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I don't need to know, but I'm interested to know:

What (if anything) do people regard as essential for a successful relationship?

(I'm thinking more in the general sense than the personal -- I'm not really interested to know whether individual people couldn't possibly have a relationship with somebody who worked for Microsoft, or whether they need somebody who will accept and indulge their Swarfega fetish.)

Or do you think relationships are so individual that they're impossible to generalise about?

(20 marks.)

Further questions:

Do you think there's a (moral?) judgement implicit in a suggestion that anything is "essential" for a successful relationship? By stating the question in those terms, are we imposing our own definition of "success" on other people? (I'm assuming a broad context of Western culture; at the moment I'm not really interested in hearing, say, how the Mgosh tribe regard a "successful" relationship as one where the female bears twenty children and then eats her mate.) Or do questions like this merely make us disappear rapidly up our own solipsistic arses?

(40 marks.)

Note: You may define "relationship" as broadly as you wish, but please make your working definition explicit. Do not attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once.
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From: bibliogirl Date: February 16th, 2004 06:20 am (UTC) (Link)
Communication. And not just in the broad "let us sit down and talk about where our relationship is going" sense, but in the minor, everyday, holding up one end of a conversation sense. While I'd be the first to admit that snuggling up together with books is a very pleasant way to spend time, so is talking. (Or indeed writing, texting, or other forms of communication as appropriate.)

It seems to me that it would be very hard to have anything which could be classed as a "successful" relationship without this... but I'm willing to believe that there are people who manage it, and who would class their relationships as "successsful".

Defining "successful" is more tricky, and I'm not sure I could do it. Can't use "sharing living space without killing one another" since there are plenty of people in "successful relationships" who don't live together. Can't use "the propagation of the species" because, viewed in that light, none of my relationships are, or ever have been, successful. "Enjoy spending time together and plan to continue to spend time together"? Bit wishy-washy, isn't it?


j4 From: j4 Date: February 19th, 2004 06:36 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

"Enjoy spending time together and plan to continue to spend time together"?

"Plan to continue to spend time together" sort of suggests that a relationship is only "successful" if neither party can envisage it ending. Does this mean that short-term (or perhaps I should say known-in-advance-to-be-unlikely-to-be-long-term) relationships can't be successful?
nevecat From: nevecat Date: February 16th, 2004 06:30 am (UTC) (Link)
An agreed ruleset.

Doesn't matter whether that means it's a monogamous heterosexual relationship, a totally open pan-sexual relationship, one where you live in each other's pockets and spend all your free time together, one where you live on opposite sides of the world and tentatively cyber once a decade... - it's about agreeing what each of you expect, and sticking to that (and if you're finding those 'rules' don't work, sitting down and re-working them rather than 'cheating')

That's probably a sub-set of communication, but all too often people don't do it.

I'd also say giving those around you at least a loose idea of those rules could be useful - for example, if you have given your partner complete freedom to go and play with other people, but the 'rule' is that you do not want to hear the gory details, the last thing you want is a concerned friend coming up and warning you with great concern/sympathy that your beloved is 'cheating' on you because they saw them getting friendly at a club with someone.

That's possibly something that's more dependent on the sense of privacy held by those in the relationship, and possibly in itself a part of the rules (ie, whether you consider it appropriate to discuss your relationship with those not in it)
nevecat From: nevecat Date: February 16th, 2004 06:43 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

(Uh, that was very much a partial answer - it is something I consider essential, but it's not necessarally the *only* thing)
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bopeepsheep From: bopeepsheep Date: February 16th, 2004 06:33 am (UTC) (Link)
(I'm thinking more in the general sense than the personal -- I'm not really interested to know whether individual people couldn't possibly have a relationship with somebody who worked for Microsoft, or whether they need somebody who will accept and indulge their Swarfega fetish.)

That's kind of near the definition of 'successful relationship' for me - you need someone who a) doesn't offend all your deeply-held beliefs (politics, religion, food, operating systems, whatever) and b) will accept the things that make you tick (they don't need to indulge them, just accept and not actively despise). I don't think any definition of relationship would work without those two things. Most relationships are so individual you cannot generalise (etc) but I think broadly speaking there has to be some common ground and no big clashes. Opposites might attract but they will probably have rather a volatile home life (and volatile!=successful over a lifetime IMO). Even total drama queens can't manage fifty years of tears every night without suffering.

