Authors Posts by Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon


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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: A guy friend of 20 years and I once fooled around years ago. Though he has a girlfriend, he keeps throwing sexual remarks into our conversations, sending inappropriate texts and asking me to send naked photos. I wouldn’t be interested even if he were single, and I’ve been giving subtle hints, like “ha-ha … gotta go,” right after he says something provocative, but it isn’t working. How do I politely get him to stop without ruining a very long friendship?—Upset

A: As a means of communication, hinting to a man is like having a heartfelt conversation with your salad.

This isn’t to say that men are dumb. They just aren’t emotional cryptographers. Social psychologist Judith A. Hall finds that women are generally far better at spotting and interpreting nonverbal messages (from, say, facial expressions and body language, including that female specialty, the pout).

Women tend to use their own ability for decoding unspoken stuff as the standard for what they expect from men. So, for example, the longer a man takes to notice that his girlfriend is pouting, the darker things get—with hate glares and maybe some cabinet-slamming … and then, the grand finale: “Hey, heartless! Time for a monthlong reunion with your first sex partner, aka your right hand!”

There’s also a major sex difference in how males and females speak. A body of research finds that from childhood on, males tend to be direct: “Gimme my truck, butthead!” Females tend to be indirect: “Um, sorry, but I think that’s my Barbie.”

Psychologist Joyce Benenson points out that these conversational sex differences line right up with evolved sex differences in our, uh, job descriptions. Men evolved to be the warrior-protectors of the species. This is not done with coy hints: “Oh, Genghis, you look so much more tan and handsome while invading our neighbors to the north.”

Women’s mealy-mouthing, on the other hand, dovetails with a need to avoid physical confrontation, which could leave them unable to have children or to care for the ones they’ve already had. However, in women’s self-protectively not quite saying what they mean, they trade off being understood—especially by men.

Making matters worse, research by evolutionary psychologists Martie Haselton and David Buss on the “sexual overperception bias” in men suggests that the male mind evolved to be a bit dense to a woman’s signals that she isn’t interested. Basically, men seem evolutionarily predisposed to make errors in judgment in whether to pursue or keep pursuing a woman—erring in whichever way would be least costly to their mating interests.

In other words, in giving this guy “subtle hints,” you aren’t being polite; you’re being wildly ineffective. Yank off the marshmallow fluff and tell him: “I need you to kill all the sex talk. Immediately. And yes, this includes requests for naked selfies.” If he really is a friend, he’ll continue being one. He might even become a better one—the sort you can call anytime, day or night, from the coldest place on the globe, and he’ll say, “I’ll be there with the sled dogs pronto,” not, “Text me a shot of your boobs before you die of hypothermia!”

Q: I love how my boyfriend smells, but I hate his new cologne. The smell literally makes me queasy. Is it even my place to ask him to stop wearing it? How do I tell him I don’t like it without it being mean?—Plagued

A: Try to focus on the positive: You find him extremely jumpable whenever he isn’t wearing a $185 bottle of what it would smell like if sewage and verbena had a baby.

Unfortunately, it seems that his cologne and your immune system are poorly matched. Biologist August Hammerli and his colleagues find that a person’s fragrance preferences correlate with their particular set of infectious intruder-tracking genes, called the “major histocompatibility complex.” So, in not liking your boyfriend’s cologne, it isn’t that you think he’s an idiot with bad taste; it’s that your … I dunno, great-great-grandma got it on with some hot peasant with the “verbena smells like dead, rotting chickens” gene.

The science is your way in: “Sadly, your cologne does not play well with my genes.” Cushion the blow with something sweet, like, “I know you love it, and I wish I loved it, too.” Suggest that you shop together for a new cologne for him (ideally something that makes you want to get naked, and not just down to your World War II gas mask).

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a woman looking for a new boyfriend and considering various online dating sites. Some have long questionnaires, and they factor your answers into an “algorithm” to match you with the best possible partner. Are these sites significantly better than the others?—Site Seeker

A: Most people will tell you that they want to be accepted for who they really are—yet those doing online dating rarely post profiles with stuff like, “I like long walks on the beach, fine dining, and obscenely large breasts.”

