By Amy Alkon
Q: Six years ago, I was dating this guy on the East Coast. He and I share a deep love of the arts. We started arguing on the sidewalk, and I got so upset that I vomited all over myself. He refused to drive me home or let me back into his apartment to change. Finally, he gave me a pair of pants, but he made me change in the stairwell. Shortly afterward, I moved out west. I told him I still loved him and couldn’t get him out of my system, but his response was downright cruel. Eventually, I fell in love with my current boyfriend. Well, East Coast Guy now wants me back. I do miss our mutual passion for theater and art. (West Coast Guy isn’t interested in attending artistic events.) However, I’ve had poor job-hunting luck and I’m fearful about my financial future, and West Coast Guy recently made me his heir. I’m tortured. Should I give East Coast Guy another chance?—Torn
A: Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that mature love is “I need you because I love you.” Rather different from “I need you because I don’t want to be living in a packing crate when I’m 50.”
As for the love you could have … it seems that—awww!—even now, East Coast Guy wants to be the reason you walk home alone in an upchuck-decorated dress. (Sell framed, numbered snippings and it’s art!) Your entertaining a re-up with a guy who treated you so cruelly is bizarre—unless you consider a psychological gotcha called “the Zeigarnik effect.” Social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman explain that when a task or goal gets interrupted, the automatic, unconscious part of our brain keeps pinging the conscious part, nagging us to finish up whatever we’ve left incomplete. (Unfortunately, our subconscious is only interested in getting the thing finished, not whether the guy in question is a complete douche-iopath.)
A way to shut off the Zeigarnik effect is to complete the incomplete thing—like by ending it for good with East Coast Guy or maybe picking up where you left off. But before you do the latter, consider another factor that’s surely in effect here—the cognitive bias of “selective perception.” This is our tendency to go all forgetsenheimer’s about the stuff that’s emotionally uncomfortable (ego battering, for example). Shoving it in some mental closet allows us to focus on more appealing beliefs, like “I can always count on him—to share my enthusiasm for gallery openings where everybody has complicated hair.”
Real love draws lines in how somebody treats you—how even when they’re angry, they act lovingly (assuming you haven’t, say, sauteed their parrot and served it up with a side of peas). As for whether you need a more arts-going man, that’s something to figure out before you get all relationshippy with somebody who’d rather stay home watching YouTube videos of a raccoon riding a Roomba. But also consider that life involves trade-offs, like maybe going to arts events with a friend instead of demanding that your partner meet your every need like a giant human Costco: “Love me, leave me money and live to attend haunting performance art, like a woman reading a Chinese takeout menu for nine hours straight and then clipping her toenails and lighting them on fire.”
Q: I’ve always been a sexual free spirit, but I’d like to get serious with this guy I’ve been dating. Is it ever good to tell a guy about other guys you’ve slept with recently or who are still nosing around? I think it might make a guy feel you’re desirable and commit, but my guy friends say it’s really off-putting.—Just Wondering
A: For a woman, finding somebody to have sex with is about as hard as finding an Indian guy running a 7-Eleven. Yay, huh? Uh … except for how harshly women get judged for being “sexual free spirits.” This comes out of what anthropologists call “paternity uncertainty”—the fear men evolved to have that they’ll be bringing home the bison to feed a kid who’ll be passing on the genes of Mr. Monobrow in the next lean-to. So men take issue with women who get around, whereas for men, there’s no such thing as “stud shaming.” In other words, never tell who or how many. And by the way, some guys claim they’ll be OK with knowing—just before they start keeping you up all night with questions like, “Was it recent?” “Was there overlap?” and “Was this BEFORE you got Lasik?” The reality is, a boyfriend will want to believe that your body is a temple—and not the sort that’s been an international tourist hot spot with a eunuch outside operating one of those little clickers.