I don't think there's necessarily a judgement implicit in 'essential', or 'successful'. What appears to be a totally destructive awful relationship from the outside could be deemed 'successful' internally, if the parties concerned are completely comfortable with the set-up. But I think that still takes 'essential' criteria - they must (all) be in agreement with the way things work in that relationship, and accept the interests/thoughts/ideologies that exist within it. For example, sub/dom behaviour looks 'wrong' to a section of the community but it works internally. Sub/sub is probably doomed to failure, passivity and apathy. ;-)

There's room in (most) relationships for non-overlapping ideals, but I think you need a largeish overlap to make it work. But I'm not an expert, by a long chalk!
j4 From: j4 Date: February 16th, 2004 08:56 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

you need someone who a) doesn't offend all your deeply-held beliefs (politics, religion, food, operating systems, whatever) and b) will accept the things that make you tick

*nod* I didn't mean that sort of thing wasn't important, I just meant I didn't really want people's personal specific kinks/squicks.

Sub/sub is probably doomed to failure, passivity and apathy. ;-)

Only if you assume that the sub/sub relationship is the only relationship in which both subs participate (and/or the only context in which they indulge their subby tendencies)...
julietk From: julietk Date: February 16th, 2004 08:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Hrm. Both accepting who the other person is (beliefs, interests, attitudes, personality, individuality generally - that sort of thing). Not *agreeing* necessarily, but *accepting*. I don't think a relationship where one party is continually repressing their own self and identity can really qualify as "successful".

The old favourite communication, I guess. For, as someone said above, values both of talking about "deep" stuff (for want of a better identifying word) & just chatting generally. Although levels of that differ from person to person (some people being less chatty than others), I'd say not being able to communicate at all would indicate lack of success.

My personal opinion is that a relationship that consists of, oh, lets say around 50% or more of fighting is not doing well. To me, that would indicate a pretty fundamental mismatch somewhere along the line. Fighting from time to time, fair enough, but if it's becoming *all* or most of what you do together, then that's bad.

Being happy. I firmly believe that being happy is really damn important in life, because I don't believe that there *is* any kind of "point" to life. So enjoy yourself while you're here (yes, I do surround this with other stuff about being nice to other people & etc etc, but let's not go into my personal morality & what grounds I may or may not have for it here :-) ). So a relationship which is making the people involved unhappy isn't successful. The correct solution to this may be to work through the problems, or it may be to give up, but the situation itself is not a successful one.

Both parties getting what they need, and a reasonable proportion of what they want, out of the relationship. Fulfilment, for some value of the word.

I've been thinking about this quite a bit recently, what with Stuff and stuff. I haven't really written it down before. [prods brain]
j4 From: j4 Date: February 16th, 2004 09:01 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

Both accepting who the other person is (beliefs, interests, attitudes, personality, individuality generally - that sort of thing). Not *agreeing* necessarily, but *accepting*. I don't think a relationship where one party is continually repressing their own self and identity can really qualify as "successful". [my emphasis]

Bearing this in mind, would you say that accepting oneself in this way is necessary for a successful relationship?

Being happy. I firmly believe that being happy is really damn important in life, because I don't believe that there *is* any kind of "point" to life.

Do you think "being happy" is essential to a relationship between people who do believe that there's some kind of Greater Point to life?

(I guess that's a kind of unfair question; but I'm interested in what -- if anything -- people think is universally essential.)

BTW I don't mean to pick holes; I'm just interested in prodding brains. :)
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bjh21 From: bjh21 Date: February 16th, 2004 08:36 am (UTC) (Link)
Somewhat meta, this one: I think it's essential that at least one of the parties involved believe that the relationship is successful.
j4 From: j4 Date: February 16th, 2004 09:01 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

at least one

Not all? (This is not a disagreement, just a request for clarification.)
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beingjdc From: beingjdc Date: February 16th, 2004 09:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Evidence-based analysis suggests that none of the involved parties being me is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition.
j4 From: j4 Date: February 16th, 2004 12:03 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re:

Aww!

