By Amy Alkon
Q: I’m a Harvard-educated man in my late 30s. I’ve had many ugly arguments with girlfriends, probably because I am highly opinionated and won’t give in when I’m right. I’ve always dated smart, professional women around my age, but I’m now dating a 21-year-old girl, and I’m thinking this could be it. She doesn’t complain, bug me, or question or challenge me. It strikes me that having a partner who challenges you is overrated. Could this be a lifelong relationship? Can’t I just pursue intellectual discussions elsewhere?—Peaceful
A: Why not take this to the next level and get an inflatable girlfriend? You wouldn’t need to feed her, and you could save big on travel if you’d just let the air out of her, fold her up and stuff her in your carry-on.
This actually might make some sense. After all, conflict is bad, right? Well, not exactly. It turns out that there’s good conflict and there’s bad conflict. Bad conflict involves the stuff of “ugly arguments”—sneering, mocking and getting up on moral high ground … just so you can shoulder-check the other person off the edge. Good conflict, on the other hand, involves getting (and giving) healthy pushback—which means being what Nassim Taleb calls “antifragile.”
In Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, risk researcher Taleb, a former derivatives trader, explains that antifragile is “the exact opposite of fragile”—but it goes beyond “resilience or robustness.” Antifragile describes the way living things are improved by stressors—becoming better, stronger and more able to cope with difficult, unpredictable stuff that comes their way.
Beyond how being challenged improves you as a person, marriage researcher John Gottman finds that the happiest, most stable relationships are those in which husbands accept “influence” from wives, making wives “far less likely” to go ugly in disagreements. This starts with what Gottman calls “deep friendship”—love between two equals with mutual respect, not one person who can’t believe his luck at finding another who, intellectually and emotionally, is basically a zygote with boobs.
Of course, this woman’s silent partner thing may just be a feature of her being 21. Increasingly, 21 is the new, oh, 8 and a half. Kids are, as Taleb might say, raised “fragile”—helicopter-parented to encounter as few stressors as possible and then bubble-wrapped off to college for more of the same. Universities, formerly centers of free speech and free inquiry, now have speech codes so nobody gets hurt feelz, and have “trigger warnings” about course material, lest someone suffer emotional trauma from something untoward in, say, Plato’s Republic. (Yes, college is now basically nursery school with beer.)
Still, even these kids have to grow up sometime—which is to say, your girlfriend could begin to have opinions and get a little miffy that you have a heartfelt interest in, um, never, ever hearing them. Your welcoming opinions and influence from a partner—this woman or a more challenging (but still loving and good-natured) woman—starts with having humility, which those frail of ego tend to see as a sign of weakness. The truth is, it takes a strong person to admit that he may be wrong and maybe doesn’t know everything in the known universe (and any yet-to-be-discovered galaxies). Should this come to describe you, you might start to see the appeal of a woman with more to say than those “three little words”—“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Uh-huh.”
Q: My new boyfriend is sweet, successful and handsome, and he rocks my world in bed. The problem? I’m 5 feet 8 inches and he’s 5 feet 6 inches. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I’m just not that attracted to him when he’s standing up.—Shallow
A: Women like things that are tiny and cute, so it’s been kind of a trend to go around with a little dog poking out of your purse. Sadly, dressing your itsy-bitsy boyfriend in a sailor shirt and sunglasses and tossing him in your handbag has yet to catch on.
OK, 5 feet six inches isn’t exactly itsy-bitsy—but it might as well be to you. Your preference for taller men—which biological anthropologist Boguslaw Pawlowski finds 89 percent of women have—didn’t come out of nowhere. Tallness in a man suggests an ability to protect a woman and is associated with social status and access to resources. It also suggests good genes, because ancestors who weren’t starving to death and riddled with parasites would have had the metabolic resources to put toward growing tall.
People say that looks shouldn’t matter—which doesn’t for a moment change the fact that they do. Clearly, shortness is a deal-breaker for you. This doesn’t make you “shallow.” It makes you somebody who should stop dating short guys—ideally before you blurt out your true feelings in bed: “Grow, Bradley! … I mean, ‘Oh … Bradley!’”