Why “tit-for-tat” might be so hard to implement in a romantic/dating context

The other day a friend with love problems described them, and I offered a solution applicable to a wide range of similar issues: tit-for-tat, in which you respond to another person’s response. If the other person is cooling off, cool off in turn; if the other person is heating up, heat up in turn. This avoids wasted effort in pursing someone unavailable and also prevents the (frequently) unattractive behavior of being too available.*

There’s a large challenge in TFT, however: it’s really hard for most of us to implement, even among people who know, intellectually, that it’s a good idea. We often want the world to arrange itself according to our wishes. In most endeavors increased effort leads to increased reward. But there is a class of endeavors—getting a job, finding romance, succeeding in book proposals—where too much effort is a negative signal that shows desperation or low status.**

In that problem class, TFT is a pretty good way of checking a sense of hope against the reality of a situation. In the real world we can’t control what other people do but we can control our reactions. That’s not a new idea but it is a really important one, and one that a lot of people (especially when they’re romantically inexperienced) fail to really understand.

I suspect that the roots of misunderstanding romantic behavior starts in childhood. When you’re a child your parents love you unconditionally and tell you that you’re special (because you are, to them), and your teachers try to help you (for the most part) and encourage you even when you fuck up. If you show your parents or family or teachers that you’re really trying hard or care or whatever they usually reward you.

But eventually you hit puberty, get some hair on your beanbag or a righteous set of jugs, and you start splashing around with dating. Except in that domain a lot of people you may be interested in don’t care about you no matter what you do or how much you care. You care so much—why don’t they? If you’re overly demonstrative in this, however, at best you’ll be taken advantage of and at worse you’ll be ignored.

smoking-0730The real solution is to realize that you can’t force other people to be romantically (or otherwise) interested in you. In a romantic context, extended ambiguity sucks, and one effective way to end it may be to introduce a rival. Find some guy or girl and make sure the real target knows. If that doesn’t spur the love interest to action nothing will, because it says, “Hey, either take this spot or lose it.”

That’s not quite TFT, but it is one way to force decisions.

In books and movies, almost no one employs TFT, and things tend to work out anyway—but that’s because most books and movies are fantasies that give us what we wish were true, rather than what is true. Which may be why inexperienced people have so much trouble: their only guidelines are really poor.

Most of the stuff I imbibed from pop culture between birth and age 16 or so, for example, did absolutely nothing to prepare me for the real world and if anything it was harmful. Part of this was my own fault—I had a penchant for pulp fantasy novels in which not only the dragons were imaginary but so too were the female characters—but not all of it. Consequently, almost everyone has to discover the same lessons for themselves, over and over again, often without any useful guidance whatsoever. Parents are of little help because their own interests diverge in systematic ways from their children’s interests. Peers are often equally ignorant. Non-parent adults by and large don’t interact with highly inexperienced teens or early 20-somethings. So people are left with pop culture and its wish-fulfillment fantasies.

There are some people building a theory of reality—like Esther Perel or Roosh—but little of it has filtered into the culture at large so far. Maybe it never will.


* I’m not the first to notice these issues: “Sexual Attraction and Game Theory” popped up in my RSS feed about a week after the discussion.

** This post had its origins in a much more specific (and explicit!) email, but it’s been generalized and (somewhat) sanitized.

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