Q: I’ve been dating this girl for just over a month, and she never offers to pay for anything. I was OK with this in the beginning, as I saw it as a courtship thing. I guess I wonder whether this points to problems down the road with her not being a real partner, pulling her weight, etc. How do I politely broach this without blowing up the blooming relationship?—Feeling Used
A: This woman lives paycheck to paycheck. Unfortunately, it’s your paycheck.
At this point, you’re probably musing on the perfect birthday gift for her—a sparkly little Hello Kitty crowbar that she can use to pry open her wallet. However, mystifying as it is that she has never squeaked out the words, “This one’s on me!” consider that if there’s one thing heterosexual men and women have in common these days, it’s confusion over who exactly is supposed to pay on dates.
The problem driving the confusion is a sort of Godzilla vs. Mothra clash between age-old evolved emotions (still driving us today) and modern-day beliefs about male and female equality. As I explain with some frequency (per big cross-cultural studies by evolutionary psychologist David Buss, among others), women evolved to seek male partners who show that they are willing and able to invest in any children they might have. Whether the particular woman actually wants children is immaterial—as in, of zero interest to her emotions.
Anthropologist John Marshall Townsend observes from his research and others’ that women’s emotions evolved to act as a sort of police force for a man’s level of commitment—making women feel bad when the investment isn’t there. This leads women to either push a man to invest, or ditch him and find a man who will.
Men coevolved to expect this, meaning that men evolved to try to appeal to the ladies by showing (or successfully faking) generosity, high status and earning power. Many people mistakenly assume that evolved adaptations like this will change with the times, but unfortunately, evolution is not a lickety-split process—especially when it comes to our psychological engine panel. In fact, anthropologist Donald Symons explains that “natural selection takes hundreds or thousands of generations” (generations being 20- to 30-year periods) “to fashion any complex cognitive adaptation.” So now even highly successful women who can comfortably pay for their own meals have their emotions pushing them to look for a man who shows generosity, as well as the ability to “provide.”
This is reflected in the findings by sociologist Janet Lever and her colleagues from a survey of heterosexual men and women—17,067 “unmarried and non-cohabitating” heterosexuals, ages 18 to 65—on the extent to which they embrace or reject the traditional “man pays” dating behavior. (Surprisingly, millennials’ responses were generally pretty close percentage-wise to those of older adults—mostly within a few percentage points.)
Overall, 57 percent of women said yes to, “I always offer to help pay, even on the first date.” But check out the mixed feelings: Many women (39 percent) wished men would reject their offer to pay. But many (40 percent of women) said they are bothered when men don’t accept their money. Hello, confusing financial stew!
Men’s responses were similarly contradictory. Overall, more than half of the men—64 percent—said that after the first few dates, the woman should help pay expenses, and nearly half (44 percent) said that they would stop dating a woman who never offers to pay. Yet, 76 percent of men feel guilty if they don’t pay the bill on dates.
Like all of these conflicted men, some women just aren’t sure where the lines are on whether to chip in and when. (Of course, some women are conveniently unsure.) As for this woman you’re seeing, it is possible that she’s waiting until you two are “exclusive” to start picking up the tab. Instead of assuming the worst, do two things: First, observe and reflect on her behavior and attitudes, and see whether they suggest an interest in partnership or princess-ship.
Second, simply ask: “Hey, we’ve been dating for a while, and it seems like we should start sharing the costs. Where do you stand on that?” See what she says and take it from there—tempting as it is to opt for a passive-aggressive approach, like panhandling outside the restaurant where you’re meeting her: “Hey, Amber. You’re early! Meet ya inside. Just trying to beg enough for the tip.”