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.