Q: I’ve been living with my high school sweetheart (from 20 years ago) for two blissful years. However, he’s still married to his ex (though they’ve been separated for 10 years). Every dollar he has goes into the business he’s building or child support, so I’m paying all the bills. I want to get married and start a family, but beyond his not being divorced, he doesn’t want to marry again or have children … at this time. He says this could change in the future.—Clock’s Ticking
A: You know you can count on him to “put a ring on it”—when he sets his beer down without a coaster on your vintage lacquered Donghia side table.
It actually isn’t surprising that you’ve managed to maintain hope—even as your loverman stops just short of tackling you at weddings to keep you from catching the bouquet. Brain imaging studies by anthropologist Helen Fisher and her colleagues find that our love for another person is not merely a feeling. In fact, as she put it in a talk, love is “a motivation system; it’s a drive; it’s part of the reward system of the brain.”
Fisher further explains in her book Why We Love: “When a reward is delayed, dopamine-producing cells in the brain increase their work, pumping out more of this natural stimulant to energize the brain, focus attention and drive the pursuer to strive even harder to acquire a reward.” (Welcome to the factory where “Only him!” gets made.)
In reality, there are probably a number of love-worthy aspiring Mr. Minivans out there. However, you’re blind to this because getting your boyfriend to hubby up (and daddy up) has become a goal, energizing the human motivational system and all of its neurochemical enablers.
Psychologically, the more momentum you gain in pursuing something the less interest you have in exploring whether it even makes sense. Physiologically, surging dopamine and other neurochemicals basically become punks giving rational thought a beat-down so you can keep mindlessly chasing your goal.
To drag rational thought into the mix, pause the misty mental footage of this guy someday “putting a ring on it” and put some numbers on your chances—Vegas bookie-style. Things to factor: How likely is he to come around on the marriage thing? Babies? And if there’s a chance he’d agree to make some, how likely is it to happen before your ovaries put out the “Sorry, We’re Closed” sign?
Express the odds in percentages—as in, “He’s X percent likely to do Y”—basing your guesses on his prior behavior, values, etc. Lay out the percentages visually, by drawing a pie chart. This is helpful because we’re bad at understanding odds expressed in abstractions—vague ideas like “He might marry me!” We’re better when the odds are represented in concrete ways—ways we can pick up with one of our five senses. That pie chart, for example, is a picture of how likely it is that the only way you two will ever have a baby is if some sleepless new parent drops by and accidentally leaves one of their triplets on your couch.
Q: My boyfriend recently ended things, saying he wasn’t ready to be tied down. His mother adores me and keeps calling and saying he loves me and to just be patient. Should I be talking to her at all? Is this normal behavior for a 32-year-old man’s mom?—Confused
A: Stalkers usually want to date you or chain you to a radiator in their basement, not force you to choose between the calla lilies and the “Winter Blessings” wedding centerpiece.
Though his mom’s busybodying is weirding you out, it’s actually an example of a common dynamic that evolutionary psychologists call “parent-offspring conflict.” Not surprisingly, parents and children often have competing interests. In fact, evolutionary biologist David Haig explains that parent-offspring conflict starts in the womb. For instance, moms-to-be sometimes get gestational diabetes when their little hog of a fetus puts out a hormone to mess with the mom’s blood glucose—allowing him to suck up not only his share of nutrients but a bunch of his mother’s share, too.
What’s in Mommy Meddlingest’s interest? A nice, emotionally stable woman, just the ticket to her becoming a grandma—sooner rather than later—and not just to newborns that bark. But what’s in Sonny Boy’s interest? Well, maybe an endless string of sexfriends.
If his mom’s calls make you uncomfortable, set boundaries—kindly! (Say you appreciate her efforts but prefer that she stop intervening.) Ironically, it’s parents keeping lovers apart that tends to bring them together (the “Romeo and Juliet effect”)—as opposed to the tack his mom’s taking: Yes, someone’s rented the apartment directly across from yours, and they’re waving at you. Wait—is that … ?
*Please note: Due to space restrictions this week in the print edition of the Pacific Sun, Advice Goddess appears only online.