Though to be honest I could probably say the same about myself. :-/

Maybe we should go out with each other, then at least we'd both be expecting the worst so anything would be a bonus. :-)
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ewx From: ewx Date: February 16th, 2004 11:25 am (UTC) (Link)

I suspect that for each party to have a good mental model of the other is, if not essential, at least rather hard to do without. Some kind of commonality of purpose, similarly.

I think the judgement question does flirt with solipsism: refuse to apply your definitions to other people and you end up not being able to talk about them at all. If we can't call a relationship that ends up in, say, the murder of one of the people involved a "failure" then we must either choose another word for it, which will surely quickly acquire negative connotations, or not talk about it at all.

But a contradiction based on the extreme case is hardly enough to condemn the question as solipsist: when we start dividing relationships into success, failure and don't-know, it seems inevitable that there'll be an (at least somewhat) personal judgement there.

But then again, is making that judgement imposing anything on anyone, unless it actually affects them somehow? Our current opinions of, say, Henry VIII's relationships obviously have no effect whatsoever on him or his various wives, all of them being hundreds of years dead.

j4 From: j4 Date: February 16th, 2004 12:17 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re:

commonality of purpose

When you say "purpose" do you mean long-term goals for the relationship, or general goals in life, or just general direction in life, or... something else?

But then again, is making that judgement imposing anything on anyone, unless it actually affects them somehow? Our current opinions of, say, Henry VIII's relationships obviously have no effect whatsoever on him or his various wives, all of them being hundreds of years dead.

A judgement on Henry VIII's relationships obviously has no effect on the individuals who were involved. However, depending on who's making that judgement and what their audience is, it could be seen as a general moral pronouncement (if somebody says "Henry VIII was a bad person because he divorced his wife" it could reasonably be inferred that the speaker believes divorce is generally Wrong, in which case that's a moral judgement which they will apply to everybody), a judgement on what the monarchy ought to do ("Henry VIII was a bad king because yada yada"), a judgement on the established church ("The C of E was founded on selfishnes, greed and lust, when Henry VIII decided that he was tired of his old wife and wanted a better one"), a judgement on the RC church ("Since making adult decisions about the termination of a relationship wasn't allowed, Henry VIII had to found a whole new church in order to divorce his wife") ... I think I'll stop there. But the point I'm clumsily making with the aid of my half-remembered pre-GCSE History is that moral judgements about one situation or incident can generally be extrapolated to cover other situations, and even if they're not intended to be, they probably will be, so one ought to be careful about specifying the limitations of one's moral pronouncements.

I suppose it's still not imposing anything on anybody, in that anybody can turn round and tell you to stick your moral judgement where the sun doesn't shine. :-) But people may feel an imposition nonetheless.

Um, I think there was a point. I can't remember what it was, sorry.
From: silicon_lotus Date: February 16th, 2004 02:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

essential for a successful relationship

Well, everyone's going to quibble about definitions: relationships, essential, succesful, language and meaning.

Being uneducated, I would ask a simpler question:

What did you want out of 'it',the relationship?

A lot of women want strength, support, warmth and anything but that awful loneliness, and they are prepared to trade sex for that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't: two people live a lifetime of bad sex and emotional abuse. A lot of men just want shagging and give nothing back, other than a natural talent for ejaculation and insensitivity: more bad sex and unhappiness. I wouldn't call that successful, even if everyone involved deludes themselves that this is the best that they can ever have in life, and flaunts a public facade of sexual satisfaction to the world of lonely single people.

Some people just want a good, uncomplicated fuck and get exactly that. Not often both sexes want that, and I suspect that's the reason why homosexual couples have active sex lives through year after year of a relationship. But, whatever the plumbing, two or so people are getting what they want and that's probably a good thing. I'd call it successful, even if the rest of their lives are a depressing ruin and they never have a partner longer than a week. Of course, there's no such thing as uninvolved physical sex, and the people who think they are getting it are so emotionally detached that - I suspect - they lack the passion that makes for good sex.

