Authors Posts by Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon


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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.”

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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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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: My problem is that I’ll go on one or two dates with a girl and then get the whole, “I just wanna be friends.” And they really mean that. They want me to do lunch and go shopping and talk on the phone about their guy problems. How can I nicely tell these girls, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but no, I’m not going to be your friend—and I especially don’t want to hear about your new guy”? I guess the problem boils down to the fact that I don’t want to make a woman mad.—Frustrated

A: Over and over, you hear the same thing—basically, “Sorry … we have to turn down your application for CEO, but we’d love to have you as our parking attendant.”

By the way, your first problem is that you’re wrong about what your problem is. It isn’t how to TELL a woman you aren’t up for the role of pet eunuch. It’s how to BE the man holding her in his arms instead of the one holding her purse while she’s exploring her options in the tampon section.

Consider what the ladies tend to want—whether the ladies are hermit crabs or humans. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ theory of “parental investment” explains that in species that provide continuing care for their young after they’re born, females have evolved to go for “dominant” males. Dominance translates to being more able to “provide protection and material support.”

However, the term “dominant” is a little … uh … unrefined. Women aren’t looking to be dragged off into the sunset by some thug. Social psychologist Jerry M. Burger and one of his students, Mica Cosby, took a nuanced look at dominance and found that women overwhelmingly want a man who is “confident” and “assertive” as their ideal date or romantic partner. And though most also want a man who’s “sensitive” and “easygoing,” none—NOT ONE—of the 118 women they surveyed wanted a man who is “submissive.”

Chances are, “submissive” is exactly how you’re coming off. Your pleaserboy bottom line—“I don’t want to make a woman mad”—suggests a hunger for women’s approval. Unfortunately, that won’t get you out of the friend zone. What will is self-respect—and the assertiveness that comes out of it. When you sacrifice your needs, it should be because you feel good about doing something nice—not because you’re dreaming of a day when your, “Well, hellooo, gorgeous!” won’t be followed by, “Thanks! And I seriously appreciate your watching Senor Fluffyface while I’m on my date.”

Q: I’m a 40-something woman, living with my 50-something male partner. Our relationship is slightly open, in that every Tuesday, we each go out separately and “do whatever with whomever.” I have lived up to my part of this, but I recently discovered that my partner has not. On Tuesdays, he stays home by himself. Beyond being irritated that he’s effectively been lying, I feel weird being the only one doing the open relationship thing. How do I get him to live up to our agreement?—Poly-Annoyed

A: There’s no fun like mandated fun. What’s next, holding him at gunpoint and demanding that he enjoy miniature golf?

Chances are, his lying and your feeling “weird” that things aren’t all even-steven in the sexual snacking domain come out of the same place—the evolution of cooperation and the sense of fairness that fostered it. We evolved to get all freaked out about imbalances—even when they’re in our favor—explain population biologist Sarah Brosnan and primatologist Frans de Waal. In fact, we are driven to equalize things “to our own detriment.”

Understanding the likely evolutionary psychology behind your feeling upset could help you focus on why your partner is saying (a silent) “Nope!” to the sex buffet. My guess? He loves you and wants you to have what you need. And he doesn’t want you to feel uncomfortable about going out and getting it—even if the only taboo things he’s doing in bed are allowing the dog on it and clipping his fingernails and letting them ricochet around the room.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a 27-year-old guy, and I’m not very funny. I know women like a guy with a sense of humor, so I was interested in these “Flirt Cards” with funny messages that I saw on Kickstarter. You write your number on the back and give the card to a woman you’d like to meet. Good idea or bad for breaking the ice?—Single Dude

A: Using a pre-printed card to hit on the ladies makes a powerful statement: “I’m looking for a kind woman to nurse me back to masculinity.”

Asking a woman out isn’t just a way to get a date; it’s a form of display. Consider that women look for men to show courage. (The courage to unwrap a pack of cards doesn’t count.) And mutely handing a woman some other guy’s humor on a card is actually worse than using no humor at all.

Consider evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s “mating mind” hypothesis—the notion that “our minds evolved not just as survival machines, but as courtship machines.” Miller explains that the mind acts as a “fitness indicator”—a sort of advertising agency for a person’s genetic quality (among other things). Humor is a reliable (hard-to-fake) sign of genetic quality—reflecting high intelligence, creative problem-solving ability and a lack of mutations that would handicap brain function.

