Q: I have a history of terrible relationships that end in awful heartbreak. The advice I keep getting is to date down—get together with a man who is less attractive than I am and who likes me a little more than I like him. I was kind of into the idea of equality on all levels, but maybe I’m wrong.—Rethinking Woman
A: After you’ve had your heart broken, it’s tempting to opt for romantic safety measures. For example, a garden gnome could be an ideal partner—few women will fight you for your 18-inch “Man of Resin,” and his stubby little legs are molded together, making it impossible for him to run away.
There’s a name for this “dating down” thing that you’re contemplating: “The principle of least interest.” This is sociologist Willard Waller’s term—from his observations of dating dynamics between college students—describing how whichever partner is the least emotionally attached is in a position to “exploit” the other.
Now, you aren’t looking to clean out a guy’s bank account or make him scrub the baseboards with Barbie’s toothbrush. Regardless, you’re likely to have more power in any relationship—and be less likely to be the exploitee—if your response to a guy’s, “I love you SO much!” involves polite gratitude or pointing skyward: “Look! A UFO!” The problem is, how do you engineer this sort of situation? Only “swiping right” on men you have the lukewarmies for? Only accepting dates from men you don’t entirely respect? Of course, even an “I’m just not that into you” strategy like this isn’t foolproof, because what anthropologists call “mate value” can shift—like when the mouth-breathing nerdy loser becomes the mouth-breathing but unexpectedly sexy startup multigazillionaire.
Tempting as it is to look for hacks to avoid heartbreak, it’s probably more helpful to look at whether there was anything you could’ve—and should’ve—done differently in your past relationships.
Beyond any willful blindness on your part, the reality is, relationships sometimes end in heartbreak. It’s just the price of getting together with a man you love and lust after—as opposed to one you approached with, “I’ve always pitied you and found you borderline sexually repellant. Whaddya say we get a beer?”
Q: There’s a mutual attraction between this guy in my doctoral program and me, and we have great conversations. I’d date him, but he’s in a long-distance relationship. Recently, he started giving driving lessons. I need to learn to drive a stick shift, so I signed up. This has morphed into our spending time together on weekends, having lunch, etc. My friends say this is a bad idea. But I guess I’m just following my heart. Is that so wrong to do?—Crushing
A: “Follow your heart!” is like that “Forget about money; do what you love!” professional advice. And go right ahead with that career in lentil sculpture—assuming that you’re looking forward to spending your golden years in a very nice retirement tent.
As for all of this time the guy is spending with you, consider that we seem to have evolved to have the romantic version of a spare tire in the trunk—a “backup mate” (to the partner we’re with). Evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Joshua Duntley explain that “mates might cheat, defect” (run off with another), “leave or die. They might suddenly drop in mate value.” Their research finds that both men and women seem to maintain backup mates—three on average—and “try to keep their backup mates out of other relationships” (like by giving them false hope during automotive lurchings around parking lots).
Social psychologist Robert Cialdini, reflecting on what he calls “the scarcity principle,” points out that what we value is what seems out of reach: “Study after study shows that items and opportunities are seen to be more valuable as they become less available.”
In other words, until a man is girlfriend-free, it’s in your best interest to be about as accessible to him as the upholstery of my late Grandma Pauline’s couch was to the rumps of most of humanity. There were people she would remove the plastic covering for—visiting movie stars and members of the British royal family (à la “I’m bored with St. Barts. How about January in suburban Detroit?”).