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Authors Posts by Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon

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advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I have this disturbing pattern. I’ve dated three different guys, each of whom said he didn’t want to get married, wasn’t ready, whatever. But then, the next girl they met … BAM! Walking down the aisle. Why am I marriage boot camp but never the one the guy marries?—Aisle Seat

A: It’s depressing when the only place you’re ever “registered” is at the DMV.

There’s a reason you suspect that your experience is a meaningful pattern, and it’s the same reason people think they see the Virgin Mary in their toast. Our minds are meaning-making machines. We evolved to be deeply uncomfortable with uncertainty—probably because an uncertain world is a more dangerous world. Say a man hands you some blue liquid in a glass. You’re all, “Hmmm … should I drink that or take it home in case I ever need to dissolve a dead body in the bathtub?”

We figure out what things are by looking for patterns—ways that the things match up to things we’ve encountered before. So, regarding that blue liquid, yes, Drano is blue, but it isn’t sold in a martini glass and garnished with a tiny paper umbrella. Also, bartenders keep their jobs by having you pay your tab, not having you carried out in convulsions by a couple of EMS dudes.

Although our mind’s tendency to recognize patterns helps us quickly identify threats and opportunities, it often does this too quickly and on too little evidence. Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga and psychologist Daniel Kahneman each caution that our mind is so intent on having things be concrete that when we’re faced with ambiguous or incomplete information, it will invent a tidy explanation to fill in the blanks. Your mind may be doing that now in seeing a meaningful pattern in guys sweeping you off your feet and then, like that annoying shopper who’s just reached the register, they’re going: “Ooops … don’t want this one. Gonna run and grab the other one. Sorrreeeeee!”

However, epidemiologist and stats ninja Sander Greenland reminded me that just because we’re prone to see a pattern where there is none doesn’t mean a particular pattern isn’t meaningful (as opposed to occurring randomly—by coincidence, like if you tossed a coin and got heads three times in a row).

One way you figure out whether something is due to coincidence or is a real effect is by having lots of examples of it. If you’d dated 10 men who’d left you to marry somebody else, it might say something. Might. But three? Greenland points out that in looking at what seems to be a pattern, “we tend to forget the times it didn’t happen (like before we started noticing the claimed pattern).” Also, if you believe there’s a pattern—that you’re a sort of fruit bin where men go to ripen—maybe you start acting differently because of it, coloring your results. (Self-fulfilling prophecy kinda thing: “Why try? He’ll be outta here anyway.”)

In short, maybe this is a meaningful pattern or maybe it is not. What you can explore is whether there are patterns in your behavior that could be tripping you up. There are three biggies that research suggests can be relationship killers.

Blatant Boy-Chasing: Men often claim that they like it when women ask them out. However, research suggests that this may permanently lower a woman’s worth in a man’s eyes. Men value women who are hard to get, not those who eagerly pursue them—sometimes with all the subtlety of a golden retriever chasing a hot dog down a hill.

Being Hard To Be Around: A review of research on personality by psychologist John M. Malouff finds three characteristics that are likely to eat away at a relationship: Neuroticism (a psych term for being nervous, chronically distressed and volatile), a lack of conscientiousness (being disorganized, unreliable and lacking in self-control) and disagreeableness (being an unpleasant, egotistical, hostile and argumentative mofo).

The Undercooked Man: Behavioral science research supports the evolutionary theory that women, even today, prioritize male partners who can “invest” (a preference that men coevolved to expect). For example, marriage researchers Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe find that “men want to be financially ‘set’ before they marry.” Career attainment and stability are likely a major part of this. So, unfortunately, a relationship with a man in transition can end up being a sort of FEMA tent on the road to permanent housing.

Ultimately, instead of deeming yourself death row for “happily ever after,” try to choose wisely and be a valuable (rather than costly) partner. That’s really your best bet for eventually walking down the aisle—and not just to hear, “Do you take this woman … till the last of your nine little lives do you part?”

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: A dear friend who’s also a co-worker just went through a breakup with her girlfriend, and she’s devastated. I don’t know what to tell her. I’ve tried everything: You dodged a bullet; it’s a blessing in disguise; you’re better off without her; you should get back out there. Everything I say seems to be wrong, and she gets angry. She’s crying and isolating a lot, and I want to help, but I don’t know how.—Clueless

A: Clearly, your heart’s in the right place. However, you might send your mouth on a several-week vacation to a no-talking retreat.

