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I had been putting off the re-registration paperwork for a month. It was the summer of 2032, and Sara was on that trip to Mexico with her sisters, so I had the weekend to myself. Sure, it was common to see a counselor in the time leading up to a couple’s re-registration date, but I was still nervous. I remember walking into the office and thinking how much it looked like my dentist’s office: old magazines, fake plants, and the whole works.

It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t see myself with Sara for another year. We had settled into a pleasant, comfortable place in our relationship. Yet, each year, in the months leading up to our anniversary date, I felt anxiety and doubt creep into my thoughts about re-registering our relationship. For one, there was the monetary cost of having to hire a lawyer to help with re-registering the relationship. On top of that, there was the long wait at the DMV and the awkward, 15-minute interview with the government officiant.

But it wasn’t these specific points of friction that stressed me out. I just couldn’t help but think of the anniversary as a potential stopping point for a relationship that I wasn’t 100% sure about. I tried to communicate all this to the counselor.

Look, this is actually something I’ve worked with a lot of people on. You’re not alone here, she assured me. Now, I’m not here to point you to the right decision, but I do want to make sure you’re making an informed decision. I’m guessing you’ve heard of data consultancies?

I had, I responded. I knew where she was going. With the hundreds of millions of data points that the government had, data consultants could actually come up with a fairly accurate prediction for any given relationship. Because the government wanted to promote improved decision-making in relationships, appointments at data consultancies were fully covered by universal health care.

Sara and I were old fashioned and had never considered going to a consultancy. But maybe now was different, I thought.

In the 1950s a group of Harvard researchers began a decades-long study on happiness with the goal of finding the main drivers of happiness in people’s lives. The study had two main findings.

The first finding was that relationships were the key driver of happiness in people’s lives. Other factors like career or financial well being paled in comparison to having healthy, fulfilling relationships. This finding was mostly just a confirmation of what most people already knew intuitively.

The second finding from the study, however, was more surprising: the vast majority of relationships began by chance and were maintained by inertia. For example, one participant met his future wife when they happened to sit next to each other at his high school band class. They got married 3 years later after an unplanned pregnancy, and they proceeded to remain in that mostly unhappy marriage for the next 40 years.

The Harvard researchers uncovered many stories like this. As a matter of fact, they found that 80% of participants’ close relationships were formed simply out of chance. In addition, they found that participants’ unhealthy romantic relationships continued for an average of 7.3 years before action was taken to end a relationship.

Essentially, the Harvard researchers concluded that with regards to relationships, people were dealt a random hand, and they largely stuck to it.

An average of 1.8 years and a median of .8 years, the data consultant had muttered half to himself as he viewed the results on his computer. I remember staring at him blankly.

The data consultant turned to look at me and cleared his throat. We have this predictive model that’s been trained on nearly a billion couples, and there’s millions of them that are reasonably similar to you and your partner: couples between ages of 25 and 30, Asian male - Latina female ethnic combination, similar responses to the questionnaire, 4th time re-registering, the whole works. And on average, their relationships last 1.8 years or a median of .8 years after the 4th re-registration.

I frowned. That doesn’t sound too good to me.

The consultant interrupted. My job here isn’t to make a value judgment one way or another. Anyways, I’ve just emailed you the exact distribution of potential outcomes for your relationship. You can examine that later.

I pulled out my watch and began looking over the summary statistics, and visualizations that he had sent me.

He continued. While it is not my job to provide you with a recommendation, it is my fiduciary duty to give you as much information as possible before making this re-registration decision. Now, there’s a lot of data out there that can help you see how good of a fit you and...

Sara, I said.

Yes, Sara… Anyways, using your social media data, I can help you find a set of highly compatible potential partners that are in reasonably close proximity. You can then view the compatibility scores of these potential partners alongside the compatibility score that I assign to Sara. With that information in hand -

By then, I had tuned out. Sure, I had heard all about those academic studies that found a connection between higher compatibility scores and longer, happier relationships. But I had also heard about the rebuttals that claimed this connection was a self-fulfilling prophecy. These detractors argued that couples who knew about their high compatibility scores would naturally feel more confident in their relationship. That confidence would translate to more re-registrations and longer relationships.

