By Amy Alkon
Q: Six months after meeting this amazing woman—I’ll call her Ms. Perfect—I asked her to marry me. A year later, she broke off the engagement, saying, “I shouldn’t be wearing your engagement ring and noticing other men.” That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve dated three women. None came close to the high bar set by Ms. Perfect. Do I lower my standards or live the rest of my life alone?—Don’t Want To Hurt Someone Else As I Was Hurt
A: Endlessly replaying the memories of how perfect your ex was is a great idea—if you’re looking to grow old with a tube sock and a vat of lotion.
Like most of us, you probably have the adorable idea of memory as some faithful servant, dutifully reporting what actually happened—rather than as the sneaky, ego-serving distorter it is. If memory were faithful to reality—like a videotape—we could just pull out, oh, “The night of January 12, 2015, with Ms. Perfect” and we’d have an accurate replay of the evening’s events, with maybe a few fuzzy bits where somebody spilled a little sangria on the tape.
However, fascinating research on learning and memory by cognitive psychologist Robert Bjork finds that “using one’s memory shapes one’s memory.” Bjork explains that the more you “retrieve” something from your mind—that is, bring up the memory to replay—the bigger and stronger it grows in your memory. In other words, retrieval is the neon-pink highlighting marker of your mind.
So, you retrieve and retrieve—and remember—your ex’s heart-shaped fried eggs and that sweet thing she said while unloading the dishwasher and not being exiled to the couch or her circus-style knife throwing. Not surprisingly, no real woman can compare. And sure, maybe these women you dated weren’t right for you. But the question—with any woman—is whether she meets enough of your standards. You can’t have it all—but do you have enough of it all?
You figure that out by coming up with a shortlist of minimums—standards for the stuff you absolutely can’t live without in a partner, in looks, demeanor (especially kindness), intelligence, rationality and anything else that matters to you. Once you find someone who meets your minimums, remind yourself of the distorto job done on memory by the viewing preferences of your ego and emotions. This should help keep you from damaging your future with this new woman: “Oh … table for three?” she says. “Is somebody joining us?” You: “Just the eternal spectre of my ex.” (Uh, not the sort of threesome anyone is looking for.)
Q: I’m a 26-year-old guy. In four years, I’ve taken three dozen women on one or two dates each. Without fail, I get rejected. I’ve tried changing things up—shameless flirting instead of casual small talk, etc.—but the result is always the same. I’m not some loser. I have a cool job and an active social life. But I’m the common denominator in things not working out. What am I doing wrong that I can’t even swing a third date?—Bummed
A: Consider the fine-French-restaurant approach. Before the first course is served, the chef will sometimes send you out a tiny, delectable palate teaser, called an “amuse-bouche” (mouth amuser)—as opposed to sending out two burly waiters to hold you down and force-feed you a vat of stew. (What’s French for “fatten you up for the kill?”)
In other words, chances are, your problem is one of presentation—and yours is probably dragging you across the loserhood equator from nice to needy. Granted, you won’t be every woman’s cauldron of bouillabaisse, and maybe some of your prospects were out of your league. But 36 different women? That’s three egg cartons of ladies all saying nuh-uh to a second or third date with you. And if there’s one thing that women have in common, it’s the ability to sniff out Eau Pleeeeeease, Pick Meeee! on a guy.
Consider “the scarcity principle,” which, as social psychologist Robert Cialdini explains, describes how we tend to long for what’s out of reach. Try a little test: Make an effort to make much less effort. Ask women about themselves instead of trying to hard-sell them on you (either by singing your own praises or complimenting them senseless). As I often advise, keep your dates cheap, short and local. Especially short. (Leave them wanting more instead of less.) And sure, text a woman—once, the afternoon after, not 26 times in the 20 seconds after you drop her off. If you and a woman get into a long-distance thing, it shouldn’t be because you’ll go to jail if you violate the 100-yard rule mandated by the judge.