Consider that we don’t say to people who are grieving over someone who’s died, “C’mon, think positive! One less person you have to call! And didn’t he live kinda far out of town? Be glad you don’t have to make that schlep anymore!” It helps to bear in mind the theory that evolutionary psychologist and psychiatrist Randolph Nesse has about sadness (and its Goth sister, depression): These emotions—like all emotions—have functions. For example, being sad (like about a breakup) leads us to reflect on where we may have gone wrong—and possibly gain insights that will keep us from making return visits to Boohooville.

Also, note that not all emotions advertise—that is, have visible outward signs announcing to those around us how we’re feeling. Nesse suggests that one of the possible evolutionary reasons for the very visible signs of sadness may be to signal to others that we need care—a message that gets sent loud and clear when one is sobbing into the shoulder of the bewildered Office Depot delivery guy.

Being mindful that sadness has a job to do should help you stop pressing your friend to see the “good” in “goodbye.” Probably, the kindest thing that you can do is to try to be comfortable with her discomfort and just be there for her. Hand her a Kleenex and listen instead of attempting to drag her kicking and screaming to closure: “It’s 10am. Aren’t you overdue for a round of cartwheels?”

Q: I’m not ready for a relationship now, so I’m having a friends-with-benefits thing with this guy. He typically takes me out to eat before we hook up. However, a couple of times, he had someplace to be right afterward, so he didn’t take me out to eat first. It really bothered me, and I’m not sure why. I know it’s just sex; we’re not dating. But I felt super-disrespected and almost cried later in the evening. I guess I felt used, which is weird because we’re really “using” each other. —Puzzled

A: To a guy, “just sex” is enough. You don’t have to tell him that he’s pretty and take him to Yogurtland.

Although intellectually, “just sex” is enough for you, too, the problem is your emotions. They might just seem like a sort of wallpaper to add oomph to your mental den, but evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby explain that emotions are actually evolved motivational programs. They guide our behavior in the present according to what solved problems that recurred in our ancestral environment. Many of the threats and opportunities they help us manage are universal to male and female humans.

However, in the let’s-get-it-on-osphere, there’s only one sex that gets pregnant and stuck with a kid to feed. So women, but not men, evolved to look for signs of a sex partner’s ability and willingness to “invest.” Even today, when that investment isn’t there, female emotions are all, “Ahem, missy!”—making you feel bad: Hurt, disrespected, used. Wanting to feel better is what motivates you to take corrective action. As anthropologist John Marshall Townsend observed about female subjects from his research: “Even when women voluntarily engaged in casual sex and expressed extremely permissive attitudes, their emotions urged them to test and evaluate investment, detect shirking and false advertising, and remedy deficiencies in investment.”

And no, you can’t just plead your case to your emotions with, “But I’m using birth control!” Your emotions are running on very old software, so as far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as sex without possible mommyhood. In other words, if you’re going to make casual sex work for you, you need to see that it works for your emotions. Basically, your body is your temple, and prospective worshippers need to sacrifice a goat to the goddess—or, at the very least, buy the lady a hamburger.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a 40-year-old man who can’t seem to keep a relationship going for more than a year. There’s never bitter fighting or betrayal. I just gradually lose interest. I can’t blame my girlfriends—most of whom are pretty exciting people. I’m the problem, but why? And can I change?—Frustrated

A: Ever gotten new carpeting? The first month, it’s, “No shoes and no drinks whatsoever in the living room!” A few months after that: “Oh, we don’t use glasses anymore. Just splash red wine around and drink right off the rug.”

In the happiness research world, the psychological shift behind this is called “hedonic adaptation”—“hedonic” from the Greek word for pleasure and “adaptation” to describe how we acclimate to new stuff or situations in our lives. They rather quickly stop giving us the buzz they did at first, and we get pitched right back to our baseline feeling of well-being (Yeahwhatevsville). Bummer, huh? But there’s an upside. Psychologists Timothy Wilson and Dan Gilbert explain that hedonic adaptation is part of our “psychological immune system.”

There’s another possible bummer at work here, per your longing for less wilty love. You may be more “sensation-seeking” than most people. Research by psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, who coined the term, finds that this is a personality trait with origins in genes, as well as experience, reflected in strong cravings for novel, varied and intense sensations and experiences.

If this is driving you, basically, you want it new, you want it now, and all the better if it’s a little life-threatening. In other words, some benefits of a committed relationship, like deeply knowing another person, may end up being deeply boring to you.

