By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a 35-year-old woman, and I’ve been involved with a guy around my age for almost two years. It’s been “open.” Well, that is, he’s had the freedom to sleep with other people. I haven’t wanted to. I finally realized that I am not happy with this and want more, but he made it very clear that he’s not interested in being monogamous—with me or anybody. I’m having a very difficult time cutting things off, as there’s a lot that’s great about our relationship. How do you leave somebody you really care about who you know is bad for you?—Stuck
A: It isn’t exactly a shocker that the thing you want to be asking your boyfriend when he comes home is not, “Hey, cuddlebug, how was your booty call?”
There’s this notion that being sexually sophisticated means being all “no probski” about your partner having sex on the “I love a parade” model. But it turns out that jealousy isn’t so easily disabled. Research by evolutionary psychologist David Buss suggests that jealousy is basically love’s burglar alarm—an evolved psychological warning system that goes off in response to threats to a relationship. So, sure, you can try to talk yourself into being cool with the sexual variety pack—just like when you hear your downstairs window breaking, you can try to roll over and catch a little more shut-eye while the burglars ransack your house.
It must seem kind of unbelievable to be so miserable yet so unable to keep enough of a grip on that to get out. You can probably blame the limits of what’s called “working memory.” It’s essentially a mental workspace—a kind of whiteboard in your head—where you lay out and kick around a few sets of information. These info sets are called “chunks,” and one example might be the experiences that make up the idea, he cooks me these wonderful dinners! But according to research by psychologist Nelson Cowan, working memory holds only about four chunks at once. We also tend to give priority seating to info sets that justify the choices we’ve made. So, all aboard for the he’s a great kisser chunk, the he was really sweet when I was in the hospital chunk, etc., etc. And whoops—whaddya know—seems there’s no room for he insists on having sex buffet-style.
You need to look at all the information at once, and this requires a piece of paper and a pen. On either half of the page, list the pros and cons of being with him, giving them blocks of space that correspond to their importance. For example, his home-cooked meals should probably get a sliver of space on the pro side, while his need to go home with Linda should get a big block on the con side. Carry this paper around and look at it until it becomes clear to you that you need to be somebody’s “one and only” and not just the one before their Tuesday tennis lesson.
Q: I’m a 32-year-old guy, and my girlfriend has been complaining that the only time I’m cuddly or affectionate is when I want to have sex. I don’t really see the problem. It’s my way of initiating versus … I don’t know, asking her … which would be weird.—Confused
A: Aw … how sweet … cuddling that comes with a trap door to the sex dungeon!
From a woman’s point of view, it’s nice to have your boyfriend, say, grab your hand, and not just because he’d like you to put it on his penis. This isn’t just some mysterious form of sexual etiquette. It comes out of how women evolved to be “commitment skeptics,” as evolutionary psychologist Martie Haselton puts it. Erring on the side of underestimating a man’s level of commitment was how ancestral women kept themselves from ending up single mothers with a bunch of cave-lings to feed.
Economist Robert Frank calls love “a solution to the commitment problem.” As he explains it, being emotionally bonded keeps you from making a coldly rational calculation about who’s got more to offer, your girlfriend or the new neighbor with boobs so big that each should be sending a delegate to the U.N. So, because women are on the lookout for signs that you love them, a hug is a hug is a hug needs to be the deal much of the time. Otherwise, whenever you’re affectionate, it’ll just seem like the boyfriend version of a wino telling a woman she’s beautiful—because it would be really beautiful if she’d give him the last dollar he needs to get drunk on cheapo aftershave.