But it isn’t just any old humor that women find attractive. Any guy can memorize a joke. Accordingly, in a study of the pickup lines that men use on women, psychologists Christopher Bale and Rory Morrison “distinguish wit (spontaneous jokes that fit the context exactly, are genuinely funny and require intelligence) from mere humor (the pre-planned jokes and one-liners which … do not demonstrate intelligence).”

Anthropologist Gil Greengross, who studies humor and laughter from an evolutionary perspective, suggests that even a guy who’s lame at humor should at least take a run at being funny: “The risk of not even trying to make women laugh may result in losing a mating opportunity.” I disagree—though only in part. If you’re unfunny, trying to force the funny is like bragging, “Hey! I’m low in social intelligence!”

However, you shouldn’t let being unfunny stop you from hitting on a woman. What you can do is be spontaneously and courageously genuine. This isn’t to say that you should give up entirely on using pre-printed notes. Save them for special occasions—those when your message to a woman is something like, “Stay calm and put all the money in the bag.”

Q: My girlfriend’s father is a famous actor, and I’m on my way up. I worry that if things go wrong in our relationship, he could put a big kibosh on my career. I guess because of this, I find myself putting up with more stuff than I might normally. I wonder whether our relationship will suffer because of my secret worries about her dad.—Marked Man

A: There’s doing the right thing, and then there’s doing the right thing for the right reasons. Ideally, you refrain from shoplifting because it’s wrong to steal, not because they show videos of shoplifters on the news sometimes and your nose always looks so big on security camera footage.

It turns out that there are two fundamental motivations for all life-forms—from microbes to men. They are “approach” and “avoidance.” Research by social psychologist Shelly Gable suggests that romantic relationships are happier when they’re driven by approach rather than avoidance motives.

So, say your girlfriend asks that you put food-encrusted plates in the dishwasher instead of leaving them out for the archeologists to find. An approach motivation means doing as she asks because you’re striving for a positive outcome—like making her feel loved—instead of trying to avoid a negative one, like having your fate in showbiz patterned after that first guy in a horror movie who gets curious about the weird growling in the basement.

The research suggests that you can happy up your relationship by reframing why you do things—shifting to an “I just wanna make her happy” motivation. To do that, set aside your career fears and just try to be fair—to both of you. The relationship may fizzle out. Even so, if you don’t do anything horrible to Daddy’s little girl, there’ll be no reason for him to see to it that you look back on a lifetime of iconic roles—like “White Guy With Umbrella” and “Bystander #5.”

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: A year ago, the woman who pet-sits for me began inviting herself over for dinner. We started going out about three times a week. I always paid for dinner. She never introduced me to her friends, wouldn’t let me pick her up at her apartment and wouldn’t let me touch her. Even a genial “thank you” touch on the arm got a grim response. Her reason: She didn’t want a relationship. I kept hoping this would change. Recently, I went on Facebook and saw that she’s been in a relationship with another man. Her response? “Well, I’m not sleeping with him, so I can see whomever I want.” After a long, demoralizing year, I ended things. Did I do right by getting out?—Not A Game Player

A: Having regular dinners with somebody doesn’t mean that you’re dating. I have dinner with my TV several nights a week, but that doesn’t mean I should get “Samsung forever!” tattooed on my special place.

Consciously or subconsciously, this woman deceived you into thinking that a relationship was possible—but she had help. Yours. To understand how you got tripped up, let’s take a look at self-deception—through an evolutionary lens. Evolutionary researchers William von Hippel and Robert Trivers describe self-deception as a “failure to tell the self the whole truth” by excluding the parts that go poorly with our goals and our preferred view of ourselves. We do this through “information-processing biases that give priority to welcome over unwelcome information”—or, in plain English: What we ignore the hell out of can’t hurt us.

Seems crazy, huh?—that we would have evolved to have a faulty view of reality? However, von Hippel and Trivers contend that the ability to self-deceive evolved to help us be better at deceiving others—keeping us from giving off the cues we do when we know we’re putting out a big fibby. As Trivers explains in The Folly of Fools: “We hide reality from our conscious minds the better to hide it from onlookers.”

Knowing that we do this can help us remember to ask the right questions—the ego-gnawing kind—and drag the facts upstairs to consciousness and give them a long look.

Q: I feel that my boyfriend brings out my best self: Loving, sweet, productive. In my failed marriage, my ex seemed to bring out my worst self: Unstable, selfish, lazy. It’s almost as if I’m a different person with my boyfriend. But how different can I be?—In A Better Place

A: OK, so you sometimes daydreamed about your naked ex and the things you’d like to do to him—like painting him all over with maple syrup and throwing him into a pit of starving fire ants.