Research by psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that three “intentional activities” help keep hedonic adaptation from overtaking a relationship—appreciating, injecting variety and incorporating surprise. Appreciating simply means regularly reviewing and “savoring” what’s great about your partner and what you have together. Bringing in variety and surprise means filling the relationship with “unexpected moments” and “unpredictable pleasures,” big and small.

Be honest with women about your befizzlement problem. When you find one who’s up for the challenge, get cracking with her on keeping the excitement alive. Be sure to do this both in romantic day-to-day ways and, say, with the perfect romantic weekend for a guy like you—one that starts with the valet at the spa opening the trunk, removing the hood over your head and cutting the zip ties so you can go take a sauna.

Q: Two years ago, I met this beautiful, intriguing girl. I gave her my number, but she never called. Last week, she texted out of the blue. Weird! My friend said she probably had a boyfriend until now. Do women really hoard men’s info in case their relationship tanks?—Wondering

A: Consider the male BFF. A woman may not consciously think of hers as her backup man. But should her relationship go kaput, there he is—perfectly situated to dry her tears. Um, with his penis.

There seems to be an evolutionary adaptation for people in relationships—especially women—to line up backup mates. It’s basically a form of doomsday prepping—except instead of a bunker with 700 cans of beans and three Hellfire missiles, there are two eligible men on the shelves of a woman’s mind and the phone number of another on a crumpled ATM receipt in her wallet.

Evolutionary psychologists Joshua Duntley and David Buss explain that in ancestral times, even people “experiencing high relationship satisfaction would have benefited from cultivating potential replacement mates” in case their partner cheated, ditched them, died or dropped a few rungs in mate value.

Duntley and Buss note that female psychology today still has women prepping for romantic disaster like they’re living in caves and lean-tos instead of condos and McMansions. For example, in research on opposite-sex friendships, “women, but not men, prioritize economic resources and physical prowess in their opposite-sex friends, a discrepancy that mirrors sex-differences in mate preferences.”

Getting back to this woman who texted you, she probably saw something in you from the start but was otherwise encumbered. So, yes, she’s likely been carrying a torch for you, but for two years, it’s been in airplane mode.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I got in an argument with my boyfriend about the reason not to have sex outside our relationship. He said he wouldn’t do it because he wouldn’t want to hurt me. I said he shouldn’t want to be with anybody else, but he said that’s just not realistic for guys. Are men really just these unfeeling sex machines?—Dismayed

A: Male sexuality is about as sentimental as an oar.

In fact, if there’s one secret that guys try to keep from women, it’s this: A man can really love a woman and still want to spend the afternoon wrecking the bed with her BFF, her well-preserved mom and her sister.

As awful as that probably sounds, men’s evolved lust for sexual variety isn’t something you and other women should take personally. Evolutionary psychologists David Buss and David Schmitt explain that genetically speaking, it’s generally in a man’s interest to pursue a “short-term sexual strategy”—pounce and bounce, coitus and, um, avoid us—with as many women as possible.

Buss and Schmitt explain that there are times when it’s to a man’s advantage to pursue a “long-term sexual strategy”—commitment to one woman. It’s a quality-over-quantity strategy—wanting a woman with “high mate value” (one who’s physically and psychologically desirable enough to hold out for a guy who’ll commit). Other factors include seeking the emotional, social and cooperative benefits of a partnership and wanting to retire from the time-, energy- and resource-suck of working the ladies on Match.com like a second job.

In light of this, think about what your boyfriend’s really telling you by opting for, “Honey, where do I sign away my sexual freedom?” This isn’t dismaying, degrading, or any of the other bummer D-words. In fact, it’s really romantic.

Q: My boyfriend of five years has gotten super moody. He picks fights with me and even gets a little verbally abusive and condescending. I know he’s a good guy, and I want to help him sort through his stuff, but I’m finding myself flirting with other guys and fantasizing about cheating on him. I am not the kind of person who cheats, and I feel terribly guilty even having those thoughts.—Demeaned

A: Ideally, “I’ve never felt this way before!” reflects something a little more romantic than longing to tunnel out of your relationship with a sharpened spoon.

I wrote recently about a cocktail of personality traits that are associated with a susceptibility to infidelity in a person—basically those of a narcissistic, lazy con artist with all the empathy of a bent tack. That finding is from research by evolutionary psychologists Todd Shackelford and David Buss, who also studied the emotional circumstances in a relationship that might lead one of the partners to cheat or to want to.

