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.