By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a man in my mid-30s, and I’m dating a woman I really love. We match each other on so many levels, and I thought we had a really great thing. But, recently, she seems to want more than I can give. Specifically, she’s prodding me to say, “I love you” repeatedly throughout the day, and she blows up at me for not doing it enough. Though I do love her, the required affirmations feel hollow. But I am trying. Yesterday she called, and I told her, “I’ve been thinking about you all day.” She got super angry and said, “Then you should have called to tell me that!” WTH?! Where’s the line between being present for someone and being phony just to quell their unfounded insecurity?—Besieged
A: Understandably, if your relationship is patterned on a movie, you’d like it to be Love Actually, not Judgment at Nuremberg.
Sure, things are looking bleak at the moment. In fact, the best thing about your relationship right now probably seems like the right to a speedy trial. However, you may be able to change that—get back to the “really great thing” you two had—by understanding the possible evolutionary roots to your girlfriend’s morphing into LOVEMEEEE!zilla.
It turns out that perceiving things accurately isn’t always in our best interest. In fact, evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton explains that we seem to have evolved to make protective errors in judgment—either underperceiving or overperceiving depending on which error would be the “least costly” to our mating and survival interests.
For example, Haselton explains that men are prone to err on the side of overestimating women’s interest in them. Evolutionarily, it’s costlier for a man to miss an opportunity to pass on his genes than, say, to get jeered by his buddies after he hits on some model. Man: “Yerrr pritty!” Model: “Um, you’re missing most of your teeth.”
Women, however, err on the side of underestimating a man’s willingness to stick around. This helps keep them from getting duped by cads posing as wannabe dads. And, as Haselton points out, a woman’s expressions of “commitment skepticism” may come with a fringe benefit—“more frequent displays of commitment” (like flowers, prezzies, mooshywooshy talk) from a man “who truly (is) committed.”
Unfortunately, your girlfriend’s expressing her “commitment skepticism” in exactly the wrong way—by trying to berate you into being more loving.
Because our brain’s “fight or flight” circuitry is also calibrated to protectively overreact, a verbal attack kicks off the same physiological responses as a physical one. Adrenaline surges. Your heart beats faster. And blood flow gets shunted away from systems not needed to fight back or bolt—like digestion and higher reasoning. This makes sense, because you don’t need algebra to keep a tiger from getting close enough for you to notice his need for Crest Whitestrips.
Of course, you understand that your girlfriend is a lady looking for your love, not a tiger looking to turn you into a late lunch. However, once that fight-or-flight train leaves the station, it keeps building momentum. So, though the problem between you might seem to start with your girlfriend, consider what psychologist Brooke C. Feeney calls “the dependency paradox.” Feeney’s research suggests that continually responding to your romantic partner’s bids for comforting (like expressions of neediness) with actual comforting seems to alleviate their need for so much of it.
This isn’t to say that you should make like a meth-jacked parrot and start squawking, “Awwk! I love you!” until—thunk!—you beak-plant on the newspapers lining your cage. Instead, start by asking your girlfriend why she feels a need for this daily stream of “affirmations. Next, explain the science, including Feeney’s finding. Then, pledge to be more expressive in general (holding her, telling her you love her), but explain that you feel insincere punctuating every text and conversation with robo I-love-yous. As for her part, point out that if, instead of going off on you, she’d express her fears, it would put you in a position to reassure her. Ultimately, if you’re yelling, “I love you! … I love you!” it should be because she’s running to catch a plane—not because you just can’t take another weekend chained to the radiator.