So now the difficult bit... both people giving and getting strength, support, and human warmth. Needs two emotionally-stable people. Doesn't absolutely need sex, but we're built that way and it binds us. Too bad that needs 'fanciability', pheremonal chemistry, mutual attraction or whatever you want to call it. Also needs trust and one hell of an ability to look into people and give them what they really want - have you got that? I know I haven't.


So let's stick with the simple questions:

~ Are you getting what you wanted?
~ Do you think they have it to offer?
~ Do you know what they want?
~ ...and will you enjoy giving them that?

Lotus, the expert in relationships.


From: kaet Date: February 16th, 2004 04:01 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: essential for a successful relationship


A lot of women want strength, support, warmth and anything but that awful loneliness, and they are prepared to trade sex for that.


Hey, that's me, :). [Apart from the woman bit :)].
From: kaet Date: February 16th, 2004 03:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
Don't ask me, I think is the general answer to that! I seem to be quite good at lots of kinds of relationships, including, and particularly, with 'difficult' people, but no good at the relationship kind of relationships, where I have a bit of a blind spot, I think, because of, well who knows, but one explanation is my crap genderedness, but there are other ways of seeing the same thing.

But this somehow seems to make me generally unqualified to comment on how to relate to people, unsuited to intimacies, and seems to destine me to live alone. I guess that's what comes from a society based around genetic vanity-publishing, and simulations of such.
j4 From: j4 Date: February 17th, 2004 09:34 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

I think anybody is qualified to comment. You certainly don't have to be in a successful relationship (or even ever to have had one!) to have ideas about what makes a successful relationship. People revise their ideas according to their experience, sure, but they don't have to have experience before they can have ideas.

I don't think your gender issues make you unsuited to intimacy -- I don't think anything makes you unsuited to intimacy! -- but I don't really feel qualified to comment on gender stuff because I don't really have those feelings myself. Which, okay, probably contradicts what I say above... :)

I'm interested to know what you mean about this "blind spot" in relationships. ("Is it because of your mother that you say you have a blind spot in relationships? DO GO ON." But, seriously, I am interested!)
marnameow From: marnameow Date: February 16th, 2004 04:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think a relationship probably needs:

At least a bit in common. You need to be at least vaguely interested in some of what your partner does, I reckon. Otherwise what can you *talk* about? You don't want to be closing your ears as soon as they say anything. The ability to become interested in things because they interest your partner is a helpful skill here. I can tell different guitars apart because I have lived with a guitar geek for the last three or four years. Because the sheep likes guitars I am more interested in them.

Workable levels of dependancy. And what the workable levels are will vary hugely, but it's not going to work if one person is super-needy all the time and the other is lacking the ability, or time, or desire, to keep picking them up. Conversly, it will also not work if one person is trying to look after the other person all the time, and the other person *really doesn't want or need to be looked after*. There's always going to be some fluidity there - I didn't need minding at all ever hardly until this year, so Sean had to adjust to being the person who picks me up when I break (and goes downstairs in the night if I hear monsters, and so on). Ali's been looking out for scary-things since we've been going out, because my brain was already broked when we started going out, so when I fix this shoddy head that will change, because I will no longer need to be protected from a place full of people or an everyday mechanical device.

Certain views on stuff have to be compatible. I know I couldn't have a successful relationship with someone who was very much catholic, because either they'd want the relationship on very catholic grounds (if that makes sense?) or they'd be not living by the rules they've chosen. I'd not be happy with either scenario, because I very much disagree with a lot of what the catholic church says, and I also think (very much) that people should match their lifestyle to their beliefs. If someone thought that they doing a very bad thing every time we shagged but kept on doing it I wouldn't want to be a part of that. It really doesn't need to be a religion thing, but that's one I've got experience with and hence it comes to mind. There are certain viewpoints that people might hold that I just wouldn't be able to tolerate.