In light of this, sites using these compatibility “algorithms” would seem to have some added value. However, according to a massive online dating analysis by social psychologist Eli Finkel and his colleagues, this algorithm stuff mainly seems to be a “science!”-flavored marketing ploy. The researchers explain that it’s “virtually impossible” for sites to do what they promise with these algorithms: “Match people who are uniquely suited to one another” and who are likely to have a “satisfying and lasting long-term relationship” together.

As the Finkel team notes about the “uniquely suited” business: The evidence suggests that these algorithms are really no better at rooting out compatible partners than the matching most people already do themselves with sites’ search parameters—culling the herd of breathing, profile-posting humans down to, say, fellow Ph.D.s who are also weekend Satan worshippers.

Even more outrageous is the sites’ claim that this mathematical alchemy can identify two people who can have a lasting, happy relationship together who have yet to even meet. The researchers point out that the algorithms only measure the “individual characteristics of partners” (personality, attitudes, values, background). They note that this is just one of three essential variables that determine whether relationships sink or swim.

The other two are elements that can’t really be sussed out before two people are in a relationship. One is the “circumstances surrounding (a) couple”—like how they fit into each other’s family and whether one loses their job or goes through other major stressors. The other factor is the “interactions between the partners”—how partners communicate, solve problems and support each other.

I would add an essential fourth factor that needs to be assessed face to face—physical attraction. So, regarding those “29 dimensions of compatibility!” that one site advertises, consider, if you will, 30 and 31: Discovering “this must be what dead bodies smell like when the detectives cover their nose with a hanky on TV,” and “I’m as sexually attracted to you as I am to a stalk of wheat.”

There’s also the “garbage in, garbage out” problem (statisticians’ shorthand for how poor-quality input leads to poor-quality output). It’s unlikely that people are any more honest and accurate in filling out these questionnaires than they are in their online dating profiles.

Typically, deception in online dating profiles is intentional; sometimes we can’t quite see ourselves as we really are. For example, take an item on one of these sites’ compatibility surveys: “I try to accommodate the other person’s position.”

There are seven little circles on a scale to blacken in, from “not at all” to “very well.” Well, OK, but do control freaks always understand that they’re control freaks? Sometimes somebody seriously controlling might fill in “very well” on “I try to accommodate … ” simply because they see themselves in the best light—instead of the actual light: “I’m Stalin—though I’ve never been able to grow much of a mustache.”

Probably the best that can be said about these personality questionnaires is that they might lead you into a little helpful introspection. But otherwise, these tests seem as pointless as they are grueling.

This isn’t to knock online dating itself, which offers really rapid, easy access to a lot of potential partners whom you’d probably never meet otherwise. However, it helps to have a smart strategy vis-a-vis the potential pitfalls, and that’s meeting any person you think might be a possibility ASAP (before you have any long, bond-y text-athons).

Meeting pronto gives you the best shot at seeing whether you click, as well as spotting any vast differences between profile and reality. And as I always advise about first dates, keep it cheap, short and local. Less investment means less disappointment if you find out a guy’s lying—or, maybe worse, if he’s being honest: He really is looking for his “partner in crime”—because one of the guys on his robbery crew got arrested last week.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: My boyfriend of three years cheated on me, and when I found out, he dumped me. I’m getting over it, but boy, it’s a slow process. Some days, I’m fine, and others, I feel super sad or really angry. Is there some way I can speed up my recovery so I can get on with my life?—Wasted Enough Time

A: You wish him all the best, which is to say you hope that a giant scorpion crawls out of the sand and bites his penis.

It’s understandable that you’re feeling overdue for a little emotional fumigation. But consider that there’s an upside to the downer emotions and not just for the dry cleaner who’s about to buy Crete after getting the mascara stains out of all of your clothes.

Though we tend to see our gloomier emotions—like sadness and anger—as “bad,” and the “whoopee!” emotions, like joy and happiness, as “good,” evolutionary psychologist and psychiatrist Randolph Nesse explains that emotions are neither good nor bad; they’re “adaptive.” They’re basically office managers for our behavior, directing us to hop on opportunities and avoid threats through how good or crappy particular things make us feel. As Nesse puts it, “People repeat actions that made them feel happy in the past, and they avoid actions that made them sad.”

