|By Amy Alkon|
Shove thy neighbor & idle worship
Q: My commitment-phobic boyfriend of several years is also my neighbor. I resolved to make it work with him and then caught him on FriendFinder exchanging numerous messages with some woman in Tijuana. He claimed he was just being friendly. I asked if he’d correspond with a guy. He responded, “No. I´m not gay.” Humiliatingly, I’ve let him use me for things he can't afford. (He’s been unemployed for two years.) He sometimes showers at his tiny apartment but basically uses it for storage. He refuses to move in with me so we could pay expenses with money his grandma gives him for his rent, but he spends all his time at my place (where I pay for everything). He partakes of my cable TV, Internet, food, and beer, and he even eats food I buy specially for my 9-year-old son. Well, he’s now my ex-boyfriend. As he’s been many times before. What’s with him? Is talking to some random woman on the Internet worth losing everything over?
A: Feminists have hammered into us girls that we aren’t supposed to sit around dreaming of being rescued by some prince. Somehow, I don’t think the alternative’s supposed to be opting for the mooch neighbor who eats your kid’s food while using your DSL to talk to some chiquita in Tijuana.
Reality, like angry little dogs, often bites. Every day, I wake up wishing for home-invasion housecleaners. But, as much as both Nature and I abhor a vacuum, at a certain point, I have to pull one out, lest my rugs provide shelter to a lot of little things with a lot of little legs. You, likewise, can pretend you’ve found Prince Charming, but that won’t transform your Parasite Charming (not even if you throw both hands into the air and say “Poof!” six or seven times, very energetically).
Why do you keep taking him back? You’re probably engaging in “future discounting,” an econ term explaining how we’re prone to forgo big benefits down the road for a small immediate reward. It helps to recognize that you’ll be tempted to go for the quick fix. You’ll be lonely some night and want a snuggle, rationalize all the reasons he isn’t so bad after all, and before you know it, there’ll be a familiar barnacle attaching itself to the beer tap on your hull.
To avoid backsliding, don’t rely on yourself to gin up self-control in the moment; use tricks like “precommitment” to your goal, a strategy originated by Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling and recommended by Dr. Roy Baumeister and John Tierney in their book, “Willpower.” Precommitment involves setting things up in advance so it’s hard to cheat. Research suggests that two of the most helpful measures are recruiting others to monitor your progress and establishing financial penalties for relapse — the higher, the better. It also helps to give yourself small rewards for daily good behavior. Maybe put aside $5 on each day you don’t call him and give yourself occasional lump-sum rewards (like at the two months loser-free mark). The website stickK.com can help. (You can configure it to forfeit your money to a cause you hate if you fail.) Research from Baumeister’s lab also suggests that practicing daily self-discipline unrelated to your goal (say, making yourself a weird green health shake every morning) increases overall self-control. This should increase your self-respect. Which should increase your chances of having a man in your life who sings your praises — stuff like “your lips are like wine,” not “your Wi-Fi’s, like, free.”
Q: I’ve been delighted and humbled by my interactions with this girl who goes to my favorite coffee shop. She is in a band and probably has lots of dates and fans, but I keep picturing us together, and not just sexually — making dinner, going on hikes, doing little couple-y things. I’m not sure why she’d want to go out with me, but I can’t stop thinking about her.
A: It’s the teenage fangirl approach to being a man. (Are your bedroom walls plastered with photos of her that you took while pretending to check your phone?) Here you are imagining this woman running slow-motion through a field of daisies into your arms. The reality: She’s walking out of the coffee shop, probably without giving you a second thought. Yes, she might be out of your league. There’s a way to know for sure in seconds, and it’s by asking her out. Pining over a woman transforms her from a person to an unapproachable ideal. The more you grow your fantasy girl the more impossible it’ll be for you to speak to the real deal. If you want an imaginary something in your life, have an imaginary goldfish. Should things go badly, you could make it die an imaginary death and flush it down your imaginary toilet.