An extension of this 'un is money, and ultimate things you want, and whatnot. And I think an agreeing-upon these things is essential for a long term relationship to work, because if one person wants to settle down and have babies with the other, but the other wants to be an eternal club-goer and partier and wants no real commitments, it will eventually break. Compromises are makeable, but there's probably a point where there aren't going to be compromises enough.

I couldn't have any sort of successful relationship with someone who hated cats. That might be just me, though.

Friendship. This should have come top of the list, really. All the successful relationships I've been in (and if I can look back and say 'that was really good' it's a successful one) have been with people I was also very good friends with. The ability to be silly at each other, and laugh about daft things that happened five years ago, and the *liking* of each other that you get with a friendship is very important, I reckon.

Bloody hell, I've gone on a bit.

Anyway, they're the things that I think most people need in the *current* definition of what a relationship is. Which brings us sorta-neatly to the second question. I don't think there's a moral problem with saying 'this is what I think a successful relationship should have'. But my viewpoint is based on experience, both mine and that of all the other people I know (and people in novels, and whatever). But a lot of what I've listed above is probably only relevant in our time and our society. Skip back a century or two, and the things that people expect are very different. If we could skip forward we'd probably see that they've changed again. And in other societies right now, there are probably differences. But I don't live in other times or cultures, so I can only answer for where I am now.
nou From: nou Date: February 17th, 2004 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
> You need to be at least vaguely interested in some of what your partner does,
> I reckon. [...] The ability to become interested in things because they interest
> your partner is a helpful skill here.

Knitting is a sexually-transmitted disease?

simont From: simont Date: February 17th, 2004 01:58 am (UTC) (Link)
OK. I'm going to do this from first principles on a purely theoretical (and somewhat mathmoid) basis and just see where the line of reasoning leads me. If it ends up somewhere ghastly, then I'll just assume that my initial axioms and methodology were flawed in some way...

To say that anything is/was successful is to say that it fulfills its intended purpose: that's what "success" means. So for a relationship to be successful, we have to ask what its intended purpose was.

The obvious first question is, intended by whom? Intentions are a property of individual human minds, not (in general) a collective property of groups. Now it's entirely possible that someone not directly involved in the relationship might have their own ideas of what they intend its purpose to be (for example, a dating agency looking to compile statistics about how well it does is likely to have its own set of criteria for listing a couple it introduced as a success story). Also this suggests that it's perfectly possible for a relationship to be successful from one partner's POV but not the other's, if they intended it to achieve different goals (e.g. if I want a week or so of casual sex and you want marriage), and in this situation it is largely meaningless to ask whether the relationship is successful in any absolute terms, because the only useful meaning of success necessarily refers to the intentions of some specific person. Then there are other weirdnesses, such as marriages of convenience to entitle one partner to claim the nationality of the other.

Having disposed of those slightly pathological cases, we can concentrate on the more reasonable situation where the partners' intended purposes for the relationship are broadly compatible, and think about what aspects of the intended purpose are likely to be universal or nearly so.

Foreverness seems to be a reasonably common intention in a relationship; certainly when it comes to marriages, you hear a lot of talk about marriages "failing" if they end in divorce or separation. I'm not 100% convinced about that as a general case, since if a relationship gives me two years of blissful happiness and then ends, it seems clear that it was a large net benefit to me, and to label it a failure for not having given me even more seems downright ungrateful...

But it seems to me that the fundamental reason why practically anyone who goes into a relationship is that they want to, which isn't too far from saying that they think they will be happier in the relationship than not in the relationship. I think that has the best claim to be a close-to-universal purpose for a relationship, and hence is a universal measure of success. Of course, you don't have to be happy in absolute terms; you just have to be happier than you would be without that relationship.

Oddly, this suggests that the concept might be much harder for a monogamist than a polyamorist, since a monogamist in a relationship which is making them only marginally happier can always wonder whether letting go and finding someone else might be a net benefit, whereas polyamorists have a greater ability to just find someone else without letting go. Hmmm.

Also there's the question of how painful the split-up is and whether it drags the relationship as a whole back below the break-even point (for one or both parties); perhaps ten years of bliss followed by six months of aggravating divorce is still above the line, whereas one night of fun followed by a week of one person pestering the unwilling other one for a repeat performance might not have been worth the hassle...

