Nan Ransohoff & Brie Wolfson

October 2023

“Spouse,” “friend,” “coworker.” For most of us, these words are shorthand for ‘typical’ activities we do with that person. With a spouse we get married, buy a house, raise children. With friends we get meals, offer advice or share a laugh. With coworkers we make things and meet regularly about it. (As context for the reader: the two of us—Nan and Brie—are friends.)

Over the past few months we’ve been reflecting on how, for us, many of the most surprisingly joyful and fulfilling experiences involve doing these activities in the ‘wrong’ context—making a coffee table with a friend, making a podcast with a parent, living with close friends and their kids for six months as an adult. There is of course nothing novel about these activities themselves. Rather, the difference lies in who we do them with.

This made us wonder: what else could we mix-and-match to possibly produce similarly joyful or fulfilling results?

This piece describes a simple experimentation framework we came up with to explore this question for ourselves, as well as some general observations we had along the way. Our hope is that it might do for others what it’s done for us—provide a canvas/language to think more intentionally and creatively about how to get the most out of important relationships in our lives or, at the very least, to prompt a few interesting conversations with your people.

Relationship primitives

If we look at the common relationship types we began with—spouse, friend, coworker–we can ascribe a somewhat standard set of ‘activities’ we do in them. We’ll call these activities primitives.

Any relationship is made up (in part) by a combination of primitives. We’ll call these combinations bundles. For example, the words ‘spouse’ or ‘coworker’ usually imply a certain bundle of ‘typical’ primitives.

The visual below has illustrative bundles of primitives for a few common relationship types. Don’t pay too much attention to the specific words used for the primitives or bundles (they’re undoubtedly a bit different for everyone). The point is to help visualize the building blocks of the framework so that we can start to experiment with them.

Experimenting with primitives