Q: My friend was dying to tell her new boyfriend she loves him but waited till he said it first. She, in fact, makes that a rule. Now I have a new boyfriend. Should I just shamelessly own my feelings—that is, tell him I love him? Or should I follow my friend’s lead?—Hating Waiting
A: We have this notion that it’s really romantic for a couple to say “I love you” pronto, but in reality, “love at first sight” tends to come with some issues, such as the failure to weed out any insta-beloveds who kiss like big-lipped fish. Your desire to go all blurtypants on your new boyfriend likewise seems romantic—until you consider the psychological mechanics behind it. Chances are, you’re in a state of psychological tension, all fired up with suspense at how the guy will respond and only by telling him will you finally get relief. (It’s basically the emotional version of really, really needing to pee.)
Research on sex differences in “parental investment” by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers suggests that it’s probably a bad idea for you, as a woman, to go first with the ILY. Trivers explains that in species like ours, in which females get stuck with the burden of parental care (should sex lead to the creation of toddlers), they evolved to vet males for ability and willingness to invest more than that initial teaspoonful of sperm. Men coevolved to expect this, to expect to have to prove themselves to women to get sex. In short, men chase; women choose. Sure, there are couples out there where the woman chases, and things end up just fine. But those evolved differences in male and female psychology are still driving us, even now, in our world of smartphones, facial recognition software and, before long, family vacations in flying minivans.
In other words, you’re taking a risk by tossing out the ILY first, possibly causing the guy to want you less than if you let him take the lead in ILY blurtations. And hi, feminists! I can hear the flicking of your lighters as you ready your pitchforks and hay. But the way I see it, what should be feminist is acknowledging what seems to be the optimal approach for women per research on human psychology.
Despite the risks, you may decide to be that rebel gazelle that chases the lion. If so, why not go all the way? Pull out your man’s chair for him in restaurants. Put your jacket over his shoulders on a cold night. And be the one who goes downstairs with the baseball bat when there’s a weird noise at 3am.
Q: My fiancée dumped me three months ago. I was devastated, but I’ve come to realize that we shouldn’t be together. Now she keeps pressing for us to meet, saying there’s stuff she needs to “process.” I was finally starting to get over her, but should I just go?—Torn
A: Getting together with your ex-fiancée after you’ve finally started to move on is like being just out of rehab and reconnecting with a friend: “What could be the harm? A nice pastrami on rye with my old heroin dealer!”
Your brain, like an air-conditioned Miami mansion, is “expensive” to run, so it tries to go on autopilot (basically nonthink mode) whenever possible. When you repeatedly take a certain action—like turning to a certain person for love, attention and comforting—that action becomes more and more automatic. On a neural level, this plays out with a bunch of individual brain cells (neurons) that “wire together,” as neuroscientist Carla Shatz puts it.
This happens after individual neurons each fire off a chemical messenger—a neurotransmitter—that another neuron catches and absorbs. The more a person repeats the same action, the more a group of neurons does the same fire-off-and-catch sequence, and the faster they get at it. Eventually, these neurons become what I like to describe as a “thinkpack,” conserving mental energy through bypassing the conscious thought department and robotically defaulting to whatever action worked for the person in the past.
Right now, the last thing you need is to stall your recovery process, the weakening over time of those entrenched neural pathways, by getting the band (Ramon & the Neurons) back together. If you feel bad about saying no to seeing her, consider how she’s prioritizing her need to “process” over your continued recovery. Aww . . . how loving!
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