They found that there are two personality characteristics someone can have that make a relationship particularly miserable. One is emotional instability—marked by mood swings and a gloomy obsessiveness about things beyond one’s control. As Buss explains in The Dangerous Passion, when emotional instability is paired with quarrelsomeness (and all of the ugly condescension, sniping and emotional neglect that goes with it), relationships become “cauldrons of conflict.” This, in turn, raises the odds that one’s partner will seek solace in the, um, back seat of another.

Part of being in a relationship is taking out the trash when it starts to overflow—including the psychological trash spilling out of the dumpster that has become “you.” Talk compassionately with your boyfriend about the need for him to start figuring out and fixing whatever’s causing him to act out in toxic ways.

Don’t expect change at “Poof!” speed, but look for signs that he’s taking meaningful steps to dig out of his emotional winter. Give yourself some time markers—maybe the two-week mark, a month from now and the three-month mark. This should keep you from just blindly continuing along with a partner whose interests could be advertised as: Enjoys dive bars, French cinema and long screaming arguments on the beach.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a woman in my 30s. I love parties and talking to people, and thank God, because I attend networking events for work. My boyfriend, on the other hand, is an introvert, hates talking to strangers, and loathes “shindigs.” How do we balance my longing to go to parties with his desire to stay home?—Party Girl

A: Taking an introvert to a party can be a challenge. On the other hand, if it’s a Fourth of July party, you know where to find him: Hiding in the bathtub with the dogs.

I actually have personal experience in this area. Like you, I’m an extrovert—which is to say that I’ll tackle three people and waterboard them with sangria till they tell me their life story. Also like you, I have a boyfriend who’s an introvert. For him, attending a party is like being shoved into a grave teeming with cockroaches.

This isn’t to say that introverts are dysfunctional. They’re not. They’re differently functional. Brain imaging research by cognitive scientist Debra L. Johnson and her colleagues found that in introverts, sensory input from experience led to more blood flow in the brain (amounting to more stimulation). The path it took was longer and twistier than in extroverts and had a different destination: Frontal areas we use for inward thinking like planning, remembering and problem-solving. So, introverts live it up, too; they just do it on the inside.

Extroverts’ brain scans revealed a more direct path for stimuli—with blood flowing straight to rear areas of the brain used for sensory processing, like listening and touching. They also have less overall blood flow—translating (in combination with a different neurochemical response) to a need for more social hoo-ha to feel “fed.”

Sometimes, you’ll really want your boyfriend there with you at a party—for support, because you enjoy his company, or maybe just to show him off (kind of like a Louis Vuitton handbag with a penis). But understanding that “shindigs” give his brain a beating, consider whether you could sometimes take a friend.

Sure, mingling makes you feel better, but pushing an introvert to do it is akin to forcing an extrovert to spend an entire week with only the cat and a fern. Before long, they’re on the phone with the cable company. Tech support: “What seems to be the problem?” Extrovert: “I’m lonely! Talk to me!”

Q: I grabbed my boyfriend’s phone to look something up, and I found a Google search for local massage places that offer “happy endings.” He says that he and his friends were just goofing off. Am I an idiot to believe him?—Disturbed

A: His “goofing off” is reminiscent of the “but I was just curious!” web searches that juries hear about—stuff like, “Does arsenic have a flavor?” “How much antifreeze does it take to kill a 226.5-pound man?” and “Who’s got the lowest prices on shovels and tarps?”

Sure, it’s POSSIBLE that your boyfriend is telling the truth—that he and his buddies were searching out massage parlors RIGHT NEARBY! just for a giggle. To determine how likely it actually is, consider that people don’t behave randomly. We’re each driven by a varying combo of personality traits—habitual patterns of thinking, emotion and behavior that are relatively consistent over time and across situations.

Research by evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Todd Shackelford found three personality traits that are strong “predictors of susceptibility to infidelity.” One is narcissism—being self-absorbed, admiration-seeking, empathy-deficient and prone to scheming userhood. Being low on “conscientiousness” is another—reflected in being disorganized, unreliable and lazy, and lacking self-control. Last, there’s “psychoticism,” which, despite its Bates Motel-like moniker, reflects a con artist-like exploitativeness, impulsivity and lack of inhibition—not necessarily exhibiting those things while going all stabby on some lady enjoying a shower.