To understand what’s different with your current boyfriend, consider that the relationship is an environment—one that influences your behavior just like a physical environment.

There’s a term for the sort of relationship dynamics that bring out your best self—the “Michelangelo phenomenon”—coined by social psychologist Caryl Rusbult and her colleagues. The name was inspired by the Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s belief that there’s an ideal figure hidden within each block of stone and that it’s the sculptor’s job to chip away the pieces around it until it’s revealed.

They find that in a relationship, two things foster your bringing out the best in each other. One is that your partner “affirms” your values, meaning that your partner is aligned (enough) with what you care most about. Second, they engage in behaviors that encourage you to move toward your “ideal self.” This might mean urging you to acquire new skills or, at a cocktail party, asking you about the dog-walking drone you invented while you’re standing next to a trustafarian.

Rusbult and her colleagues observe that when individuals in a relationship improve and grow—especially through their partner’s encouragement—it makes for a better relationship and happier partners. Conversely, when their partner is unhelpfully critical, controlling and at odds with who they are and what they want, the relationship suffers, as do those in it. Ultimately, if you say, “I barely recognize who I am with this person,” it should be a good thing—not one that leads to TV news clips of your bewildered neighbor: “We’re all just shocked. She seemed so nice, so normal. I guess she just … snapped.”

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: The 40-year-old guy I’m dating swivels his head to check out ladies everywhere. He even comments on those he finds attractive. I’ve mentioned that it bugs me. He contends that it’s my insecurities that are really the issue here. I can see how lower self-esteem might lend itself to an offended reaction, as opposed to just a shrug or an eye roll, but is this really on me?—Blamed

A: Yes, of course your insecurities are the real issue here. Because what woman wouldn’t feel great when her boyfriend’s all, “Whoa, boobs are out tonight!”?

That said, it is normal that he’s driven to look. Men evolved to have their eyeballs all up in every hot woman’s business because the features considered beautiful in a woman correlate with health and fertility. Ancestral men who passed on their genes (and mating psychology) are those who went for the fertile young hotties, not the 70-year-old ladies with a lot of personality.

Not surprisingly, brain imaging studies by evolutionary psychologist Steven Platek and his colleagues find that when men see pictures of curvalicious women, there’s “activation” in (most notably) the nucleus accumbens. This is part of the brain’s reward circuitry and “the seat of addictive behavior.” Regarding their findings, Platek told me, “We think that this is why men quite literally find it challenging to look away from a highly attractive female body.”

No, not “impossible” to look away. “Challenging.” Like it may sometimes be for you to keep from stabbing your boyfriend in the thigh with a fork when he rubbernecks at a passing pair of Wonderbreasts. However, feeling disturbed by his girl-gawking isn’t a sign that you’re emotionally defective. Psychiatrist and evolutionary psychologist Randolph Nesse explains that emotions have a job to do—to motivate us to “respond adaptively” to threats and opportunities.

If your insecurity is tripping you up, it’s in how you seem to be second-guessing the emotions yelling at you, “Do something! HELLO?! Are you in a coma?” The thing is, you don’t have to feel assertive to be assertive. You just have to (gulp!) stand up for yourself as an assertive person would.

Again, the problem isn’t that your boyfriend’s looking; it’s that he’s looking (and commenting) while you’re standing right there, feelings and all. Be honest with him: This doesn’t just “bug” you; it hurts your feelings. It makes you feel disrespected. And it needs to stop. Now. Because you want to feel loved, respected, and happy—either with him or with some guy you meet at his funeral, after his tragic but inevitable death from drowning in a pool of his own drool.

Q: For two years, I’ve been in the best relationship of my life, after years of really bad ones. I’m thinking that maybe the key to a happy relationship is having two people who think they aren’t good enough for each other. Not that we feel that in a pathetic way. We each just feel really grateful and lucky to be with the other person, and it makes a difference in how we treat each other. Thoughts?—Happy at Last

A: Sometimes the thing we tell ourselves is that love is really “the thing I got into because I was scared I’d die alone—surrounded by empty single-serving zinfandel bottles.”

What seems key this time around, in how happy you two are, is the gratitude you feel. Gratitude for your partner comes out of noticing the sweet, thoughtful things they do—like taking out the trash without needing to be “asked” at gunpoint.