Nesse believes that sadness may, among other things, be evolution’s version of a timeout. Note that a term psych researchers use to describe sadness is “low mood” (though it would more helpfully be called “low-energy mood”). Sadness, like depression, slows you down; you repair to your couch to boohoo, lick your wounds and seek comfort from the two men so many women turn to in times of despair, Ben & Jerry.

And yes, there’s value in this sort of ice cream-fueled Kleenexapalooza. Being sad is telling you, “Don’t do that again!”—while giving you the time and emotional space to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to not do.

Because your emotions have a job to do, you can’t just tell sadness and anger, “You’re no longer wanted here. Kindly show yourselves out.” They’ll go when you show them that they’re no longer needed, which you do by reprocessing your painful experience into something useful. Unfortunately, there are some challenges to this, because when you’re upset, your emotions and all the things you’re emotional about become a big tornado of stuff whirling around in your mind “Wizard of Oz”-style.

But what do we humans understand really well? Stories. And it turns out, studies on coping with breakups by communications researcher Jody Koenig Kellas find that creating a story about the relationship and the breakup seems to help people adjust better and faster. Essential elements in this seem to be relating your complete story in a “sequential” way (in order), having a narrative that hangs together and makes sense and illustrating it with examples of things that happened and giving possible reasons for them.

The need to mentally organize what happened into a detailed and coherent story pushes you to reflect on and make sense of your experience in ways that less directed thinking does not. What seems especially important for moving on is making meaning out of the situation—turning the ordeal into a learning experience that gives you hope for living more wisely (and less painfully) in the future.

Kellas’ results dovetail with decades of research by psychologist James Pennebaker, who finds that “expressive writing” (similar to what Kellas recommends) speeds people’s recovery from emotional trauma. But say you hate to write. Research by social psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky finds that recording your story (say, with the voice memo app on your phone) also works. You could also just tell the story to a friend or a homeless guy at a bus stop. (Give him a few bucks for lending an ear.)

Finally, consider the difference between healthy storytelling, used to find meaning in what you went through so you can move on, and unhealthy “rumination”—obsessively chewing and rechewing bits from your relationship without insight, solutions or relief. Psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema finds that this builds “a case for hopelessness,” prolonging distress and recovery.

A powerful way to unbuild a case for hopelessness is by recognizing that you have some control over what happens to you. You get to this sense through accountability—admitting that you have some responsibility for your present situation (perhaps by ignoring red flags and letting wishful thinking run the show). Sure, blaming someone else probably feels more gratifying in the moment. Unfortunately, this tends to lead to insights with limited utility—such as the revelation that Cheerios, oddly enough, do not actually cheer you up (not even when paired with a lactose-free milk substitute such as Jim Beam).

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: My girlfriend of two years had me help her download photos from her phone, and I found about two dozen close-ups of her private parts. She said she was “just curious.” Well, OK, but why not use a mirror? Besides, she’s in her 30s. Surely, she knows what her parts look like without a photo shoot. Do you think she took these to send to another guy?—Disturbed

A: Men aren’t used to women being preoccupied with their girlparts. Even in Redneckville, you never see a woman hanging a rubber replica of hers off the back of her pickup.

The truth is, not all women went for a look-see down there with a hand mirror at age 14. Recently, some women may have gotten inspired to do some camera-phone sightseeing thanks to the increased visibility of the ladygarden via free internet porn, the mainstreaming of the waxed-bald vulva, and giant ads for labiaplasty (aka a face-lift for your vagina).

Though it’s possible that your girlfriend is texting these to other guys, consider what anthropologist Donald Symons calls the human tendency “to imagine that other minds are much like our own.” This can lead us to forget about biological sex differences, like how men, who are in no danger of getting pregnant from sex, evolved to be the less sexually discriminating half of humanity.

It’s hard for many people to tell whether another person is lying, especially when they’re invested in believing otherwise. Borrowing from research methodology, a way to figure out whether a lone ambiguous event might be meaningful—like whether the panty hamster pictorial might mean what you dread it does—is to see if it’s part of a pattern.

Look back on your girlfriend’s behavior over your two years together. Does she act ethically—even when she thinks nobody’s looking? Being honest with yourself about whether she has a pattern of ethical corner-cutting will allow you to make the best guess about whether you have something to worry about—beyond coming home to a, um, new addition to the framed photos of her parents’ anniversary and your nephew with his Little League trophy.