Consider whether your boyfriend’s “just Googling for kicks!” claim is odd and uncharacteristic or whether it’s part of a pattern. Patterns of behavior predict future patterns of behavior—for example, trying to get you to believe that he only goes to strip clubs for the music.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a man in my mid-30s, and I’m dating a woman I really love. We match each other on so many levels, and I thought we had a really great thing. But, recently, she seems to want more than I can give. Specifically, she’s prodding me to say, “I love you” repeatedly throughout the day, and she blows up at me for not doing it enough. Though I do love her, the required affirmations feel hollow. But I am trying. Yesterday she called, and I told her, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” She got super angry and said, “Then you should have called to tell me that!” WTH?! Where’s the line between being present for someone and being phony just to quell their unfounded insecurity?—Besieged

A: Understandably, if your relationship is patterned on a movie, you’d like it to be Love Actually, not Judgment at Nuremberg.

Sure, things are looking bleak at the moment. In fact, the best thing about your relationship right now probably seems like the right to a speedy trial. However, you may be able to change that—get back to the “really great thing” you two had—by understanding the possible evolutionary roots to your girlfriend’s morphing into LOVEMEEEE!zilla.

It turns out that perceiving things accurately isn’t always in our best interest. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton explains that we seem to have evolved to make protective errors in judgment—either underperceiving or overperceiving depending on which error would be the “least costly” to our mating and survival interests.

For example, Haselton explains that men are prone to err on the side of overestimating women’s interest in them. Evolutionarily, it’s costlier for a man to miss an opportunity to pass on his genes than, say, to get jeered by his buddies after he hits on some model. Man: “Yerrr pritty!” Model: “Um, you’re missing most of your teeth.”

Women, however, err on the side of underestimating a man’s willingness to stick around. This helps keep them from getting duped by cads posing as wannabe dads. And, as Haselton points out, a woman’s expressions of “commitment skepticism” may come with a fringe benefit—“more frequent displays of commitment” (like flowers, prezzies, mooshywooshy talk) from a man “who truly (is) committed.”

Unfortunately, your girlfriend’s expressing her “commitment skepticism” in exactly the wrong way—by trying to berate you into being more loving.

Because our brain’s “fight or flight” circuitry is also calibrated to protectively overreact, a verbal attack kicks off the same physiological responses as a physical one. Adrenaline surges. Your heart beats faster. And blood flow gets shunted away from systems not needed to fight back or bolt—like digestion and higher reasoning. This makes sense, because you don’t need algebra to keep a tiger from getting close enough for you to notice his need for Crest Whitestrips.

Of course, you understand that your girlfriend is a lady looking for your love, not a tiger looking to turn you into a late lunch. However, once that fight-or-flight train leaves the station, it keeps building momentum. So, though the problem between you might seem to start with your girlfriend, consider what psychologist Brooke C. Feeney calls “the dependency paradox.” Feeney’s research suggests that continually responding to your romantic partner’s bids for comforting (like expressions of neediness) with actual comforting seems to alleviate their need for so much of it.

This isn’t to say that you should make like a meth-jacked parrot and start squawking, “Awwk! I love you!” until—thunk!—you beak-plant on the newspapers lining your cage. Instead, start by asking your girlfriend why she feels a need for this daily stream of “affirmations. Next, explain the science, including Feeney’s finding. Then, pledge to be more expressive in general (holding her, telling her you love her), but explain that you feel insincere punctuating every text and conversation with robo I-love-yous. As for her part, point out that if, instead of going off on you, she’d express her fears, it would put you in a position to reassure her. Ultimately, if you’re yelling, “I love you! … I love you!” it should be because she’s running to catch a plane—not because you just can’t take another weekend chained to the radiator.

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I love my boyfriend; however, I feel bad that he never buys me presents. He did when we were dating, and he buys himself extravagant stuff. But he got me nothing for my birthday and only some trinkets for Christmas because I made a stink. When I’ve brought up the gifts issue, he’s implied that I’m materialistic. However, what matters to me is not the cost, but that he’s thinking of me. Is my desire for gifts somehow shallow?—Coal Digger

A: Once again, it’s Christmas. Ooh, ooh, what’s that under the tree?! Once again … it’s the floor.

Many men sneer at the importance their ladies place on getting gifts from them, deeming it a sign of female emotional frailty. What these men aren’t taking into account is that the differences that evolved in male and female psychology correspond to differences in male and female physiology. To put this another way, women (disproportionately) are into getting gifts from romantic partners for the same reason men (disproportionately) are into watching strippers.

