Life and relationship mapping

Some days ago, we held a “Cookbook” on “Life and relationship mapping“.

What is a Cookbook?
In short, it is what at the moment I consider “an experiment in participatory wisdom“, the current incarnation of something I started 8 years ago to collect practical advice and experiences about how to make relationships (and life in general) work. Or sharing how hard it is, and how often we fail, then try again.

Prompted by a friend trying to map the differences and compatibilities in relationship styles and desires with a partner, I decided to go the “let’s share together” route.

It was fun, incredibly geeky, and full of tips, tricks, techniques.

What is mapping, why should I care, and how to do it?

During the Cookbook, we did not go that deep in the philosophical part: while it is a feature, not a bug, of the cookbook, it left some of participants less gung-ho about mapping all of the things both left out and a bit confused.

I am still trying to find a way to leave space for doubt, confusion, and being contrarians: I say it in the event description, I repeat it when we start, but I know that if we are covering a topic that I care about, I tend to not notice the people that are not talking, even if maybe it is half of the group.
In my experience, it takes a lot of reassurance to be able to say “I don’t understand this”, even if many other participants share the same doubt. A problem of surfacing shared knowledge.
I am still working on it.
Any advice is welcome.

This is me trying to address those doubts here.

Some items:

We are always mapping

We all map, all the time. We have an idea of how the world works, and the world we perceive is constructed (ie: mapped) out of limited senses, experience, assumptions, and other processes. We do not have access to the “unfiltered real world”, whatever that would mean.
So what we were talking about was the process of explicit mapping, our situation, our values, our relationships, our life story, given that we are creating mental maps all the time anyway.
The question then is not about “mapping or not mapping”, or “creating explicit maps, and exploring the maps we implicitly have, or not”.

Mapping or not mapping

The way I see it, the answer is: yes, no, maybe.

Making it as simple as possible, and packaging as a “choose your own adventure” advice:

if you are the kind of person that never explicitly maps your life, beliefs, relationships, story, past, present, and future: give it a try.
You could discover something interesting. If you are like me and most people I know, you will discover that
a) you have plenty maps
b) they do not really agree with each other.
What to do with that is left as an exercise for the reader. [I]just kidding: you could accept the inconsistencies, explore them to integrate them, start from scratch, do all of the above, none, something else… OK, yes, it IS left as an exercise for the … Continue reading

if, on the other hand, you are the kind of person that obsessively and compulsively maps everything, and feels some sort of paralyzing fear if something happens outside of your mental models: try flying out of the seats of your pants a bit more.
Explore without goal. Allow things to happen, see what happens, then look back and consider.
You could find a nice spot you were not expecting.

Mapping and being goal oriented

That said, several people of both types seemed to associate “mapping” with “having a goal, and wanting to control”.
Maybe it is true in general, but it is not necessarily so.
The way I see it, a map can tell you where a nice garden to visit is, not only how to reach the next big goal.

The map is not the territory

This is practically a cliché, but it is also true. Connected with the fact that we are always mapping, for me, it means that having several maps, and tools to create and evaluate maps, is useful.

All maps are wrong, some are useful. [II]originally: all models are wrong, some are useful, because a map is a model, a model is a map

And even a good map can be incredibly wrong: no matter how good your map of Berlin is, it won’t serve you well if you use it in Lisbon.

So, the question becomes: what maps do I have for where I am, and are they useful, appropriate?

What to map? And what tools to use?

What follows comes more or less straight from the cookbook, with a few not explicitly mentioned.

Mapping relationships:

Sharing questions

I am the kind of person that finds it fun to choose “deep questions” and discuss them with friends and partners. It works also when alone, as prompts for journaling or personal mapping.

For intimate relationships, we talked about using the “love mapping questions” from the Gottman Institute. Some more are here.
Some examples: can you answer the following questions?

  • Name your partner’s two closest friends.
  • What was your partner wearing when you first met?
  • Name one of your partner’s hobbies.
  • What stresses your partner right now?

(You can do it with friends, several partners, family members; probably not with pets, but feel free to try)

There are apps, sites with much more questions.

We talked about the famous 36 questions to fall in love (you can find a gamified version)

There is the Intimacy Inventory from Esther Perel (and much more about questions and self discovery)

Making a map of “who am I in relationship with, and who are they in relationship with?”.
Depending on your community, it can end up pretty chaotic.

For sexuality, there are lots of online tests to discover what two (or more?) persons would be open to try together. This is one.
In general, the more kinky or adventurous you are, the more time you will spend mapping what works with whom. It can be fun. Sometimes even useful, but I would not count on that.

Life mapping

Self-authorship, future: 
  • what will my life look like in the next 3-5 years if I do things right? Family, friends, relationships, career, distractions/drugs/self destruction. Realistically, not “if I am lucky”.
  • what will my life look like in the next 3-5 years if I screw up? If I follow my “worst” impulses, drugs, distractions, unethical behavior, you name it.

Now you can harness anxiety to move forward, you can RUN AWAY from something, and move towards something.


Self-authorship, past:

Find a coherent narrative of how you got here, your struggles, your values, your successes.


Value Mapping

Another possibility is value mapping, from ACT [III]Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. In brief, it is about making an explicit list of our values, and how much our life is in accordance to them (what to do about that is left as an exercise)



We can map both what are our goals, what to do when they are in conflict (again, left as an exercise), and how to get there.

Odyssey Planning and other tools from Designing your Life. In brief: create with as many details as possible 3 possible lives:

  1. my path now, just going better/good
  2. if I could not do (1) (in my case: people don’t want computers, in your case… people don’t want [what you do to pay bills now]? You choose), what would I do?
  3. if money was not an issue, and if I would not feel judged (“you are so smart, and you do THAT?”), what would I do?

The 5 4 3 2 1 exercise from the Bullet Journal:
write a list of personal goals and things to do for the next 5 years, 4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days, and 1 hour. Do it again for career/work goals.
Now you are supposed to choose ONE per category (one personal in 5 years, and one for career, and so on).


More about the Bullet Journal.

More about goals:

The Fear-Setting exercise from Tim Ferris.

The Getting Things Done (GTD) method.

Additional tools

Creating your own Genogram, a pictorial display of your family relationships and medical history. Or a using the tools from Alejandro Jodorowsky to build a Family Tree using Psychomagic (I’ve not found any online resource for this, sorry). In general, mapping where we come from, what shared strengths, traumas, weakness, and patterns are in our family can be enlightening (and scary).

Taking tests for the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs. Someone even used the Gallup Strength Finder in a friendship/working relationship, to highlight the shared strengths, the complementary ones, and the areas the all lacked (note: it starts at 44€).

Design your perfect day, or the day that fits you perfectly. Design your life around it, or around the goal of having as many of those days as possible.

Doing retrospectives, using a kanban board.

Mapping who you attract in your life, who you used to attract, who you do not attract anymore. “Here is the map of the toxic kind of people I used to attract” feels good. “Here is a map of the toxic people I keep on attracting” less so, but even “here be dragons” can be useful.

Final thoughts

What do we do with maps?

Do we use them to know where to go next, where not to go, what to explore, or to find our way back after we went for a stroll?

How do we share them?
“Here is my detailed map of who I think you are, and what our relationship is”, would it work?

How to create them together? How do we update them? What happens when the territory changes?

All in all: this was an incredibly satisfying and geeky conversation, more an opening question than an answer.

Go and map away. Or not. Get out of maps, and find your way back.


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