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.

Tender is the Night — Fitzgerald

Early in Tender is the Night, we find this about a relatively minor character named McKisco:

“I don’t see what it’s all about,” he said helplessly. “I don’t see why I’m doing it.”

The context is a conversation putatively about duels, but one could take McKisco’s confusion as a synecdoche for the novel as a whole: no one see what it’s all about or why they’re doing it. Even Dick Diver, psychologist, doesn’t really; he’s supposed to have mastered the mind but hasn’t mastered his own. Some of the novel’s descriptions and transitions mirror this confusion or uncertainty, which makes Tender is the Night feel more Modernist than its predecessors. Take, for example, this:

When there were enough Americans on the platform the first impression of their immaculacy and their money began to fade into a vague racial dusk that hindered and blinded both them and their observers.

The description goes from a relatively literal rendition of the Americans’ surface into a metaphoric one of their souls. But I have no idea what “vague racial dusk” means, which is perhaps why it needs “vague” out in front, or why that would blind observers; perhaps those theoretical observers are used to judging based on categories that Americans defy, or think they defy. If so, the novel is a journey into the ways Americans are more ensnared by history than we might want to be, and why we might be more obscure than we’d like to imagine. In this way, the structure of the novel mirrors its themes: it cuts many of the “she shifted her attention to the fight” transitions that might otherwise make this easier to follow:

Nicole was glad he had known so many women, so that the word itself meant nothing to him; she would be able to hold him so long as the person in her transcended the universals of her body.
“Hit him where it hurts!”
“Yah-h-h-h!”
“Hey, what I tell you get inside that right!”

A chorus shouts after Nicole’s Deep Thought, and in re-reading Tender is the Night I see where Tom Wolfe got some of his techniques for representing speech.

Some of the stylistic tics, like the “vague racial dusk” are meant to make us poetically see something in a new light, but they often feel more like work compared to a novel like Gatsby. It feels more indulgent, too: this is Fitzgerald wanting to write a novelist’s novel, meaning that it should have enough strangeness to make it hard to figure out what’s happening and why. This brings pleasures of its own, especially on second reads, but the danger of obscurity for obscurity’s sake remains, as when a voice suddenly shifts from third person limited to first:

All that saved it [the offer of marriage? something else?] this time was Nicole finding their table and glowing away, white and fresh and new in the September afternoon.

How do you do, lawyer. We’re going to to Como tomorrow for a week and then back to Zurich. That’s why I wanted you and sister to settle this […] (166)

My confusion mirrored McKisco’s in this narrative jump. Eventually that confusion was (mostly) remedied, but not so remedied as to make the novel boring.

Continuing was worth it: Fitzgerald knows how to end a novel. Tender is the Night isn’t quite so overtly poetic as Gatsby, with its boats being beaten back into the past, but it has a sense of melancholy and emotion that few novels do. I’m being vague because I don’t know how to describe the feelings evoked; perhaps that is one definition of a powerful novel. Melancholy is a part, but like a good wine, it’s only a single strand of a complex weave, one cannot appreciate the whole without appreciating all its parts.

There’s one other thing that Tender is the Night reminds me of: the habit that literary history has of doubling back on itself. Received opinion—so received that I don’t know where I got it from—holds that people didn’t start really writing about divorce and affairs and torrid sex and so forth until Updike and Roth. Marriages were more stable, at least as depicted artistically, and the really great fireworks caused by social changes didn’t hit until the 1960s. But the more I read the less that narrative seems to fit: Tender is the Night encapsulates Updike’s Marry Me: A Romance and maybe even Couples. Middlemarch has marriages that end. Even Pride and Prejudice has its affair between Lydia and Wickham, although the sex they’re having is so powerful that it remains unspoken.

Madame Bovary doesn’t encapsulate Tender is the Night but at least presages it. The drama of adult relationships, which I’d thought a (relatively) recent invention in fiction, isn’t. Neither is the childishness that such relationships sometimes entail. More continuity exists over the course of history than I thought, and what seems new in terms of content no longer does. Even the style of Tender is the Night holds up: if it were published today, I’d not know the difference. one can see greater stylistic continuity from Fitzgerald to the present than from, say, Middlemarch to Fitzgerald (this is part of what James Wood discusses in his nominal discussion of Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered, a topic that I will return to later).

I don’t know what to do with this idea concerning continuity and change save note its existence, at least in my reading. Perhaps the rhetoric of the love story hasn’t changed that much, except perhaps for the inclusion of overt female desire in a larger number of more recent novels; it’s hard to see a good precursor of Allison Poole in Jay McInerney’s Story of My Life. Poole feels a long way from Nicole Diver, but the feeling of a search for something that cannot be adequately defined continues, and the inability to find that absent something propels novels and stories forward.

Rereading A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance

The key moment in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance comes when Roland Mitchell, a prematurely desiccated academic, wonders why he might have stolen letters written by an invented 19th Century poet from the British Library. In explaining why, he says, “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent[….]” Nothing else in his life does, which straddles comedy and sadness. The act propels the action of the novel as well as a return of urgency and of discovery to his own life, implying that when we lack such attributes, we begin to die ourselves.

I’ve previously discussed Possession here), and the novel concerns academics who begin emotionally dead, and their intellects are perilously close to the same state. The key to their resurrection—their return to what one might skeptically call “the real world”—comes in an act of very minor theft by Roland. It’s out of character but brings him rolling to a beautiful academic, to a secret, and to the double discovery of his own romance and of someone else’s. Tracing the path of another person’s romance teaches him how to live his own; without that signal, perhaps he would remain among the academic undead, or the undead more generally. A rare forbidden act—sex has lost its forbiddenness, so theft of an academic nature will have to do—has a rejuvenating effect, reminding us of the limits and limiting nature of bounds and boundaries, sexual, textual, and otherwise. For a novel that is composed heavily of invented texts, stealing carries a larger moral rigor that it might otherwise not, and it helps Roland see his own life and work in way that is, again, finally, urgent.