Hmmm. I have a nasty feeling that this is actually as far as I can go with this line of reasoning. None of the obvious suspects other people have mentioned (communication, clear agreements etc) seem to me to be necessary from first principles to make both partners happier in the relationship than out of it; I'm sure they turn out in practice to be helpful, but they still feel to me like solutions to problems which only might crop up, so I don't think I could call them universal from this perspective. I'm sure there's some couple somewhere who get on famously without any of this sort of thing, just by sheer good luck.
j4 From: j4 Date: February 17th, 2004 09:40 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

the concept might be much harder for a monogamist than a polyamorist, since a monogamist in a relationship which is making them only marginally happier can always wonder whether letting go and finding someone else might be a net benefit, whereas polyamorists have a greater ability to just find someone else without letting go.

Or possibly harder for a polyamorist, because they have to weigh up a whole host of possible options: if I go out with person B, will it damage my relationship with person A? Will A remain my primary but B become my secondary? Or do I want B to become my primary and A to become my secondary?

And poly people have the "grass might be greener on the other side" thing too.

None of the obvious suspects other people have mentioned (communication, clear agreements etc) seem to me to be necessary from first principles to make both partners happier in the relationship than out of it; I'm sure they turn out in practice to be helpful, but they still feel to me like solutions to problems which only might crop up

If you don't communicate with somebody at all, to what extent is it a "relationship"? (Genuine question!)

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vinaigrettegirl From: vinaigrettegirl Date: February 17th, 2004 08:19 am (UTC) (Link)

success, morals, etc

Essentials: self-respect, an inner commitment to being open to growth, respect for the other/s as worthy beings about whom one cannot know everything.

Does that impose a type of morality? Yes, in a way; we all end up privileging different parts of our own characters at different times, and by thus privileging them indicate that those aspects are what we apparently want others to respect about us at that given time. If my behaviour, words, actions, or whatever impinge on your sense of self-respect then the relationship isn't being successful at that time.

If what I do or say helps you and enables you to grow in self-respect and self-esteem (not in arrogance but in understanding and valuing the true nature of your own judgements and dealing with them accordingly) then we have a successful relationship. If what we do helps us to see things clear and see them whole, it is successful.

I think these themes can exist in any relationship: business, private, casual, public, sexual, whatever. The temporal cut-offs tend to come when people start privileging parts of their own character at the expense of everything else in their lives. That may be a valid choice, but it is a choice, not sth imposed from outside. Thus if someone else starts defining their own self-esteem in ways which are destructive of my self-respect, my core values, then it stops being a successful relationship. One has to draw the line somewhere; but it all starts with respect for self and for others.

IMNSHO! ;-)
j4 From: j4 Date: February 19th, 2004 08:39 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: success, morals, etc

we all end up privileging different parts of our own characters at different times, and by thus privileging them indicate that those aspects are what we apparently want others to respect about us at that given time.

Hmmm... I'm not sure that what I privilege in my own character is what I want others to respect about me. I'm not quite sure why I'm not sure about that, but something about it makes me uneasy. Maybe it's the wanting-others-to-respect coming into conflict with trying-not-to-want-to-be-liked-too-much, if you see what I mean (very garbled explanation, sorry!). Need to think about that.

but it all starts with respect for self and for others

I'm interested to see that you put it that way round. (Not arguing with it; just interested.)
jiggery_pokery From: jiggery_pokery Date: February 18th, 2004 09:16 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm not due to sit this paper, but I've got a partial answer to question one which I haven't seen from anyone else.

A willingness to accept that human nature is inherently flawed and to give all the other people in the relationship the benefit of the doubt.
j4 From: j4 Date: February 19th, 2004 08:31 am (UTC) (Link)

Re:

Do you believe one should always give the other people the benefit of the doubt?

(I agree it's important to accept that human nature is inherently flawed, though ... hm, this is one of my personal hangups. I try to maintain a constructive tension between "Everything is inherently flawed" and "Most things can be changed for the better". Just because something is inherently flawed doesn't mean it couldn't be improved, IYSWIM.)
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