My thoughts turned to Sara and I. If we had an absurdly high compatibility score, would I feel more confident in our relationship? And if we didn’t, did that mean we couldn’t improve our compatibility score moving forward?

Then, it clicked. I got up and began walking out of the office. The consultant must have thought I was upset from the results he had shared with me. But as I left the office, I couldn’t stop smiling.

Compatibility scores were a static measure of something that wasn’t. Compatibility grows, evolves, and changes. Over time, I found that Sara and I had begun converging. I began going to church with her every now and then. I also noticed her listening more to the same Jazz artists I listened to. Our compatibility had grown over the course of our relationship, simply because of time.

Sure, Sara and I may not be the absolute most compatible partners for each other today. There are billions of people in the world. There’s bound to be some woman out there who’d have a higher compatibility score than Sara. But fast forward 20 years from now, I bet Sara’s going to be the most compatible partner for me. Give a healthy, happy relationship enough time, and you’ll both naturally become the best possible partners for each other.

I got into my car and just sat there, grinning to myself. Better get started on that re-registration paperwork, I thought.

Before the 1970s, price flexibility was a standard assumption in economic models. This assumption was predicated on individuals responding quickly to changes in market dynamics. Beef prices go up, burger vendors quickly increase burger prices. In the 1970s, however, economists from Berkeley found that this was not the case in many situations. In the case of the burger vendor, having to change prices on a menu could be enough friction to prevent the burger vendor from raising prices. In short, these economists discovered that human decision-making can be affected disproportionately by minor friction points.

The Berkeley economists also explored how the power of friction could be harnessed for good in society. Given the seminal research on happiness conducted by Harvard researchers in the 1950s, these economists were primarily interested in using friction to improve people’s relationships. Soon, they began to work with government officials on this topic of friction.

In a country with growing inequality and stagnating growth, government officials were eager to explore new levers that could improve welfare in society. Through several randomized control trials run in parallel across different states, economists partnered with local governments to test their various ideas about how friction could improve relationships in society. The results of these experiments, the economists hoped, would provide the government with new tools for boosting people’s well being.

Meanwhile, critics accused the government of collaborating with ivory-tower academics to strengthen its grip on people’s private lives. The majority of people, however, were quite apathetic about letting the studies proceed. After all, these studies would take decades, people reasoned, and it was unlikely anything would come of them.

Sara and I never re-registered our relationship for that 4th year. When she got back from her trip with her sisters, she was dead set on not re-registering. She had also seen a counselor and a data consultant, but had reached different conclusions than I did.

Jack, look at me. I promise you, this will be the best for the both of us. You won’t know it, but I’ll be praying for you,” she had said. Those were her last words to me. I haven’t seen her since.

But Sara was right. A year or so after Sara and I broke up, I ended up going back to that data consultant. Given my social media accounts and the government’s data, they were able to find 23 suitable partners around the area who were deemed “extremely compatible”. On the 23rd date, I met Kate, my current partner. It’s been 30 years, and we’ve never looked back.

I still stand by my realization in that summer of 2032: Give a happy relationship enough time and you’ll both naturally become the best possible partners for each other. I just think that people need to be honest about evaluating whether or not they’re in a happy relationship. I was honest with myself, and I think Sara was too. Honesty just brought us to different conclusions.

In hindsight, I really can see where the government is coming from with re-registration policies. Back in the old days, we rarely ever made decisions about relationships. We often would cruise along until some drastic event forced a decision from us. But with re-registration norms, Kate and I are forced to constantly evaluate our relationship, and we’re constantly forced to choose. We’re never complacent because we’re forced not to be.

BIO: I'm a data scientist in the Bay Area that loves science fiction, religion, technology, basketball, and sports betting. I also love writing about all of those topics. 


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