by Amy Alkon
Q: I met this man a few years ago, and it was like a thunderbolt struck us—the stuff movies are made of. He told me that his female roommate was just a friend. We went on a few dates before I realized that she was actually his girlfriend. He promised that they were going to break up, so I hung around for a bit, but of course it never happened. Last year, I ran into him, and he said he was no longer with that woman and wanted to date me. I turned him down flat because I figured that if he was going to lie and cheat on her, then he would do the same to me. I’m kicking myself now because I have never met anyone like him. Is it really “once a cheater, always a cheater,” or could it be different for us? I have to put this to bed in my mind because I can’t stop thinking that I missed out on “the one.” —Opportunity Lost
A: Sure, your encounter with this man was “the stuff movies are made of”—the ones in which Godzilla comes clomping through town and puts his big clawed foot through the roof of some poor villager’s house.
What you should be doing is tiring your arm out by patting yourself on the back. You showed presence of mind in drop-kicking “the one”—the one who, before long, would have been in a bar telling some woman that you’re just his “roommate.” But now your loneliness is telling your logic to put a sock in it, luring you into a common error in evaluating risk that behavioral economists call “optimism bias.” This is best explained as the “I’m special!” bias and involves the unrealistic thinking that the bad things that befall other people will see us and go, “Nuh-uh…no way…not her!”
Though we know—usually from painful experience—that character change is hard (and rare), optimism bias leads us to flirt with bright ideas like, “Maybe he’s done with the cheating!” It’s probably easier to think that now, not having seen him for a while. And the reality is, even serial killers sometimes go dormant. This shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they’ve grown weary of cutting up the neighbors and storing them in Ziploc bags in their freezer.
Real change, when it happens, comes with signs that there’s been a transformation—like expressions of deep remorse about being unethical and a sea change in a person’s moral standards. And these are just the preliminaries. Character change is revealed through action—over time. Sure, you could keep this guy at arm’s length for a year while you observe his behavior. Or, instead of hoping against hope for character change, you could opt for a change of characters, as in getting out there and meeting new men. Should you fall back into feeling wistful about this guy, remind yourself of German psychoanalyst and philosopher Erich Fromm’s thinking that love isn’t just “a feeling”—it’s something you “do” (in this guy’s case, to more than one woman at a time). Or as one of my other favorite 20th century philosophers, a Dr. E. Fudd, put it, “Good widdance to bad wubbish.”
Q: I often come off needy and desperate, so I’m trying to play it cool with this great new guy I’m dating—a new and difficult tactic for me. There are two other guys who are into me. I’m not into them, but I’m tempted to keep them on the back burner—you know, throw them a few crumbs now and then to keep them hooked so they can be a distraction from the new guy. I know this is user-y, so I haven’t decided to do it, but I also haven’t come clean about where I’m really at. And I have to admit I don’t mind the validation they give me. Ugh. —Torn
A: If you’re going to turn men into emotional support knickknacks, why not go all the way? Cut their hearts out and stick them in Mason jars with cute labels written in glitter pen. What you’re contemplating is romantic fraud. Sure, stacking up irrelevant men like firewood so you can climb into the arms of the man you want is easier than exploring why you “often come off needy and desperate.” A wild guess: Because you are?
Typically, this comes out of trying to use a guy for jobs he can never fill, like making you feel OK about you. If that’s the problem, get to work on fixing it. In the meantime, avoid coming off needy and desperate by acting like a woman who might end up wanting a man but doesn’t need him. That woman doesn’t barrage him with calls, texts and surprise visits—or text back with an immediacy that suggests she’s been hovering over her phone like a starving hawk circling the den of the last prairie dog on earth. Get your restraint where you can, like by responding to a text from him by giving your phone to somebody to lock in a drawer for an hour.
Waiting to text back will help you come off like the woman you should try to be—one who embodies the understanding that emotional security comes from within—and no, not from within a bunch of other people.