However, what you’re grateful for isn’t so much the garbage relocation as what it shows—what social psychologist Kaska Kubacka describes as your partner’s “responsiveness to (your) needs.” This, in turn, tells you that your happiness is important to them, which tells you that they value you and the relationship. Awww.

Seeing that you’re loved and cared for like this motivates you to do sweet, loving things for your partner. Which motivates them … which motivates you … (think of it as love on the Ping-Pong model.) This helps create and maintain the kind of relationship where, when your partner blurts out, “I love you so much!” your inclination is to respond in kind—instead of turning around to see who the hell they’re talking to.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I really appreciated your recent column about people who go through with getting married when they know deep down that they’re making a mistake. I’m reminded of the common societal admonishment against being a “quitter.” There’s this notion that you’re some kind of loser if you quit anything—even when logic tells you that you should bow out. This sort of absurd anti-logic is used (with the “marriage takes work” notion) to intimidate people into remaining in marriages that are total failures, which prolongs everyone’s suffering.—Been There

A: Ideally, “till death do us part” doesn’t lead to daydreams involving a shovel and a tarp.

Granted, there are people in miserable marriages who stay together—sometimes because they believe that a man with horns and a tail would end up chasing them around with a flaming pitchfork if they split up and married somebody else. Others, in humdrum but not ugly or toxic marriages, stay together, admirably, for their kids’ sake. But many unhappy couples, with no pitter-pattering little feet but the schnauzer’s, don’t split up or are seriously slow to do it out of this notion that quitting is for losers.

I’m not suggesting that couples should scurry off to divorce court at the first sight of a cloud on the marital horizon. But there’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done. Couples need to consider whether it’s actually possible to work to make their marriage succeed or whether that would take their being two totally different and actually compatible people.

As for what “succeeding” in marriage means, let’s be honest: In modern society, we have a luxury we never did before—marrying for love and happiness. Marriage historian Stephanie Coontz points out that for “thousands of years”—until the late 18th century—“marriage was more about property and politics than personal satisfaction.” Two people would get “betrothed” to each other as a way of brokering peace between nations or getting the money to keep land in the family (“marriage is between a man and a potato farm”).

Research by psychologist Elliot Aronson finds that we are prone to “self-justification”—believing whatever puts us in the best light. In other words, we are natural-born spin doctors, driven to protect both our ego and our public persona. Enter psychological tool “self-compassion”—basically, when you’re going through a hard time, treating yourself as kindly as you’d treat someone else who’s struggling. Psychologist Kristin Neff, who studies self-compassion, finds that an essential element of this is seeing your “common humanity”—meaning viewing yourself as part of a whole population of flawed, fallible humans.

This might help you look charitably on the concept of the “starter marriage.” This is a first marriage for a very young couple without kids or many assets that ends in divorce in five years or less. (These are people who went into marriage not knowing themselves or their partner all that well and not really understanding what marriage requires.) Still, older people, upon hearing about this newfangled “get out of jail free” card, will often grumble the marital version of, “When I was your age, I crawled 20 miles to school over broken glass!”

But consider that this “starter marriage” concept is actually very helpful—right in line with the notion from self-compassion that you’re not alone in making mistakes. Understanding this can help you view your failures less as shameful embarrassments and more as learning experiences. Seeing failures in this more compassionate, positive light could also help you be a bit faster to admit when you’ve screwed up so you can move on. This is certainly preferable to just sitting there glumly mired in your bad choices like a little kid who peed his pants—and has to stay in those wet pants for the next 50 years, at which point somebody will throw him a big anniversary party to celebrate.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a 28-year-old guy in a corporate job. I’m out there trying to meet women and date (or hook up), but I’m not doing so well. In college, I was able to hook up and get girlfriends pretty easily, and I haven’t put on 100 pounds or anything. I’ve noticed that three of my male co-workers (at my same level at work) are getting lots of girls. All three are in major debt from buying clothes and leasing cars they really can’t afford. Is being on the road to bankruptcy really what it takes to impress the ladies?—Living Within My Means

A: Candlelight all over your apartment is really romantic—unless you’re using it because they’ve cut your power off again.

When women finally start looking to settle down and make a life with a man, the last thing they want is some credit-card-surfing spenditarian who gets his exercise running from collection agents. However, despite this, women can also be like blue jays on shiny objects—especially shiny objects with, say, Audi emblems.