Because, for a woman, sex can lead to pregnancy (and a hungry kid to drag around), female emotions evolved to act as a sort of alarm system, making a woman feel crappy when there are signs that a man’s commitment may be waning. However, a man’s being willing to give gifts suggests a willingness to “invest” (beyond 2.6 minutes of foreplay and a teaspoon of sperm).

Accordingly, evolutionary behavioral scientist Gad Saad believes that gift-giving evolved as a “distinctly male courtship strategy.” Though women do give gifts to romantic partners, they tend to wait till they’re in a relationship and then do it to “celebrate” being together. Saad’s research finds that men, on the other hand, “are much more likely to be tactical in their reasons for offering a gift to a romantic partner”—like, in the courtship phase, to get a woman into bed. (Of course, if a woman wants to get a man into bed, she doesn’t need to give him a present to unwrap; she just starts unbuttoning her top.)

Explain the science to your boyfriend. You don’t have a character deficiency; you just want him to show his love in the way that works for you. That’s what people who love each other do. Besides, you aren’t demanding, “‘Tiara of the Week!’ or I’m gone!” You’d just like occasional little “thinking of you” prezzies and somewhat bigger ones on Official Girlfriend Holidays (birthdays, anniversaries, etc.). Ultimately, these are not just gifts but messages that making you happy is worth an investment of money and effort—beyond what he’s been putting in to run out and get his wallet wired shut just in time for your birthday.

Q: My fiancé and I were driving my drunk friend home from a party. He was saying rude things to her, but I knew he was just wasted and didn’t mean them, so I didn’t say anything. I thought my fiancé would also shrug it off, but she was mad and hurt that I didn’t stand up for her. Is it that big a deal? Couldn’t she have stood up for herself?—Middleman

A: Yes, there’s actually more to being an ideal partner to a woman than being able to unhook a bra with your teeth.

A woman today may be perfectly capable of defending herself—with her big mouth or her big pink handgun. However, she has an emotional operating system pushing her to go for men who show an ability and a willingness to protect her. This comes out of how, over millions of years of evolution, certain ladies’ children were more likely to survive and pass on their mother’s genes. Which children? Those whose mothers chose men who’d do more in an attack than, well, effectively crawl under the car seat and wish that all of the awfulness would stop.

Your fiancé probably still feels resentful and maybe even thinks less of you for how you basically showed all the testosterone-driven fortitude of a geranium. Consider what grandpas everywhere call “having character:” Doing the right thing. If, in looking back, you would’ve done things differently, tell your fiancé. Then pledge that going forward, you’ll be that kind of guy—and protecting the person who means the most to you won’t involve pushing your girlfriend toward the grizzly bear so you’ll have more time to make a run for it.

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a woman in my 30s. I was married for five years, but now, thank God, I’m divorced and about two years into a wonderful new relationship. Disturbingly, I occasionally call my boyfriend by my awful ex-husband’s name. He laughs it off, but it really freaks me out. Should I see a neurologist? Is my memory going? Or—gulp—do I miss my ex on some subconscious level?—Disturbed

A: Right about now, you’ve got to be recognizing the unexpected benefits of those gas station attendant shirts with the guy’s name sewn onto them.

As with dead bodies carelessly submerged after mob hits, it’s unsettling to have your ex’s name bobbing up when you love somebody new. Naturally, you suspect the worst—that you’re subconsciously pining for the ex. But—good news!—the likely reason for your name swapperoos is something that you should find comfortingly boring. According to research by cognitive scientists Samantha Deffler and David C. Rubin, we’re prone to grab the wrong name out of memory when both names are in the same category—for example, men you’ve been seriously involved with or, in the pet domain, gerbils you’ve dressed in tiny sexy outfits.

You might also keep in mind that your ex’s name was the default for “man in my life” for more than twice as long as the new guy’s. Other memory research suggests that especially when you’re tired, stressed or multitasky, it’s easy to go a little, uh, cognitively imprecise. You send your mindslave off into your brain—back to the “My Guy” category—and the lazy little peasant just grabs the name he spent five years grabbing.