Q: My relationship ended recently, and I asked my ex not to contact me. But just as I’d start feeling a little less sad, I’d hear from him and fall apart. I’ve now blocked him on my phone and social media. This seems so immature. Why can’t I be more grown up about this?—Incommunicado

A: For you, breaking up but staying in contact makes a lot of sense—about the same sort as trying to drop 20 pounds while working as a frosting taster.

Sure, there’s this notion that you “should” be able to be friends with your ex. Some people can be—eventually or even right away—especially if they had a relationship that just fizzled out instead of the kind where you need a rowboat to make it to the kitchen through the river of your tears.

However—not surprisingly—clinical psychologists David Sbarra and Robert Emery find that “contact with one’s former partner … can stall the emotional adjustment process” by reactivating both love and painful emotions. For example, in their survey of people who’d recently gone through a breakup, “on days when participants reported having telephone or in-person contact with their former partner, they also reported more love and sadness.”

It might help you to understand how adjusting to the new “no more him” thing works. In a serious relationship, your partner becomes a sort of emotional support animal—the one you always turn to for affection, attention and comforting. This habit of turning toward him gets written into your brain on a neural level, becoming increasingly automatic over time.

Post-breakup, you turn and—oops—there’s no boo, only a faint dent in his side of the bed. Your job in healing is to get used to this change—which you don’t do by having him keep popping up, messing with your new belief that he’s no longer available for emotional need-meeting.

That’s why, in a situation like yours, breaking up with your boyfriend should work like breaking up with your couch. When the thing gets dropped off at the city dump, it stays there; you don’t come out on your porch the next morning to it saying, “Hey, babe … was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d bring over some of your stuff—36 cents, a pen cap and this hair elastic.”

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I have a close friend whose relationships always end badly. The new guy she’s dating has a reputation as a user. My friend’s very successful, and I believe he’s dating her for her business contacts. I need to be honest with her about this. How should I do that—considering she falls in love hard and fast?—Caring Amiga

A: People will insist that they absolutely want you to be honest with them when they’re doing anything stupid—and then immediately reward you for it by exiling you from Western society to live and herd goats with a Bedouin family.

Yes, even well-intentioned honesty is often counterproductive. This might be hard for you to swallow, considering how warning your friend about this guy probably seems like warning her that she’s about to be hit by a bus. And sure, if that were the case, upon your, “YO! WATCH OUT!” she’d whirl around and leap out of the way—not stand her ground and snap, “You dunno what you’re talking about. Buses love me!”

Though it’s hard to deny the existence of a 24-ton object hurtling toward us, seeing things accurately is not always the first order of the human perceptual system. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton explains that we seem to have evolved to make the least costly perceptual error in a situation. For example, in the physical risk domain, we are predisposed to over-perceive that stick in the rustling leaves as a snake because it’s far more costly to die from a snake bite than to “die” of embarrassment when our peeps mock us for jumping out of our skin at a sinister-looking twig.

In relationships, social psychologist Garth Fletcher and his colleagues find that it’s sometimes in our interest to err on the side of “positivity”—the rosy view—over “accuracy.” Whether positivity or accuracy is active is context-dependent, meaning determined by our situation. So, for example, when you’re in no rush to settle down, positivity vision prevails. Positive illusions are “associated with greater relationship satisfaction and lower rates of dissolution.” Other times, “the need to make accurate, unbiased judgments becomes critical,” like when a little voice inside you is yelling, “It’s baby o’clock!” and you’ll need a guy who’ll stick around and “dad.”

Unfortunately, your even hinting that this guy may have ulterior motives is likely to make your friend snarlingly defensive—which is to say that she may end up throwing somebody out of her life, and it probably won’t be him. Of course, it’s possible that you’re wrong about the guy. Regardless, per the Fletcher team’s finding, your friend’s being able to see anything beyond how dreamypants he is may be driven by context—like when maintaining the rosy view would prove fatal to her achieving some essential goal. At that point, she might start noticing that their threesomes invariably involve the head of HR—and that if she asked him, “Baby, what’s your favorite position?” his answer would be “vice president!”

