I’ve mentioned before that I spend my days in the world of business and that I see parallels between what it takes to succeed in business and in relationships. One of the business concepts that I always have in the back of my head is something known as the triple constraint.
The Triple Constraint
The triple constraint is based on the idea that we are restricted in what we do by three different things; time, resources and scope. Each of these are interrelated, meaning you can’t change one without impacting the others. In the center of the triangle you see quality, indicating that the quality of what we are doing is dependent on finding a balance between these three things.
To illustrate this concept, let’s look at building a fence.
Scope is the extent or area that something deals with. You can also think of it as the range, breadth, span or reach of something. Basically it’s “what” something is. If you want to build a fence, your scope involves a lot of things. What is the fence around? Is it your whole yard? Only once side? How many feet of fence do you need to build? How tall does it need to be? What materials do you want to use? All of these details about what you are trying to accomplish are the scope of the fence.
Time is the duration of building a fence. This isn’t the time in terms of effort, but is the amount of time from start to finish. Do you want to build it in a day? A week?
Lastly you have resources. This is what you put into building the fence in terms of both money and personal effort (your time invested).
To see how these different sides of the triple constraint are related, picture a specific fence (a fixed scope). If you want to build it yourself, your resources will be the cost of materials and your effort in building it. How fast you can build it will depend on the time you have available. If you are on holidays maybe you can build it in a few days. If you are working and have other responsibilities it will take a lot longer to complete.
If you want it built faster, you can always get friends to help or hire someone – but that means it will increase your costs. If you don’t want to increase your costs (maybe you can’t afford it) you may change the design of the fence somewhat (the scope), to reduce your costs. Likewise if you want a fancier fence, or something using different materials it will impact the costs.
At some level, we have all seen this principle at play. There is a sense of “value” behind items. For example, we understand that a burger from a fast food restaurant generally costs less than a burger at a sit down restaurant. Inherent in that cost there is a sense that a higher price indicates a better burger. Maybe it’s larger, or has better ingredients, or the restaurant has better service. Similarly we expect “fast food” to be ready in a few minutes, while at a sit down restaurant we expect to have to wait a while.
In life, it’s possible to have or do almost anything if you put in enough time and effort. We’ll do better at some things than others, but you can still do anything.
However everything we do is constrained by limits on money, energy and the number of hours in a day. We only have so much of each of them. So while it IS possible to do almost anything, we can’t have everything. Working towards one thing sometimes means we can’t work towards another thing at the same time. We have to pick what is really important to us, and focus our energies on that.
Remember, the triple constraint says the quality of something is dependent on finding a balance between scope, time and resources. When we try doing too many things at once, we lose that balance. We end up burning ourselves out and the quality of ALL the things we are trying to do will suffer.
The triple constraint is easy to see when looking at things like building a fence, but it also applies to our relationships.
In the early days of building a relationship, you are often putting considerable time and resources (both energy and money) into the other person. You may be figuring out what the “scope” of the relationship is (are we just going out once in a while? Are we exclusive? Are we a couple?), but because of the investment of time and effort you are building a level of quality into the relationship.
So where do we go wrong with long term relationships? One of the main reasons long term relationships become stagnant is because we stop prioritizing them. We stop putting in the time and effort needed to both maintain and grow our relationships.
After a while we start to feel “safe”, and believe our partner will always be there. In many ways this is a good thing. The problem is, due to this belief that our partner will always be there, when life starts to get in the way it’s our relationship that we let slide.
We have jobs, and friendships to maintain. We have hobbies, and we want to take care of ourselves both physically and mentally. Kids come, and they become the primary focus for a long time (I’ll admit kids have to be the focus, and they take a tremendous amount of energy.
But these things become reasons to neglect the relationship. It may not happen intentionally, but it happens all the same. We may “say” that our relationship is a priority to us, but when you look at how we prioritize our time our actions often don’t back up our words.
The triple constraint says there is a relationship between time (duration), energy (resources) and scope. For committed relationships we hope to spend a lifetime together, so the duration we are looking for is pretty large –it’s the rest of our life. If our duration is fixed, then that leaves scope and resources.
When we stop focusing on our relationship by spending less time with our partners and putting less energy into the relationship, the only outcome is to impact the scope and/or the quality of the relationship. Instead of having a close loving relationship, we end up as roommates.
One day we realize that, and instead of looking at WHY, we mourn the loss of the relationship.
Some people accept this reduced scope, and largely live separate lives. Others are roommates who have sex sometimes and maybe go on the occasional trip together. And others walk away because “the relationship has failed”.
Garbage In, Garbage Out
What we get out of something is dependent on what we put into it. What is it that you put into a relationship? Think of the resources side of the triple constraint – what you put in is time and energy (effort). Well, money too I suppose. But buying your partner things as a sign of affection without putting time and effort into the relationship is meaningless.
So ask yourself, what exactly are we doing when we let our relationship slide because life has become “too busy”? When we stop making time focused on being a couple?
When we do this we are taking our relationship and our partner for granted. We may say they are important, and they probably truly are. But actions speak louder than words. If we aren’t finding a way to prioritize our partner in our life, then we aren’t showing they matter to us.
This is when resentment and apathy starts to creep in, and relationships start to break down. Usually people know they are letting their relationship slide. They realize it, but with all the other things going on in life they can’t find a balance and they can’t find a way to make time.
Think of the triple constraint. If you can’t find a balance between time, scope and resources the quality of things suffers. Maybe you are taking on too much. Maybe as much as you want to do everything, you have to let something go.
Maybe you actually need to do everything that you are currently doing. If so, maybe you can get help from your partner to reduce the load and free up more time for each other.
People often say “I can’t find the time”. When you look at the damage done to a relationship by not finding the time, I think it’s more accurate to say you can’t afford not to.
Depending on what is happening in life (and especially if there are kids) I don’t think anyone is really expecting the amount of time and effort spent on the relationship that there was in the early days. That’s likely not realistic. But it’s important to recognize that your level of closeness in the relationship is like your scope. So when you have less time and effort to put into the relationship, your closeness will be impacted. That doesn’t mean you are falling out of love – it’s simply the triple constraint at work.
So think about what is truly important to you, and then look at how your time is spent. Do the two things line up?
Sometimes it is hard to make time for your relationship, and I think both partners understand this. But the effort has to always be there. With the triple constraint quality is in the middle. You can’t control the number of hours in the day and you can’t control the amount of money you have.
But you CAN take advantage of the moments you do have to focus on each other. In the process, you may find that you are building quality and closeness back in.