by Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 20-year-old woman, and for three months last year, I dated a 21-year-old guy. Suddenly, out of the blue, he stopped returning my calls. I spent about a month trying to find out what had happened, but he wouldn’t respond to texts or email, either. Well, last week, I ran into him, and he said he’d just gotten really busy with school. He wants to date again, and I really cared about him, so I’m tempted.—Please Talk Me Out Of It
A: “Really busy with school,” huh? When … 150 years ago, when there were no phones in the one-room schoolhouse in Little House on the Prairie?
There’s playing hard to get, and then there’s being impossible to locate. The first is a canny strategy; the second is casual cruelty in action. In this case, after three months of dating, a breakup phone call (in lieu of face-to-face) would have been semi-appropriate. A text would have been better than nothing. A telegram would at least have had historical flair. Yet, there you were, repeatedly trying to track him down and getting the reception most of us give random collect calls from “guests” in the long-term bed-and-breakfasts known as federal prisons.
As for your toying with the absolutely absurd notion of dating him again, your slacker of a brain is partly to blame. Admittedly, our brains require a lot of energy to operate, so they like to take energy-saving shortcuts whenever they can. They do this with what I call “think-packs”—the brain’s version of those Lunchables combo boxes—prepackaged thinking sets that allow us to act automatically (without thinking through every last little detail). These come in handy when, for example, we’re dining and we can just pick up a fork and use it; we don’t have to wonder what a fork is and whether we use the pointy bits to stab the food or the person next to us.
But in psychologically complicated situations, these mental shortcuts can get us in trouble. Take the state that social psychologist Leon Festinger named “cognitive dissonance”—our simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, such as, “He’s not that into me!” and, “He’d make a great boyfriend!” Well, the inconsistency makes us very uncomfortable, so our mind wants to smooth it out pronto. So, easy peasy, no problemo—it typically just up and erases whichever belief goes most poorly with our ego. Unfortunately, reality isn’t so simply dispensed with, and before long, “He’s not that into me!” is back and, “He’d make a great boyfriend!” is face-down in the storm drain behind the dive bar.
A way to avoid reality erasing is by getting in the habit of “metacognition”—basically, thinking about your thinking. The guy who came up with the term, developmental psychologist John Flavell, called it “a kind of quality control.” In this case, you unpack your thinking about this guy: “He’d make a great boyfriend!” and your wanting to believe that things could be different. Lay those out on the bed next to the facts—how he behaved—because what you do reflects who you are and what you’re likely to do in the future. In other words, what you can trust about this guy is that you can’t trust him to show even the most minimal concern for your feelings—not with even so much as a poop emoji goodbye.
Q: I’m a 28-year-old guy, newly single after the end of my relationship from college, and all of my dates have been busts. I ask girls out, and they say yes, but I must be doing something wrong on first dates, because I can’t seem to score a second one. Like, ever. They go out with me once, and goodbye. I’m a gentleman, enthusiastic, complimentary, affectionate. What could be the problem?—Puzzled
A: There’s a chance that you’re overdoing it in the Enthusiastic! Complimentary! Affectionate! department. (It’s good to keep a woman guessing a little, but not, “Am I on a date, or is this guy trying to enroll me in a pyramid scheme?”)
Consider “the principle of least interest,” sociologist Willard Waller’s term for how, in any relationship, the person who shows the least interest has the most power. Conversely, the person who comes on with all the subtle nonchalance of a “Cash For Gold!” sign-spinner—especially before they even know the other person—has the aura of a needy suck-up.
Try something: Cool it on your next five dates. This doesn’t mean acting catatonic. It just means waiting to see whether a woman actually is exciting and worth getting to know—as opposed to being excited by her mere presence: “Wow—to be out with a real woman! I usually just have candlelit dinners with a pillow with a wig on it!”