The Opposite of Love is Indifference

Many opposites are not nearly as different as they first appear. For example, as Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel observed, the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference; for at a minimum, to love or hate someone is to have intense emotions toward them. We see how the similarities between love and hate often outweigh the differences when one is transformed into the other, a phenomenon that literature — from Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Harlequen Romances — has exploited and explored for millennia.

The psychological proximity of love and hate is part of the hard wiring of the human psyche. Dan Gilbert explains, in his book Stumbling on Happness, that the same neurocircuitry and neurochemistry triggered in response to stressful events ("fight or flight") are also triggered in response to sexual arousal. As a result, when we are stressed in the presence of a person we find sexually attractive, we have a tough time telling what we are responding to: are our passions inflamed (hate) because of a stressor, or are we aroused (love) because of the attractive person?

In the 1994 movie Speed starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, Bullock's character, Annie Porter, appeals to this possible confusion when she notes, upon finding herself in the hero's arms after several near-death experiences, that "relationships that start under intense circumstances, they never last."

Call it an "emotional paradox": two very different dispositions — loving and hating — can have far more in common with each other than a seemingly intermediate state.

– Michael Raynor in his business book The Strategy Paradox. His thesis is that the strategies with the greatest possibility of success also have the greatest possibility of failure.

The Fantasy That There’s Always Someone Better Just Around the Corner

Yesterday's Modern Love column was one of the best. A great example of how a short story can convey some of the key dynamics of dating / romance better than lengthy exposition. Hard to excerpt, so read the whole thing, but here's the ending:

In the months that followed, I was determined to become a better version of myself — prettier, smarter, more ambitious — and looked for the same in new boyfriends. As it turned out, though, they were looking for someone better, too. In New York, and especially in the movie business, it’s hard to dispel the fantasy that there’s always someone better just around the corner.

Yet by embracing this notion, I had allowed my life to become an ongoing cycle of shallow disappointments that left me longing for someone like my Tim Donohue, who could be satisfied with exactly what he had and who he was. Even more, I longed to be that kind of person again, too.

The “I’m Proud of You” Litmus Test

How many people in your life can say, "I'm proud of you," and you take it fully and without any sort of resentment or dismissal? Whoever those people are, they are probably your mentors.

Someone who credibly says "I'm proud of you" usually has two characteristics. First, he is probably higher status / higher power. Most of the time, having pride about someone else comes from a place of superiority. Second, he must know you well. Most of the time, to be proud of someone means you know where they've been and how far they've come — pride is a word about growth. If a homeless guy on the street (lower status) or Bill Gates (don't know him personally) tell me they're proud of me it won't have a huge positive effect.

To be sure, "I'm really proud of you buddy" can sometimes occur between friends. But this seems less common. Usually friends say "I'm so happy for you" or "Really nice job!" but not the p-word. And family can often be proud, but as with most things family, the obligation and bias dull the effect.

This topic came to mind because I recently saw a friend / mentor and told him about a meaningful professional accomplishment. The next morning, I woke up to an email in my inbox that was one line: "I'm really proud of you." It felt great, and as he falls into both of the categories above, was fully appreciated.

It got me thinking, "How many people could send me that sort of email?" And that's how I arrived at the "I'm Proud of You" litmus test.

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Here are other litmus tests I've blogged about.

(thanks to TK and Andy for helping think this through.)

Rolling the Dice When Young and In Love

I'm told an absurd number of Modern Love columns turn into book deals. Given the competitive submission rate, whatever the editors choose to publish tends to be pretty good. This past Sunday's column was one of my favorite.

It's about a popular romantic predicament for people early in life: They fall in love with someone in high school or college. They'd marry the person if they were 35, but they're too young to marry, and still have things they want to do before settling down. Do they commit to the girlfriend or boyfriend in their early 20's even if it means sacrificing other goals? Or do they roll the dice and break up, go do other things, and hope that later in life they can re-connect? (Or, have faith they'll find someone even better.) I've seen men and women play it both ways, with success and with failure.

