By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 43-year-old man, and I’m trying to build my career after years of being a stay-at-home dad. I got involved very quickly with a woman I met online, but the truth is that she’s just not smart enough for me. I feel bad because she’s very sweet, but I’d rather devote my time to my work. I’ve tried to break up with her numerous times, but she just doesn’t seem to get it. I’ll tell her I really need time to myself, but she’ll still call incessantly. How do you tell somebody it’s over in a way that is kind but gets through to them?—I’m Done
A: You need “time to yourself?” Great. She can do that. Just call her when you’re ready. No, not on the phone. She’ll be out on your porch in her sleeping bag.
Welcome to the rose-colored distorto-vision of being “optimistically biased”—succumbing to the human tendency to see what’s positive instead of what’s realistic. (“What I refuse to believe won’t hurt me!”) We’re especially likely to go happily dumb when our egos are involved. Evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers explains in The Folly of Fools that we “protect our happiness via self-deception.” We have a “psychological immune system” that works “not by fixing what makes us unhappy but by … minimizing it and lying about it.”
Neuroscientist Tali Sharot finds from her brain imaging research that having a distortedly positive view comes out of what she calls “selective updating.” When our brain gets information that things are going to be better than expected, it’s all, “Yes, sir, we’ll send that around.” But information that things will be worse than expected? That gets kicked under the bed—or would if the brain had feet and slept in a bed.
There is another possibility here. Even if your girlfriend’s intelligence level leaves you confused about whether to take her to dinner or just water her and put her in indirect sunlight, she may be what I call instinctually smart. Possibly, it’s clear to her that you want to end it but she’s ignoring that in hopes of wearing you down. Regardless of the reason she’s still hanging around, the only way to change that is by telling her that you two are done, using very direct language, like, “I’m sorry, but it’s over between us. I am breaking up with you.” Should she keep contacting you, make it similarly clear that there’s no room at the inn for hope.
This is actually the kind way to break up with a refuse-to-believe-er—being momentarily cruel, ideally as soon as you realize it’s over. In other words, putting your girlfriend out of her misery starts with putting her through it—pronto. Keep merely hinting that it’s over and, well, if an asteroid destroyed life on earth as we know it, three things would survive: Cockroaches, the Kardashians and your relationship.
Q: My girlfriend rarely, if ever, calls me by my actual name. Other women I’ve dated have done this, too. It makes me think of that country song that goes, “You don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’.” I’ve come to realize that I’ve been steadily losing interest in my girlfriend, and maybe she senses that. Or could it be something else? Why do women do this—not calling men by their actual names?—Nameless
A: There are times when only your actual name will do—because the alternative is, “Hey, Magic Penis, I’m over here … aisle 4!”
But, generally speaking, the way people address each other is a statement about the kind of relationship they have. So when the nurse comes into the waiting room with a clipboard, you never hear, “OK, Poopooface, the doctor will see you now.” A cop, likewise, will not ask, “Do you know how fast you were going, Turtlebutt?”
A pet name is part of creating a relationship “culture”—things you do and say that mark the relationship as a distinct little society. (Cutesy handles also tend to, uh, travel better than matching bones through the nose.) Not surprisingly, relationship communication researcher Carol Bruess finds that partners in happy relationships use nicknames more than those in unhappy ones. Referencing previous research, Bruess explains that nickname use both creates intimacy and reflects it. So, it’s possible that your girlfriend’s nicknamery is a ploy—perhaps unconscious—to bring you two closer. (If she talks all cootchie-cuddly-coo, cootchie-cuddly-coo might follow.)
But seeing as you have been “steadily losing interest” in your girlfriend, why are you sitting around pondering nickname use? You need to do your part: Inform your girlfriend that the relationshippypoo can no longer breathe on its owniecakes, and that it’s time she started referring to you as her ex-schmoopie—or, better yet, “that asshole” she used to date.