However, research by cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork suggests that you can train your memory to do better through “spaced retrieval”—correcting yourself just post-flub by asking and answering, “Who is the man in my life?” and then letting a few minutes pass and doing it again. But considering that you have a partner who just laughs at your errors, your time would probably be better spent appreciating what you have: An easygoing sweetheart of a guy and no readily apparent need for a neurologist. Bottom line: Your calling the guy by the wrong name probably points to a need for a nap, not unwanted company—as in, a tumor named Fred squatting in the crawlspace behind your frontal lobe.

Q: I’m extremely insecure about my looks, though objectively, I know I’m pretty. I constantly ask my boyfriend for reassurance. He gives it to me but feels bad that I feel this way. Now I’m worrying that I’m making such a good case for what’s wrong with me that he’ll start believing me. Possible?—Bag Over Head

A: One oft-overlooked beauty secret is to avoid constantly giving a guy the idea that you might actually be ugly.

People will sneer that it’s “shallow” to care about how you look, and they’re probably right—if it’s all you care about. However, research confirms what most of us recognize about the especially eye-pleasing among us: They get all sorts of benefits—everything from social perks, to job opportunities to discounts, even when they act like dirtbags.

As a woman, being babe-alicious is a pretty vital tool for landing and maintaining a relationship, because the features that men—across cultures—evolved to consider beautiful are actually health and fertility indicators. So, for example, full lips and an hourglass bod are basically evolution’s bumper sticker: “Your genes passed on here!”

Not surprisingly, psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt, who researches competition among women, explains that women attack other women “principally on appearance and sexual fidelity” because men prioritize these qualities in their partners. One way women chip away at rivals is by trash-talking another woman’s looks to a man—suggesting that he really could do better. That’s what you’re doing—but to yourself.

Beyond that, constantly begging a romantic partner for reassurance can be toxic to a relationship. Also, the fact that your need for reassurance seems bottomless suggests that it’s not your exterior but your interior that’s in need of work. Get cracking on that, and try to remember that your boyfriend is with you for a reason—and it probably isn’t that your mom and grandma are crouched behind your sofa, holding him at gunpoint.

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: Nobody expects a free meal from a restaurant. So what’s with wedding guests who think it’s acceptable to give no gift or just $100 from two people? My understanding is that you are supposed to “cover your plate”—the cost of your meal (at least $100 per person). If you can’t, you shouldn’t attend. I’m planning my wedding and considering not inviting four couples who gave no gift at my two siblings’ weddings. Upsettingly, most are family members (and aren’t poor). I’d hate to cut out family, but if they won’t contribute, what else can I do?—Angry Bride

A: If gift price is tied to meal price, it seems there should be a sliding scale. Uncle Bob, who’ll singlehandedly suck down 16 trays of canapes and drain the open bar, should pony up for that Hermès toaster oven. But then there’s Leslie, that raw vegan who only drinks by licking dew off of leaves. Whaddya think … can she get by with a garlic press and a handmade hemp card?

The truth is, this “cover your plate” thing is not a rule. It’s just an ugly idea that’s gained traction in parts of the country—those where bridezillas have transformed getting married into a fierce social deathmatch, the wedding spendathalon. What gets lost in this struggle to out-lavish the competition is the point of the wedding—publicly joining two people in marriage, not separating their friends and relatives from as much cash as possible. And though it’s customary for guests to give gifts, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “gift” as “a thing given willingly”—as opposed to “a mandatory cover charge to help fund the rented chocolate waterfall, complete with white mocha rapids and four-story slide manned by Mick Jagger and Jon Bon Jovi.”  

But because you, incorrectly, believe that guests owe you (more than their company), you’ve awakened your ancient inner accountant, the human cheater-detection system. Evolutionary psychologists Leda Cosmides and John Tooby describe this as a specialized module that the human brain evolved for detecting cheaters—“people who have intentionally taken the benefit specified in a social exchange rule without satisfying the requirement.”

Instead of grinding down into tit for tat, you can decide to be generous. It’s a thematically nice way to start a marriage—in which 50/50 can sometimes be 95/“Hey, don’t I at least get your 5 percent?” It also makes for a far less cluttered invitation than “RSVP … with the price of the gift you’re getting us—so we know whether to serve you the Cornish game hen at the table or the bowl of water on the floor. Thanks!”

Q: Though my boyfriend is loving and attentive, he’s bad at responding to my texts. He’s especially bad while traveling, which he does often for his work. Granted, half my texts are silly memes. I know these things aren’t important, so why do I feel so hurt when he doesn’t reply?—Waiting

A: You’d just like your boyfriend to be more responsive than a gigantic hole. (Yell into the Grand Canyon and you’ll get a reply. And it isn’t even having sex with you.)

