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.

Facebook and cellphones might be really bad for relationships

There’s some possibly bogus research about “How your cell phone wrecks your relationships — even when you’re not using it.” I say “possibly bogus” because these kinds of social science studies are notoriously unreliable and unreproducible.* Nonetheless, this one reinforces some of my pre-existing biases and is congruent with things that I’ve observed in my own life and the lives of friends, so I’m going to not be too skeptical of its premises and will instead jump into uninformed speculation.

It seems like cell phones and Facebook cordon a large part of your life from your significant other (assuming you have one or aspire to have one) and encourage benign-seeming secrecy in that other part of your life. In the “old days,” developing friendships or quasi-friendships with new people required face-to-face time, or talking on the phone (which, at home, was easily enough overheard) or writing letters (which are slow, a lot of people aren’t very good at it or don’t like to write letters). Now, you can be developing new relationships with other people while your significant other is in the same room, and the significant other won’t know about the relationship happening via text message. You can also solicit instant attention, especially by posting provocative pictures or insinuating song lyrics, while simultaneously lying to yourself about what you’re doing in a way that would be much harder without Facebook and cell phones.

Those new relationships start out innocently, only to evolve, out of sight, into something more. Another dubious study made the rounds of the Internet a couple months ago, claiming that Facebook was mentioned in a third of British divorce petitions. Now, it’s hard to distinguish correlation from causation here—people with bad relationships might be more attached to their phones and Facebook profiles—but it does seem like Facebook and cellphones enable behavior that would have been much more difficult before they became ubiquitous.

I don’t wish to pine for a mythical golden age, which never existed anyway. But it is striking, how many of my friends’ and peers’ relationships seem to founder on the shoals of technology. Technology seems to be enabling a bunch of behaviors that undermine real relationships, and, if so, then some forms of technology might be pushing us towards shorter, faster relationships; it might also be encouraging us to simply hop into the next boat if we’re having trouble, rather than trying to right the boat we’re already in. Facebook also seems to encourage a “perpetual past,” by letting people from the past instantly and quietly “re-connect.” Sometimes this is good. Sometimes less so. How many married people want their husband or wife chatting again with a high school first love? With a summer college flame? With a co-worker discussing intimate details of her own failing relationship?

Perhaps relationship norms will evolve to discourage the use of online media (“Are we serious enough to de-active each other’s Facebook accounts?” If the answer is “no,” then we’re not serious and, if I’m looking for something serious, I should move on). Incidentally, I don’t think blogs have the same kind of effect; this blog, for instance, is reasonably popular by the standards of occasional bloggers, and has generated a non-zero number of groupies, but the overall anonymity of readers (and the kind of content I tend to post) in relation to me probably put a damper on the kinds of relationship problems that may plague Facebook and cell phones.

EDIT: See also “I’m cheating on you right now: An admiring like on your Facebook page. A flirty late-night text. All while my partner’s right there next to me” mentions, unsurprisingly:

A study in 2013 at the University of Missouri surveyed 205 Facebook users aged 18–82 and found that “a high level of Facebook usage is associated with negative relationship outcomes” such as “breakup/divorce, emotional cheating, and physical cheating.”

Again, I want to maintain some skepticism and am curious about studies that don’t find a difference and thus aren’t published. But some research does match my own anecdotal impressions.


* If you’d like to read more, “Scientific Utopia: II – Restructuring Incentives and Practices to Promote Truth Over Publishability” is a good place to start, though it will strike horror in the epistemologist in you. Or, alternately, as Clay Shirky points out in “The Cognitive Surplus, “[…] our behavior contributes to an environment that encourages some opportunities and hinders others.” In the case of cell phones and Facebook, I think the kinds of behaviors encouraged are pretty obvious.

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