Research on men and women ages 18 to 45 by evolutionary social psychologist Daniel Kruger found that men who had run up credit card debt were more likely to have multiple sex partners than their more sensibly spending bros.

Again, rather obviously, women aren’t all, “I’m looking for a man who’ll eventually have to crowdfund our children’s dental bills.” However, looking at Kruger’s findings, another evolutionary psychologist, Glenn Geher, speculates that men’s overspending “may act as a false signal of wealth, and although it is a false signal” (of the ability to provide resources for a woman and any children) “sometimes this deception is effective.”

Going into the red to get girls is ultimately a bad strategy for any guy who wants more than a string of flings. However, what would probably lead more women to give you a chance are the first-glance trappings of success—beautiful shoes, designer eyeglass frames, that fab cashmere sweater and maybe a really nice soft leather jacket.

The thing is, you can get these items simply by shopping shrewdly—like at end-of-year sales or on eBay. Remember, even women who want a boyfriend who’s fiscally responsible are likely to be impressed by that sweater that took four years combing a Mongolian goat to make. And let’s say some woman is just looking for a hookup. It’s all good; she won’t know you long enough to discover that although you do drive a brand-new “alternative-fuel” vehicle, it isn’t a Tesla; it’s a Schwinn.

Q: I love my girlfriend and try to be good to her. However, her folks came to visit, and she thinks I was rude because I seemed uninterested and was on my phone the whole time. I told her that I think her parents are boring. I was just being honest. She got really mad. Am I supposed to lie about being entertained by her parents?—The Boyfriend

A: There comes an age when other children’s parents shouldn’t have to hire monkeys and birthday clowns.

Twenty-some years ago, in the hospital maternity ward, your girlfriend’s mom and dad heard the wonderful news—and it wasn’t, “It’s an iPhone!” So, when her folks are visiting, there’s a reasonable expectation that, yes, you would redirect your attention from “Words With Friends” to words with parents.

Surely, this is not news to you—or really anyone whose brain has not been relocated to a jar. So you might ask yourself whether this ignore-athon of yours reflects some subconscious desire to sabotage your way out of the relationship. If that’s not the case, consider something the late German social psychologist Erich Fromm pointed out: “To love somebody is not just a strong feeling—it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise.” Tragically, this acting lovingly business may sometimes require you to put your entertainment needs second—even if the only way to survive the crushing tedium of being with your girlfriend’s folks is to spend the evening secretly pacing the floater in your right eye.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a 27-year-old woman, dating again after a six-year relationship. I slept with a guy on the third date and was dismayed when he didn’t spend the night. It didn’t feel like just a hookup, and it wasn’t a work night. Is this just how people date now—going home immediately after sex—or does this mean he’s not serious?—Confused

A: There are two ways to solve this problem. One is to say, “Hey, I’d really like you to stay the night.” The other is to hide his shoes and keys.

The “half-night stand”—avoiding the early-morning walk of shame, often via middle-of-the-night Uber—is being proclaimed the new one-night stand. The truth is, the just-post-sex adios isn’t exactly a new phenomenon; it’s probably just more prevalent, thanks to how easy smartphones make it to swipe office supplies, Thai food and sex partners right to your door.

As for why this guy left, it’s hard to say. Maybe he’s gone for good, or maybe he just wasn’t sure you wanted him to stay. Maybe he sleepwalks, sleep-carjacks or can’t fall asleep in a strange bed. Or maybe he’s got some early-morning thing—seeing his parole officer, walking the goat or (more likely) making the bathroom smell like 12 dead goats.

Your fretting about what the deal is suggests you might not be as comfortable as you think about having sex before there’s a relationship in place. You may unconsciously be succumbing to a form of peer pressure—peer pressure that mainly exists in your own mind—called “pluralistic ignorance.” This is social psychologists’ term for when many people in a group are personally uncomfortable with some belief or behavior but go along with it anyway—incorrectly concluding that most people are A-OK with it and thinking they should be, too. (Basically, “monkey assume/monkey do.”)

Figure out what actually works for you emotionally—whether you can just say, “Whatevs!” if a guy goes all nail-’n’-turn-tail or whether you might want to wait to have sex till you’ve got a relationship going. That’s when it becomes easier to broach uncomfortable subjects—so you won’t have to wonder, say, why he’s running out at 2:27am. You will know: It’s not you; it’s his sleep apnea and how he likes to go home to his CPAP machine rather than die in your bed.