Mike Ives, in the column, discusses how he chose to part ways with his high school sweat-heart a couple years after college. He figured they'd get married eventually. He traveled the world and lived life. He enjoyed his youth. Three years passed without seeing his girlfriend. He realized he missed her greatly. He wanted to re-kindle the love of old. Alas, by the time he saw her next, she had gotten involved with a new man and was firmly on the road to marriage. It's not clear he made the wrong decision; after all, good decisions can have bad outcomes. The story is poignant either way.

For the first half of my 20s, the Rest of My Life had appeared to wait patiently. And time, like a gift certificate, seemed like something I could hold on to and cash in later. But that night I felt as if the rest of my life was already upon me. Time was short, and I couldn’t think of anything to look forward to.

I grasped for something winning to say. Nothing came. I was drunk. She walked into the station and didn’t look back.

“I Know What It’s Like to Feel Thirsty”

This two minute clip from White Men Can't Jump is the best relationship advice for men from any movie, according to Brad Feld.

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Speaking of movies, I watched The Maid recently, a Chilean movie about one family's relationship with their maid. Excellent and highly recommended for anyone interested in the delicate dynamics of an outsider in the house, and especially recommended for those with experience living or traveling in Latin America. Finally, I recently re-discovered Alec Baldwin's famous scene on The Art of Selling from Glengarry Glen Ross. Awesome.

Three More Litmus Tests

One way you quickly learn about a person is by obtaining a small, easy piece of information that tends to suggest a larger, more complicated trait.

For example, I’ve found that if someone blogs or reads blogs regularly, they are almost always above-average interesting. Litmus tests of this sort are especially helpful when reality collides with someone’s aspirational identity — situations where self-delusion dominates direct answers. If you ask someone, “Are you okay being alone?” most people will say, “Yes.” If you ask, “Are you concerned with how strangers might perceive and judge you?” Most people will say, “Not at all — I’m independent.” But then you might ask, “Do you mind eating at a restaurant alone?” Ah-ha! (Admittedly, there are obvious limits to these things.)

Here are three litmus tests I heard from other people which I found interesting:

1. In how much detail do you plan vacations?

Some people plan their vacations / adventure travel in hourly detail and book all hotels and flights in advance. Others book one roundtrip flight and figure out all the details once on the ground. Where you fall on this question is supposed to reveal whether you are a need-to-be-in-control planner or flexible and adaptable.

2. Do you like sharing your food and tasting others’ food at a meal?

If someone offers you food off their plate to try, do you tend to take it? This is supposed to reveal whether you appreciate diversity and are inclined toward experimentation.

3. Were you popular in high school?

High school is an awkward experience for many teenagers still trying to find themselves. Unless you’re a stunningly beautiful girl or a star athlete guy, to become popular in the treacherous hallways of high school requires strict fidelity to the moving target of what’s cool. If you were popular in high school, you probably took the easy path of conformity rather than the hard path of self-discovery. Or at least that’s my sense of what this litmus test implies.

All seem relatively reasonable, though I see myself as the exception to the first two. I happen to plan my trips more than most but I am also quite adaptable, or so I think. I’m not keen on sharing food at a meal because once a plate of food arrives I’m firmly focused on getting the job done sin ayuda. Yet I still see myself as highly experimental and appreciative of new experience.

It does seem generally true that popularity in high school is negatively correlated with intelligence and independent thinking. As far as I can tell, the only girls who are popular in high school are either really attractive or backstabbing mean girls. However, high school popularity for both genders seems positively correlated with networking and communication skills.

The comments in my post on litmus tests three years ago had some interesting other examples.

Is Being in a Relationship a Time Sink?

Many people focused on building their career view being in a romantic relationship as a time sink. Several entrepreneurs have told me that they don't have time for a relationship. To evaluate whether this is true, we need to look at the three possible relationship states pre-marriage.

