By Amy Alkon
Q: My girlfriend of two years had me help her download photos from her phone, and I found about two dozen close-ups of her private parts. She said she was “just curious.” Well, OK, but why not use a mirror? Besides, she’s in her 30s. Surely, she knows what her parts look like without a photo shoot. Do you think she took these to send to another guy?—Disturbed
A: Men aren’t used to women being preoccupied with their girlparts. Even in Redneckville, you never see a woman hanging a rubber replica of hers off the back of her pickup.
The truth is, not all women went for a look-see down there with a hand mirror at age 14. Recently, some women may have gotten inspired to do some camera-phone sightseeing thanks to the increased visibility of the ladygarden via free internet porn, the mainstreaming of the waxed-bald vulva, and giant ads for labiaplasty (aka a face-lift for your vagina).
Though it’s possible that your girlfriend is texting these to other guys, consider what anthropologist Donald Symons calls the human tendency “to imagine that other minds are much like our own.” This can lead us to forget about biological sex differences, like how men, who are in no danger of getting pregnant from sex, evolved to be the less sexually discriminating half of humanity.
It’s hard for many people to tell whether another person is lying, especially when they’re invested in believing otherwise. Borrowing from research methodology, a way to figure out whether a lone ambiguous event might be meaningful—like whether the panty hamster pictorial might mean what you dread it does—is to see if it’s part of a pattern.
Look back on your girlfriend’s behavior over your two years together. Does she act ethically—even when she thinks nobody’s looking? Being honest with yourself about whether she has a pattern of ethical corner-cutting will allow you to make the best guess about whether you have something to worry about—beyond coming home to a, um, new addition to the framed photos of her parents’ anniversary and your nephew with his Little League trophy.
Q: My relationship ended recently, and I asked my ex not to contact me. But just as I’d start feeling a little less sad, I’d hear from him and fall apart. I’ve now blocked him on my phone and social media. This seems so immature. Why can’t I be more grown up about this?—Incommunicado
A: For you, breaking up but staying in contact makes a lot of sense—about the same sort as trying to drop 20 pounds while working as a frosting taster.
Sure, there’s this notion that you “should” be able to be friends with your ex. Some people can be—eventually or even right away—especially if they had a relationship that just fizzled out instead of the kind where you need a rowboat to make it to the kitchen through the river of your tears.
However—not surprisingly—clinical psychologists David Sbarra and Robert Emery find that “contact with one’s former partner … can stall the emotional adjustment process” by reactivating both love and painful emotions. For example, in their survey of people who’d recently gone through a breakup, “on days when participants reported having telephone or in-person contact with their former partner, they also reported more love and sadness.”
It might help you to understand how adjusting to the new “no more him” thing works. In a serious relationship, your partner becomes a sort of emotional support animal—the one you always turn to for affection, attention and comforting. This habit of turning toward him gets written into your brain on a neural level, becoming increasingly automatic over time.
Post-breakup, you turn and—oops—there’s no boo, only a faint dent in his side of the bed. Your job in healing is to get used to this change—which you don’t do by having him keep popping up, messing with your new belief that he’s no longer available for emotional need-meeting.
That’s why, in a situation like yours, breaking up with your boyfriend should work like breaking up with your couch. When the thing gets dropped off at the city dump, it stays there; you don’t come out on your porch the next morning to it saying, “Hey, babe … was in the neighborhood, so I thought I’d bring over some of your stuff—36 cents, a pen cap and this hair elastic.”