Q: Resolve an argument, please. How often should married people be having sex to have a happy marriage?—Married Person

A: It is kind of depressing if the last time you screamed in bed was two months ago when your husband rolled over in his sleep and elbowed you in the eye.

However, consider that more of a good thing is not always better. For example, having more in the boobage area is generally great—unless that means having three. Well, according to social psychologist Amy Muise and her colleagues, once you’ve got a relationship going, sex works kind of the same way. They find that having sex once a week is associated with greater happiness; however, more sex than that doesn’t make for more happiness, and it can sometimes make for less.

The researchers explain that many people are exhausted and feel overwhelmed, so “the pressure to engage in sex as frequently as possible may be daunting and even stressful.” But, interestingly, comparisons with one’s peers—positive or negative—also color how people feel. Sociologist Tim Wadsworth finds that, beyond simply having sex, what really makes people happier is thinking that they’re having more of it than everybody else.

Having sex just once a week can keep the spouse with a stronger sex drive feeling satisfied enough while keeping the less lusty spouse from feeling like a sexual pack mule. This, in turn, helps keep resentment from taking over your relationship to the point where you go around grumbling that the last time somebody got into your pants, it was because they paid $3.79 for them at Goodwill.

advice goddess
Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: Two of my girlfriends just got divorced. Both recently admitted to me that they knew they shouldn’t have gotten married at the time but did anyway. Just this weekend, another friend—married for only a year and fighting bitterly with her husband—also said she knew she was making a mistake before her wedding. Can you explain why anyone would go through with something as serious and binding as marriage if they have reservations?—Confused

A: Consider that in most areas of life, when you’re making a colossal mistake, nobody is all, “Hey, how about a coronation-style party, a Caribbean cruise and a brand-new blender?”

But it isn’t just the allure of the star treatment and wedding swag that leads somebody to shove their doubts aside and proceed down the aisle. Other influences include parental pressure, having lots of married or marrying friends, being sick of dating and feeling really bad about guests with nonrefundable airline tickets. There’s also the notion that “marriage takes work”—meaning you can just put in a little emotional elbow grease and you’ll stop hating your spouse for being cheap, bad in bed and chewing like a squirrel.

However, it also helps to look at how we make decisions—and how much of our reasoning would more accurately be called “emotioning.” We have a powerful aversion to loss and to admitting we were wrong, and this can cause us to succumb to the “sunk cost effect.” Sunk costs are investments we’ve already made—of time, money or effort. The “sunk cost effect” is decision researcher Hal Arkes’ term for our tendency to—irrationally, ego-servingly—keep throwing time, money or effort into something based on what we’ve already put in.

A way to avoid the sunk cost trap is through what psychologists call “prefactual thinking”—thinking out the possible outcomes before you commit to some risky course of action. Basically, you play the role of a pessimistic accountant.

But don’t just imagine all of the awful things that could happen. Write out a list—a detailed list. Making potential losses concrete like this helps you weigh current costs against the future ones. This, in turn, could help you admit that you and your not-entirely-beloved might have a real shot at happily ever after—if only the one of you in the big white dress would bolt out the fire exit instead of walking down the aisle.

Q: I’m a 32-year-old guy using dating apps. I was in a long-term relationship that ended badly, and I’m not ready for anything serious right now. I get that many women are ultimately looking for a relationship. I don’t want to ghost them if they start getting attached, but saying from the get-go that I just want something casual seems rude and a bit presumptuous.—Conflicted

A: Not everybody likes to spoon after sex. You like to slip out of the house without being noticed.

It isn’t presumptuous to explain “from the get-go” that you aren’t ready for anything serious; it’s the right thing to do. Lay that out in your online profile (or at least in your first conversation) so women are clear that you’re an aspiring sexfriend, not an aspiring boyfriend. Consider, however, that research by anthropologist John Marshall Townsend finds that even women who are sure that casual sex is all they’re looking for can get clingy afterward—to their great surprise.

Townsend explains that women’s emotions evolved to “act as an alarm system that urges women to test and evaluate investment and remedy deficiencies even when they try to be indifferent to investment.”

Ghosting—just disappearing on somebody you’re dating, with no explanation—is dignity-shredding. If a woman does end up wanting more than you can give, you need to do the adult thing and tell her that you’re ending it. Sure, that’ll be seriously uncomfortable for both of you. But keep in mind that bad news is usually the road to recovery, while no news is the road to randomly running into a woman everywhere, including your shower.



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