1. In a Relationship. A relationship takes a lot of time. You may spend every weekend with your significant other and one or two days during the week. During much of that time you are 100% with the other person. Sometimes you are able to double book time by watching movies, buying groceries, washing dishes, etc. but mostly this is maybe 15-20 hours a week (sometimes much more) of time you'd otherwise have free. (Obviously the "maintenance level," as they say, of the significant other affects time commitment.)

2. Single and Looking. You're dating around, or sleeping around. You're going on first dates, trying to impress, and following up on leads. (Using your preferred CRM system, no doubt.) You'd like to be in a relationship so you spend a bunch of time thinking about your ideal mate, comparing and contrasting the various folks you're meeting, and pining wistfully for the relationship of old or idealizing the relationship you someday dream of having.

3. Single and Not Looking. If you're not trying to go on dates and you're content being single, you'll have tons of free time. Weeknights and weekends are yours, and you profit from the power of low expectations.

My thesis is that In a Relationship is just as much of a time and energy sink as Single and Looking. There are various reasons, but one big one. With Single and Looking there's a great deal of emotional energy spent contemplating your lack of dating success, there's stress around existing dates, and of course, wondering, "Is she interested? Am I interested? Do I play like I'm interested?" You spend a lot of cycles thinking about your dating life even when you're not going on dates. The energy spent for In a Relationship, by contrast, tends to be concentrated to the time you're actually spending with the person. There's more certainty, less general / random anxiety and wondering. Easier to focus on work when you are working. So even though the "scheduled time" for a boyfriend or girlfriend is greater, the total energy commitment is about equal to the single but looking person.

Single and Not Looking is the best for those who want as much as time as possible for professional projects. Emotional wonderings are minimal since you're expecting to be single anyway. This is sustainable for a few years or so, or for lots of smaller chunks, but ultimately not a realistic long-term option unless you cut off your penis.

Bottom Line: Being single and looking takes just as much time and energy as being in a relatively low-maintenance relationship.

(thanks to Andy McKenzie for helping brainstorm this.)

The Feel-Bad Effect from Not-So-Close Facebook Friends

My good friend Stan James writes about how social networks amplify the feel-bad-in-comparison effect when you see people raving about how glorious their lives are:

In my trips back to Colorado, I have been struck each time by the discord between people’s Facebook lives and what they say in private. On Facebook they have been on an amazing vacation to exotic beaches. In person they confess that the vacation was a desperate attempt to save a marriage. On Facebook they have been to gliteratee tech conferences. In person they confess they haven’t been able to sleep for months, and are on anti-anxiety medication from the stress of financial pressures on their company

What’s interesting is that this feel-bad Facebook effect seems to come from a distinct source: not-so-close Facebook friends.

In the case of true close friends, you know about all the crap that is going on in their lives. From deep interaction, you know the specific pains and doubt that lies behind the smiling profile picture…

Since TV was invented, critics have pointed out the dangers of watching the perfect people who seem to inhabit the screen. They are almost universally beautiful, live in interesting places, do intereseting work (if they work at all), are unfailingly witty, and never have to do any cleaning. They never even need to use the toilet. It cannot be pschologically healthy to compare yourself to these phantasms.

So it’s interesting that social networks have inadvertently created the same effect, but using an even more powerful source. Instead of actors in Hollywood, the characters are people that you know to be real and have actually met. The editing is done not by film school graduates, but by the people themselves.

In the end, my friend’s strategy seems to be the right one: don’t spend too much time purusing the lives of people who aren’t in your life. And spend more time learning about the uncut, unedited, off-line lives that your friends are actually living.

Very true when reading other people's public content. People tend not to share their warts in public forums. Keep that in mind if you feel shitty in comparison when reading about the apparent charmed life of a blogger you don't know well in real life.

Four years ago I wrote a somewhat similar post but from the perspective of a person who writes generally upbeat tweets and blog posts. When you know you are going to blog about an experience before you have the experience, you want it to be good so that you can write a positive post that's fun to write and read. It changes the actual experience to be more positive. After writing about the (positive) experience, it's in the historical record. When you read old posts to remember your past, you feel happy about all the positive experiences you accumulated and recorded. It's not just about whitewashing the past or selective memory (though this is part of it); there's an anticipatory effect of sharing the experience in a public forum that changes the actual experience for the better.

