Q: My girlfriend of three years recently took a trip home for a weekend wedding. Before she left, I asked her, “Can you set my expectations as to how often I’ll hear from you?” She said she’d call every day. She called each of the three days but never stayed on the phone very long, always giving some excuse: she was in a bar, the hosts were sleeping, etc. In three days, she spent a total of 43 minutes speaking and reconnecting with me. I told her I felt really hurt by how little time she allocated. She responded that there were things planned, that she was sometimes at the behest of others driving her places, etc. I am sure that’s all true. Though I’m not insecure, I’ve felt insecure about my relationship with her. So . . . what do you think? Do I have a valid reason to feel neglected and invisible?—Ignored
A: Where there’s smoke, there’s sometimes a stick of incense burning; no reason to run for the garden hose and turn the living room into a wading pool.
If your girlfriend imagined what you’d be doing in her absence, it probably wasn’t standing over the phone for 72 hours straight, willing it to ring. Chances are, she isn’t entirely tuned in to how insecure you are about her commitment to you. Also, wedding weekends these days tend to be packed with activities from breakfast to nightcap. So there’s an initial idea of how much alone time one would have, and then there’s the actual free time between sleep, showering and “Our ride’s here! You can take your rollers out on the way to the church!”
As for the het-up state you found yourself in, what I often call our “guard dog emotions” can be a little overprotective—and that’s actually an evolved feature, not a flaw. It’s sometimes in our best interest to see unclearly. In fact, human perception evolved to be inaccurate at times—protectively inaccurate, explain evolutionary psychologists Martie Haselton and David Buss, in favor of helping us survive and pass on our genes.
This makes us prone to be oversensitive to signs of infidelity—which is to say, our suspicion is easily triggered, even by harmless, innocent behavior. This oversensitivity is evolutionarily sensible—protective of our interests. For example, it’s typically much more costly for a man to be undersensitive—all “Naw, I’m sure everything’s fine!”—when he’s about to be deceived into paying for college, grad school and rehab for a kid with some other dude’s genes.
The problem is, an infidelity alarm system that defaults to DefCon “How dare you, you hussy!” can also take a toll, even on a partner who really loves you. The jealousy, possessiveness and badgering for reassurance that ensue can make the cost of the relationship start to outweigh the benefits. This isn’t to say you can’t ask for reassurance; you just need to do it in a way that doesn’t make your partner long to put you out on the curb like an old couch.
First figure out whether there’s anything to those alarm bells going off in you—whether you have any reason to believe your girlfriend is cheating or is unhappy in the relationship. If not, chances are your compulsion to turn her iPhone into her wireless leash stems from what the late psychologist Albert Ellis called “catastrophizing”—telling yourself it would be horrible and terrible and you would just die every day forever if your relationship ended. The reality is, a breakup could lead to a stretch of mope-apalooza—weeks or months snot-sobbing into a pillow. Obviously, you’d rather not go through this. However, if you did, you’d eventually recover.
Reflect regularly on this rational corrective to your irrational thinking; accept that your relationship could end and admit that you could deal if it did. Once you calm down a little, ask your girlfriend for clarification and reassurance about her feelings for you. In time, when she’s away, you could obsess over those highly enjoyable activities we women call “weird gross guy stuff”: eating black bean taquitos and try to break your previous records for fart volume and velocity; playing Minecraft for 46 hours straight, wearing only a pair of superhero underwear; seizing the opportunity to create timeless art—which is to say, draw a face on your penis and shoot remakes of classic films: “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope!”