Q: I’m dating this new woman. I like her a lot, but she keeps complaining that I still have pictures of my ex-girlfriend on my wall, saying that it makes her uncomfortable, especially when we’re having sex. I was with my ex for a while, and we lived together. They’re just pictures. What’s the big deal?—Irritated
A: There’s a place for the photographic Museum of Relationships Past, but it isn’t the area around your bed. Actual human beings have feelings. They long to be treated with dignity—to be given the sense that others value them and care about how they make them feel. This would be reflected, for example, in replacing what probably looks like a shrine to the ex with pix of your other, less inflammatory loves, like your family’s late Rottweiler.
It’s possible that you have some sort of empathy gap—something keeping you from the usually automatic “fellow feeling.” This is a way researchers have described the sort of empathy that involves “emotional contagion”—“catching” and then feeling an emotion another person’s feeling, to some degree.
Research by C. Daniel Batson suggests that trying to feel what another person is feeling leads us to have empathy, “which has been found to evoke altruistic motivation.” This means that it motivates a person to behave in kind and compassionate ways. In contrast, though imagining how we would feel if we were in the other person’s shoes produces empathy, too, the researchers found that it also produces “personal distress, which has been found to evoke egoistic motivation”—which is to say, “Me! Me! Me! All about me!”
In general, treating other people as if their feelings matter—even when you don’t share their feelings or think they’re entirely legit—makes for far happier relationships. If you aren’t interested in putting in the work to show empathy, you can still have a relationship, but with an atypical partner. Your best bet is probably a Boston fern—specifically one advertised to have “durable plastic leaves that are resistant to fading.”
Q: Do men fall in love at first sight more than women do? My male friend says it’s mostly men who’ll see a woman from across a room or subway platform and fall for her. Yeah, I know that happens. Don’t women do this, too? Like, a lot?—Wondering Dude
A: A guy’s claim of “love at first sight” plays better with the ladies than “I wanted to spend eternity with your boobs.” Research by psychologists Andrew Galperin and Martie Haselton finds that men, far more often than women, report experiencing “love at first sight.” However, they conceded that “some men might be reporting some episodes of sheer sexual desire as ‘love at first sight.’” (Ya think?)
This sex difference in love at first sight aligns with the different pressures ancestral men and women had to contend with to survive and pass on their genes. Because women alone get pregnant from sex, female emotions evolved to push women to take the slow route in mating—to assess a man over time for his level of commitment and character—lest a woman end up with a baby daddy who’s all “Beep, beep! I’m outta here” like the Roadrunner.
Men, on the other hand, have an evolved sexual business model of volume and variety (kind of like Walmart). However, because ancestral men could bolt right after sex and still have a chance of leaving surviving descendants, it was in men’s evolutionary interest to hook up with an endless parade of hot-erellas. As I often mention, female features we think of as beautiful—like youth, clear skin, an hourglass figure and pillowy lips—are actually cues of health and fertility. So not surprisingly, male mating imperatives evolved to be visually motivated—“Do you look like the woman for me?”—in a way female ones did not.
Ultimately, though evolved male mating psychology is pushing you—even today—to be eyeball-driven, understanding its origins can help you be mindful to take a step back and put in the time to explore a woman’s character—which just may help keep you from jumping into a relationship with some woman who turns out to be an extremely hot sociopath.