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.”