What’s getting lost here is the purpose of the GIF of parakeets re-enacting the Ali/Frazier fight or the cat flying through space on the burrito. Consider that, in the chase phase, some men text like crazy, hoping to banter a woman into bed. But once there’s a relationship, men use texting as a logistical tool—“b there in 5”—while women continue using it as a tool for emotional connection. That’s probably why you feel so bad. In research that psychologist John Gottman did on newly married couples, the newlyweds who were still together six years later were those who were responsive toward their partner’s “bids for connection”—consistently meeting them with love, encouragement, support or just attention.

Explain this “bids for connection” thing to your boyfriend. However, especially when he’s traveling, a little reasonableness from you in what counts as a reply should go a long way. Maybe tell him you’d be happy with, “Ha!”, “LOL” or an emoji. You’d just like to see more than your own blinking cursor—looking like Morse code for, “If he loved you, he’d at least text you that smiling swirl of poo.”

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m in love with my married female co-worker. I’m married and have no intention of leaving my wife, and I doubt she’d leave her husband, even if she shared my feelings. I love how caring and kind my co-worker is—how she understands that you show love through action. I do this by often giving my wife romantic cards and by cleaning the house and doing the dishes every night after I get home from work and school. Feeling my wife wasn’t reciprocating, I started fantasizing about being in a relationship with my co-worker, who also feels unappreciated by her spouse. My feelings for her have become overwhelming, and I feel a pressing need to tell her. I understand that this could make work very awkward. Best-case scenario, she’s flattered. Is it selfish to want to unburden myself?—Boiling Point

A: Confessing your crush to your married co-worker is like arranging a transfer to her—of your 26-pound tumor: “His name is Fred. He enjoys fine wine, banned preservatives and cigarette smoke. I hope you’re very happy together!”

Your desire to tell isn’t noble or wonderful. In fact, it’s pretty much the psychological cousin of an intense need to pee. To get why that is, it helps to understand, as evolutionary psychologists John Tooby and Leda Cosmides explain, that the emotions driving our behavior today motivate us to behave in ways that would have given our ancestors the best shot at surviving, mating and passing on their genes. Unfortunately, solutions for recurring challenges in the ancestral environment aren’t always a perfect fit for the modern office environment.

Consider our basic biological needs—like for food, water and sex. When we feel the urge to satisfy these—like when we’re hungry or hungry for a co-worker—our emotions kick into gear, pushing us into a motivated state, a state of tension. That’s an uncomfortable state to be in, so we look for the quickest, easiest way out—like, “To hell with my job and my marriage!”—which conflates a powerful evolved urge with a wise modern course of action.

Understanding this need to reduce emotional tension should help you realize that what’s driving your obsession is more mechanical than magical. But there’s another problem. Our motivational system comes up a little short in the brakes department.

This makes inhibiting a feeling (and whatever course of action it’s pushing you toward) terribly hard and uncomfortable work. And as social psychologists Daniel Wegner and James J. Gross have independently pointed out, doing this on a continuing basis can have damaging effects on your physical health. Trying to quash some recurring thought also tends to backfire, making you think the unwanted thought more than if you hadn’t tried to stop.

Considering all of this, when you’re looking to keep yourself from doing something, it helps to take the approach aikido practitioners use. When a powerful blow is coming at them, instead of meeting it head-on and taking the full force of it, they divert it—push it off in another direction. Following this principle, your goal shouldn’t be stopping yourself from telling your co-worker, but redirecting the energy you’ve been putting into your crush into your marriage.

Tell your wife that you love her and discuss what might be missing in your marriage—for each of you. However, don’t do this by accusing her of failing to appreciate you. Instead, lead by example: Explain the ways that you show your love for her, and then tell her what would make you feel loved.

In case loving feelings have given way to hard feelings, there’s good news from a relatively new area of psychology called “embodied cognition”—the finding that taking action leads to corresponding feelings. So, it’s possible that acting loving can resuscitate the love you once felt.

Getting back to your co-worker, it doesn’t take much to lose yourself in fantasies about how great it would be with somebody new. However, marriage—to any person—is hard. Still, it has its perks, such as that wonderful ease that comes out of being with your spouse for a while—allowing you to finally feel comfortable talking about what you really need in bed: “Are you there yet? Hurry! I gotta wake up early!”

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