I love reading sex and relationship research findings; usually, I come away from them feeling enlightened and even more curious than when I started reading. However, once in awhile, they leave me feeling completely horrified. I happened upon two old articles recently that, as a woman who sometimes dates men, left me feeling kind of screwed. Not in a good way. (Sorry for the obnoxious heteronormativity of all of this; most of the time, relationship research is aggravatingly only focused on heterosexual couples).
The first, called “Upset Men and the Happy Women Who Love Them,” comes from NPR; it focuses on a study from the Journal of Family Psychology that found that men are more satisfied in relationships when their partners express joy / happiness, while women are more satisfied in relationships when their partners express anger, grief, or sadness. The idea is that women feel comforted that their partners are willing to share conflict with them in an attempt to connect, while men see the sharing of conflict as a “threat to the relationship.” I’m already someone who has a freakishly hard time sharing with male partners anything that might be upsetting me in a relationship because I want to be perceived as being easy to be with (I know, I know…), and this study has really just confirmed my worst fears.
I was talking to a male friend last night, and he started telling me about an upsetting experience he’d had the night before with an ex-girlfriend; a minute into the story, he cut it off with, “So, I mean, whatever. It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.” I had to say to him, “It’s not fine. It’s okay to be angry about this. Feel your feelings.” Research findings in action!
The study that really freaked me out was one I read on one of my favorite websites, The Science of Relationships; it’s from the journal Psychological Science. It found that women were more attracted to men who gave them high ratings on Facebook than men who gave them “lukewarm” ratings. Good news for nice guys everywhere! Despite what pickup artists say, you don’t have to denigrate a woman to get her to like you! Buuuuut then it goes on to say that women were even more attracted to men who didn’t rate them at all. If a woman had no indication of how the man in question felt about her, she was more likely to be attracted to him. As in, uncertainty leads to desire. Esther Perel discusses this phenomenon really beautifully in her book Mating in Captivity: “Excitement is interwoven with uncertainty, and with our willingness to embrace the unknown rather than to shield ourselves from it. But this very tension leaves us feeling vulnerable.” She’s right; part of what makes new relationships so exciting — and so scary — is diving heart-first into your feelings, not knowing whether or not they’ll be returned. It’s a huge risk — one which a lot of people aren’t willing to take.
The author of the article offers this advice to male readers: “The less information she has about how you feel about her, the more uncertain she will be, the more she’ll think about you, and the more she’ll like you. At some point you’ll probably have to tip your hand and let her know how you feel, but if you can keep her waiting a bit (italics mine), it might make her more attracted to you.”
Edit: When I first read this article, I was really angry that the author had suggested that readers should purposefully keep someone who has allowed her (or him)self to be vulnerable hanging on the line emotionally. I found it to be manipulative — one of those games people are always saying that they don’t want to play. However, in the context of an already established relationship wherein desire is waning, distance and uncertainty can be a really powerful tool in re-establishing eros. More on this when I finish Perel’s book…