Q: I’m a single guy, and I just never know how to start conversations with girls. I have a sense of humor, but I’m bad at coming up with funny lines on the fly. I’ve thought of using a “line,” but if I were a girl, hearing one would just make me annoyed. Do you have any advice on good conversation starters?—Speechless

A: There’s a reason the line from that chick flick is, “You had me at hello” and not, “You had me at, ‘Those jugs yours?’”

Granted, it’s better if you can be funny when hitting on girls. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes “humor production ability” is a “hard-to-fake” sign of intelligence in a potential partner. Research by Miller and others suggests that he’s right—finding correlations between humor and “verbal creativity” and intelligence. But note “hard-to-fake.” Trying to be funny when you aren’t all that funny is about as successful a tactic as trying to remove someone’s appendix when you aren’t really a doctor.

However, even if you aren’t naturally funny, what you can be is genuine. To do this, just say something—perhaps about something in the environment. Maybe comment on the attire of the two armed men running out of the place with a bag of money. If a woman finds you attractive, she’ll pick up and respond—and probably not by announcing that if you were the last man on earth, she’d develop a sexual attraction to trees.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a guy who hates fake boobs. I’ve dumped women I really liked upon discovering they have them. Total dealbreaker for me. However, I obviously can’t just ask whether a woman has them. What should I do? I don’t want to waste my time or hers.—Real Deal

A: Right. Not exactly a first-date question: “So … did you get your boobs from your mom’s side of the family or from some doc’s Yelp review?”

Your aversion to counterfitties doesn’t come out of nowhere. Breast implants are a form of “strategic interference,” evolutionary psychologist David Buss’ term for when the mating strategies of one sex are derailed by the other. Women, for example, evolved to seek “providers”—men with high status and access to resources. A guy engages in strategic interference by impressing the ladies with his snazzy new Audi—one he pays for by subletting a “condo” that’s actually the backyard playhouse of the rotten 8-year-old next door.

A woman doesn’t need an Audi (or even a bus pass) to attract men. She just needs the features that men evolved to go all oglypants for—like youth, an hourglass bod, big eyes, full lips and big bra puppies. Men aren’t attracted to these features just becuz. Biological anthropologist Grazyna Jasienska finds that women with big (natural!) boobs have higher levels of the hormone estradiol, a form of estrogen that increases a woman’s likelihood of conception. Women with both big boobs and a small waist have about 30 percent higher levels—which could mean they’d be about three times as likely to get pregnant as other women. So, big fake boobs are a form of mating forgery—like a box supposedly containing a high-def TV that actually contains a bunch of no-def bricks.

There are some telltale signs of Frankenboobs, like immunity from gravity. Women with big real boobs have bra straps that could double as seat belts and bra backs like those lumbar support belts worn by warehouse workers. However, an increasing number of women have more subtle implants (all the better to strategically interfere with you, my dear!). Though you might get the truth by teasing the subject of plastic surgery into conversation, you should accept the reality: You may not know till you get a woman horizontal—and the sweater Alps remain so high and proud that you’re pretty sure you see Heidi running across them, waving to the Ricola guy playing the alpenhorn.

Q: I went out with this guy twice. He was really effusive about how much he liked me and how we had the beginnings of something awesome. He seemed sincere, so I ended up sleeping with him, and then, boom. He vanished. Was he just telling me he was into me to get me in the sack? I can’t imagine ever doing that to somebody.—Integrity

A: A guy’s “I really care about you” makes a woman feel that he’s got a real reason for being there with her—beyond how the neighbor’s goat’s a surprisingly fast runner.

Men evolved to be the worker bees of sex—the wooers of the species, trying to sell women on their level of love and commitment with mushy talk and bunches of carats. Women generally don’t need to work to get sex; they just need to let men know they’re willing—which is why around Valentine’s Day, you don’t hear the tool-time version of those Kay Jewelers commercials, reminding the ladies, “Every kiss begins with a circular saw!”

This difference aligns with what evolutionary psychologist David Buss calls men’s and women’s conflicting “sexual strategies”—in keeping with how getting it on can leave a woman “with child” and a man with a little less semen. Accordingly, Buss finds that women are more likely to be “sexual deceivers”—to dangle the possibility of sex to get a favor or special treatment from a man. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to be “commitment deceivers.” In Buss’ lab, when the researchers asked 112 college dudes about whether they’d “exaggerated the depth of their feelings for a woman in order to have sex with her, 71 percent admitted to having done so, compared with only 39 percent of the women” who were asked whether they’d done that sort of thing.