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I just told a friend I was writing this post. She said, "This is a litmus test I use for how close I am with a friend. If s/he doesn't tell me anything bad about their life, I assume we're not very good friends."

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Note to readers: Blogging will be light for the next month due to extensive travel, and probably more sporadic than usual for the rest of 2010. If you don't already use an RSS reader I encourage you to do so, and subscribe to this feed. You can also get my posts via email.

Do Love and Sex Naturally Go Together?

A couple months ago, at a group dinner, one non-American gentleman at the table said, "I have had sex with other women, but I have never cheated on my wife of 20 years." This was surprising coming from a man. Usually men consider infidelity the sole physical act; women tend to emphasize emotional betrayal. When I probed the guy on his answer, he just said that Americans are too obsessed with sexual monogamy. "What matters," he said, "is that you still love your partner."

Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, the authors of the new book "Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality," would agree. In their fascinating interview on Salon, they explain their ideas, the central one being that monogamy is against our nature. Excerpts, emphases mine:

Marriage in the West isn’t doing very well because it’s in direct confrontation with the evolved reality of our species. What we argue in the book is that the best way to increase marital stability, which in the modern world is an important part of social stability, is to develop a more tolerant and realistic understanding of human sexuality and how human sexuality is being distorted by our modern conception of marriage.

Does this mean that humans didn't form couples before the advent of agriculture?

Because human groups at the time knew each other so well and spent their lives together and were all interrelated and depended upon each other for everything, they really knew each other much better than most of us know our sexual partners today. We don’t argue that people didn’t form very special relationships — you can see this even in chimps and bonobos and other primates, but that bond doesn’t necessarily extend to sexual exclusivity. People have said that we’re arguing against love — but we're just saying that this insistence that love and sex always go together is erroneous.

I think from a cultural standpoint the idea of strict monogamy has far less currency within the gay male world than it does within the straight world. I’m a gay man, and I think probably about half the gay male couples I know are in open relationships. Why do you think that is?

First of all, they’re both men, so they both know what it’s like to be a man. They both know from experience that love and sex are two very different things, and it seems that for women the experience of sexuality is much more embedded in narrative, in emotion, in emotional intimacy…..

I’ve been living off and on for almost 20 years here in Barcelona, and from outside, the United States looks very adolescent, in a positive and negative sense. There's its adolescent energy — its idealism — but there’s also an immaturity and intolerance toward the ambiguity of life and the complexity of relationships. The American sense of relationships and sexuality tends to be very informed by Hollywood: It’s all about the love story. But the love story ends at the wedding and doesn't go into the 40 years that comes after that….the American insistence on mixing love and sex and expecting passion to last forever is leading to great suffering that we think is tragic and unnecessary.

Here's my old post on whether you would still trust someone in the boardroom if you knew s/he was cheating on her/his partner. Here's a dense essay about how lesbians have the least sex of anyone. If all this is too depressing, here's an uplifting video of soldiers returning home and surprising their families.

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“How Are Your Relationships?”

…With your friends, your family, and your spouse / romantic interest?

I don’t think a friend catch-up session is complete without this question.

I support probing directly and following up specifically. The conversation is always enlightening and sometimes brings us closer. As one friend of mine likes to say, “People should pry more.”

Relationships are the lifeblood of happiness. They deserve to be discussed and analyzed!

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Ariel Levy’s review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new memoir on marriage is decent. I liked this paragraph:

Ultimately, Gilbert is clear about what she, like most people, wants: everything. We want intimacy and autonomy, security and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it. Gilbert understands this, yet she tries to convince herself and her readers that she has found a loophole. She tells herself a familiar story, that her marriage will be different. And she is, of course, right—everyone’s marriage is different. But everyone’s marriage is a compromise.