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?”