Knowing the different ways that men and women deceive and are prone to be deceived is the best way to avoid being a victim of that deception. Borrow a motto from Missouri, the Show Me State. And note that this “show me” thing takes time. Wait to have sex until you’ve been around a guy enough to see that he’s got something behind those flowery words—beyond how getting you into bed is preferable to staying home, dressing his penis in a tiny cape, and playing video games.

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Amy Alkon, Advice Goddess

By Amy Alkon

Q: I’m a 35-year-old masculine gay man. I’ve had relationships with (masculine) gay men, but I’m often attracted to masculine straight men. I’m not looking to “turn” them, and I’m ready for a relationship, so I’m concerned that I’m so frequently attracted to men who won’t be interested in me. What is this about? Do I need therapy?—Worried Gay Guy

A: Like you, I happen to like men who look like their hobbies are chopping down trees and going to war with foreign powers.

I am not attracted to femmy men in body glitter with My Little Pony haircuts. Luckily for me, the sort of people I am attracted to did not require me to come out to my parents (“Mom and Dad … I-I-I’m straight”), nor are my preferences considered reason for suspicion that I might be a self-loathing heterosexual.

As for you, because of the ugly views and behaviors toward gays, sure, it’s possible that your being attracted to straight men is some sort of internalized version of those camps for “praying away the gay.” But if you were really so self-loathing and in denial about being gay, wouldn’t you just be sneaking glances at all the manly men on your way to marrying a woman and buying a house with a lot of closet space?

Your being a manly man who’s into boyfriends who wield power tools not intended for hairstyling might be explained by research on “assortative mating.” This basically means “like mates with like”—reflecting how we seem motivated to choose mates who are similar to us on various levels, from age, to looks, to race to personality. In the gay world, psychologist J. Michael Bailey’s research finds that masculine gay men tend to prefer masculine partners.

Increased similarity between partners is associated with happier, longer-lasting relationships. This makes sense, considering that more similarity means more compatibility—from shared beliefs to shared interests and activities. So, it’s good news that you’re eyeing the manlier men, even if many are ultimately “for display purposes only.”

Of course, it is possible that you’re telling yourself you want a relationship but picking people totally unavailable for one. If that isn’t the case, why worry that your ideal relationship is basically a nature preserve for chest hair and testosterone? Just accept that it might take a little more effort to find a boyfriend for whom “contouring” is not skillful makeup application but helping you get the back of your head with the weedwhacker before your welding group arrives.

Q: I went through a crazy party girl period in my 20s. My boyfriend recently asked me how many men I’d slept with before him. I told him, and he freaked out at the number—despite his having his own wild past. Now I wish I hadn’t been honest. What should I have said instead?—Glum

A: It’s usually best to keep mum if the number of men is something like, “I’m not exactly sure because the census takers keep fainting from exhaustion while they’re tallying up my total.”

There is a sexual double standard, though it doesn’t come from men wanting to keep women’s sex drives in park (which wouldn’t exactly serve their interest). What’s telling, however, are sex differences in jealousy—specifically, jealousy over infidelity. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss finds that men across cultures are most distressed by sexual infidelity—the sex acts themselves. Though women aren’t exactly, “Yeah, whatevs” about their partner’s doing the nudie tootie with another woman, women are substantially more distressed by his being emotionally gaga about someone else. (A woman’s first question is inevitably, “But do you luvvvv her?!”)

These differences in freakouts dovetail with men’s and women’s differing evolutionary concerns. Women evolved to worry that their partner would divert his investment of time, energy and resources in her and her children to a rival. Men, however, have a different worry. Because a man can never really be sure whether a child is his (“paternity uncertainty”), any sex act his partner has with another man could lead to his spending decades feeding and caring for some other dude’s genetic offspring.

The thing is, having a crazy party girl period doesn’t mean that you’re unethical. It’s possible that pointing that out to your boyfriend might help. If, in the future, another boyfriend asks for your sexual tally, be generally honest—you were a bit of a party girl—but avoid giving any specific number that suggests that this involved much of the Democratic Party (and a few straggling Greens).

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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.

advice goddess
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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