The joys of fantasy and Romance

Patrick Kurp ponders why he doesn’t like fantasy, writing that “[It] feels like a cheat, an evasion, a con game for stunted children.” Maybe: but to my mind, it opens other avenues for looking at the world and goes places realism doesn’t. Good fantasy develops its own codes and limitations; it is different from and reflects our world. In Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Chuck Ramkissoon says, “Now, games are important. They test us. They teach us comradeship. They’re fun. But cricket, more than any other sport, is, I want to say […] a lesson in civility.” I wouldn’t call fantasy a lesson in civility, but it often imparts, aside from pleasure, lessons in how to lead and organize one’s life. When teaching the LSAT, I often use the journey and confrontation plots in fantasy novels as metaphors. And if fantasy is a cheat, so too is metaphor, which takes one or multiple things and stands them in the place of others, as fantasy does.

It also inevitably returns to confront the ideals and problems of the society that produced it, as Northrop Frye argued in The Secular Scriptures. Romance and fantasy are inextricably linked to the societies that produce them, just as fiction more generally is. The power of fiction and fantasy is their ability to be rooted in those societies while simultaneously being able to transcend them to others. I have no experience in ancient Greece or Rome, but The Iliad and The Aeneid still speak to me. I have never set foot in Middle-earth, but it seems more real to me in some ways than South Ossetia, though I would never argue, obviously, that one is real and the other isn’t.

Still, the question of real and fake gets raised by this question and never satisfactorily answered, as it hasn’t been in literature or philosophy. Patrick writes, “I read to know the world, in particular the human world, even to celebrate it, not to slum in another.” To my mind, we’re not slumming it in another world, but sharpening our sense of this one through contrast in a subsidiary world, both part of and separate from ours. Fantasy is where the imagination can run wilder than it can in reality, and it is another configuration of reality in the mind, a separate microworld that breaks off from the main world in the mind of its holder. Think of it as an extension of the multiverse or parallel universe theories, only with fantasy itself as another world that mirrors ours. Those mirrors sometimes distort for effect, and if realism is a standard mirror, fantasy is the one that stretches, contorts, and makes us wonder at what we really think of ourselves. The best fantasy novels have rules of their own, some of which can be bent, and others broken, as they say in The Matrix. See our world in fantasy and fantasy in our world. Umberto Eco writes in Reflections on The Name of the Rose:

And so the Middle Ages have remained, if not profession, my hobby—and a constant temptation: I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.

As said by Burlingame in The Sot-Weed Factor, “I grew so enchanted by the great Manchegan [Don Quixote] and his faithful squire as to lose all track of time and was rebuked by Captain Salmon for reporting late to the cook.” At its best, fantasy has this effect, almost as drugs or sex are wont to do. I think there’s a reason why children and teenagers are often drawn to fantasy, as it offers an relatively safe and accessible outlet for young people who feel powerless and constrained, or feel perceived constraint from parents and society. Another world offers solace and meaning, as it offers others symbolism and power. These sensations go far back in cultural time: some aspect of fantasy or fantastical journeys exist in numerous cultures, as Joseph Campbell argues in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most of them and us are not Don Quixotes, who asks if we have “[…] read the annals and the histories of the England that treat of the famous exploits of King Arthur […]” The mistaken belief in fantasy as genuine reality is ridiculous, but the belief that we can see aspects of reality in fantasy is not. The prologue to Don Quixote more lays out the case for fantasy, and, more abstractly, literature itself:

Let it be your aim that, by reading your story, the melancholy may be moved to laughter and the cheerful man made merrier still; let the simple not be bored, but may the clever admire your originality; let the grave ones not despise you, but let the prudent praise you.

One could also say, let the adolescent find a way forward and the adult meaning in experience, and let a strong story exist for the literal and subtle metaphors and symbols for the intellectual. Only very good fantasy, like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, accomplishes these lofty goals, but only very few works of fiction pass the hundred year test and become that strange beast we call literature.

Defending fantasy and science fiction as literature might be odd given my lament in Science Fiction, literature, and the haters. But I only wrote that post because both cause pain when they fail to live up to literature’s ideals and their own possibility. One of my favorite passages from any book occurs when Tomás and a Martian encounter one another in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles:

“Let us agree to disagree,” said the Martian. “What does it matter who is Past or Future, if we are both alive, for what follows will follow, tomorrow or in ten thousand years. How do you know that those temples are not the temples of your own civilization one hundred centuries from now, tumbled and broken?”

Later, a character says, “If you can’t have the reality, a dream is just as good.” A dream isn’t, but it’s something, and inevitably leads us back toward reality, which leads us back to imagination in an endless circle of blending into different forms and shapes.

Fantasy and its cousin, science fiction, along with their forefather, Romance, are tastes not shared by all. Patrick avoids slamming fantasy to the extent he can given his dislike, and he flees that “ideologically rigid sack of theories.” I’ve tried to give as supple a theory and explanation as I can for the pleasures of fantasy done well, as the genre has long suffered disrespect it shouldn’t. One of the best essays on the subject is still Tolkien’s “On Faerie Stories,” which can be found in the collection The Tolkien Reader. This essay derives and and applies ideas from Tolkien’s work, which is still as complete a defense and analysis of the genre.


EDIT: See an addendum here.

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