by Amy Alkon
Q: I’ve been seeing this guy long distance. I haven’t really been feeling it and kind of let it drop off, thinking he’d get the hint. He keeps texting and calling. I keep telling him I’m just really busy. The truth is, I’ve met somebody else. Do I have to tell him?—Dreading It
A: Even milk and meat have the courtesy to let you know when they’re expiring. You, on the other hand, reeled in a guy’s heart, watched it flop around on the carpet, and then misplaced it under a pile of old newspapers.
“Life is short!” you hear people say. And it can be—if you’re in the habit of Snapchatting while meandering across bus lanes. But as the stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Unfortunately, other people sometimes waste it for us, like by expecting us to “get the hint” that they’re done with us. By the way, men, especially, tend to be poor at hint-taking. So yes, you actually have to tell the guy—rather than continue with your current approach: “I dumped you. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out eventually.”
To be human is to procrastinate—to put off till tomorrow (or the second Tuesday of never) what we could do today. Behavioral science research finds that we are biased toward the RIGHT NOW, irrationally overvaluing a small payoff we can have right away over a substantially larger one down the road. We’re especially quick to put off anything that involves duty (and its conjoined twin, discomfort). This is irrational because deferring almost always costs far more—like if we delay going to the doctor until we not only have a tumor but one with 3,651 Facebook friends.
Likewise, instead of cleverly escaping the stress of breaking up, you’ve built stressing about it into your daily routine: Coffee … ignore uncomfortable text … feed the cat … duck his call. It seems that ending the daily feel-bads should be motivation enough for you to clue the guy in. The problem is, the human motivational system tends to be in-activated by “avoidance goals”—negative outcomes we’re trying to avoid, such as avoiding feeling guilty for stringing a guy along. (It doesn’t help that the “reward” here—shifting from feeling guilty to feeling relieved—is abstract and intangible.) What we find most motivating are “approach goals,” positive outcomes we strive toward. To recast breaking up in that way, offer yourself an immediate and tangible reward, like treating yourself to a big sloppy dessert right after you do the deed.
Telling him in a timely way is something you do not just for him but for you, because what you do becomes who you are: Murder and you’re a murderer; garden and you’re a gardener. Keep a guy on the hook and … well, OK, that one goes a little off track. But doing the right thing, the kind thing, would take what, five uncomfortable minutes on the phone? The cumulative dread of doing it probably feels way worse than the actual doing. Plus, the momentary awfulness seems a small price to pay to become a different sort of person—one who doesn’t make a guy feel like the kid whose mom was supposed to pick him up after soccer but instead moved to Belize.
Q: I saw your recent column about a hiking date, and I was wondering whether I’d seem cheap if I asked a woman on a hike for the first date. A buddy says it’d seem rude to a woman to not be wined and dined, and I’d come off as chintzy or poor. I’m neither, but hiking’s fun, and I like the idea of not spending big on first dates (most of which are busts anyway).—Mountain Man
A: On a first date, a woman should be getting to know you, not getting to know how much you can put on your MasterCard before the waiter comes over with a big pair of scissors. Sure, some women will find you cheap for suggesting a hike—mainly those who resent having to trudge up hills to procure a funding source with a penis. However, even women who are into exercising aren’t always into doing it where they may get close enough to a bear to see that it could use one of those little nose hair trimmers. For these women, you might offer “activity date” alternatives, like bowling or attending a street fair or a gallery opening. These might also work better for first dates with any women you barely know—alluring as it is to hear, “Hi, I’m a total stranger, and I’d like to take you off to a dark, wooded area where there’s no cellphone reception.” (Your shallow grave or mine?)