone whose dating sample size is 11,000.
But I have noticed, however, in talking to friends who have never been in long-term relationships before and are experiencing their first ones (and who have indeed had very few short-term relationships either) that they are often at a loss as to how to evaluate what’s going on in their relationships. And at a loss re: how to make decisions, particularly when things get complex.
They end up experiencing a confusing welter of emotions, and the gray areas that stem from being close to someone in this unique way seem to perturb them.
They’ve also noted that while I’m not a terribly decisive person overall (I can take forever to make an arbitrary decision re: something like paint color or dinner) that I do tend to be rather firm and decisive about my own romantic relationships. I usually know what to do when it comes to a complex situation with a romantic partner — even if I don’t relish doing it (if it’s having an awkward conversation) or it means the end of the relationship (in situations where I’ve come to realize that the relationship is a bad fit).
I make up my mind rather quickly about relationship decisions. I know instinctively whether something is just a rough spot and can be worked through (and how I should probably approach it, given what I know about the person I’m dealing with and how that squares, or doesn’t, with me and my needs).
And I know when something is a really bad fit.
When I decide to break up with someone, I don’t hesitate. I do it. And I don’t wonder if it was the right move.
I know when it’s time to break up. And I know when something is just a minor hiccup.
And there’s a simple reason for this: I have been in a lot of relationships (multiple long-term, serious ones and many other shorter ones). While I haven’t dated 11,000 people (thank goodness), my sample size is large enough that I have a good sense of whether it’s going to work out long term for me. I can tell when someone is honestly trying to work on something and when they aren’t. And I know which incompatibilities I can accept and which I can’t.
People can and do teach me new things about myself and the world. And everyone’s an individual.
But I have enough data points now that I can make decisions — even difficult ones — rather confidently.
I could not do this when I was just starting out and hadn’t dated many people.
Bad Experiences Are Data Points — If Nothing Else
I was talking to a friend lately who told me that she regretted staying with a particular partner so long. She said she wished she had taken the advice of friends who told her they were concerned about her relationship and how she was treated and that she’d gotten out sooner. That she didn’t listen and she wished she should have.
I told her that a lot of people don’t listen when they get that kind of advice. And that in any case, while I wish she would have gotten out of that relationship sooner (it wasn’t good for her), that I also can see that she’s clearly gotten a lot out of that experience. And yes, out of staying on for too long.
She didn’t have a lot of data points when she went into that relationship, so she had no confidence about how to sort through difficult conflicts. Had no way of really assessing whether the things that were bothering her was small and forgivable or large and deal breaking.
But I’ve watched that change for her as she moved on from that relationship and went on to have new experiences. I can see that she has gotten much better at working in those gray areas.
Anyway, I just wanted to say… if this applies to you, just remember that even if experiences don’t always end up the way we’d like them to, even if they lead to nasty breakups or a sense that we wasted time, it’s all part of getting to know yourself better and to understand what you need from love and relationships.
If nothing else, painful experiences can become valuable data points.
And there’s power in that.