Science Advice Goddess: Morose-Colored Glasses
I'm a woman in my 20s. Some stuff in my life was going really wrong, and I got depressed. I didn't tell people, but it had to be obvious. I distanced myself from my group of girlfriends, meaning I missed birthday parties, didn't respond to group texts, and was overall not a great friend. Still, I did what I could, like taking a friend for a spa day after missing her birthday the week before. Weeks later, I learned she was still harboring resentment that I had missed her birthday. Don't I deserve a bit of a break?
--Feeling Better Now
On the day of your friend's birthday, you felt like quite the party animal -- if, by "party animal," we mean "rat lying cold and dead in the corner of the cage."
Depression gets a bad rap. It can be a terrible, dysfunctional thing when it's caused by brain abnormalities or persists without end. However, psychiatrist Randolph Nesse explains that human emotions, including the feelbad ones, are psychological programs that evolved to solve recurring mating and survival issues. When you're mired in frustrating, unrewarding endeavors, symptoms of depression like sadness, hopelessness, and fatigue appear to have a function. They slow you down, plant you on the couch, and force you to rethink and change unworkable situations in your life: dump that jerk, stand up to your boss, fake your death and move to Croatia.
Sadness is also a strong social signal. When we see someone's sad, we're motivated to comfort them (or at least cut them some slack). In an ancestral environment, countless centuries before apartments with locking doors, your friends would have noticed you were depressed. In a modern environment, suffering often remains hidden. In other words, it's possible this woman and your other girlfriends assumed you were socially sloppy, inconsiderate, and a bad friend -- instead of understanding that you were a friend in need.
Take stock of the girlfriends around you and figure out whom you can trust to be real friends to you: those you can show who you really are, including all the sobby parts. Friends like that will mop up for you socially (in tactful ways) at times when your answer to, "Hi, how are you?" is likely to be: "Actually, I'm going to die alone, and then nobody will discover the body until the UPS guy comes to the wrong house and nearly keels over from the smell."
Bad Harem Day
I'm a 31-year-old woman, and I recently started dating a guy about my age. We've gone on five dates, but we haven't had sex, as I wanted to take things slowly. He's been okay with that, but I'm quite certain he's sleeping around elsewhere. I hate the idea of him having sex with other women. Still, we aren't at the level of being committed, and I'm not comfortable having sex with him yet. What do you recommend I do?
As you see it, the free-range penis should be more like those factory-farmed chickens.
The "hate" you describe feeling at the idea of him having sex with other women is actually jealousy -- specifically, "sexual jealousy": a stew of dark emotions (including humiliation, rage, despondency, and grief) that gets activated by the perception that a romantic relationship is at risk. Jealousy gets sneered at as some sort of pathetic emotional immaturity that's to be avoided, a la "C'mon...be bigger than that." That advice is like telling the police to ignore alarms going off in banks, which, sure, are sometimes false, but can be a sign there's a cash transfer in progress -- to the duffle bags of three gun-brandishing dudes in Richard Nixon masks.
Like bank alarms, sexual jealousy has a vital function. It triggers "mate-guarding" behavior: tactics to fend off threats "to a valued romantic relationship" that could lead to "infidelity or abandonment," explains evolutionary psychologist David Buss. Mate-guarding tactics frequently used by women include "monopolization" (like bolting oneself to a partner at a party), "appearance enhancement" (hotting up to outdo any lurking competition), and "sexual inducement" (performing "sexual favors" to keep a partner around).
In other words, the discomfort you feel is a call to action loaded into you by evolution. But evolved motivations aren't behavioral mandates. Resolving to just suck up and ride out the discomfort seems the best way to avoid responding in ways potentially damaging to your long-term interests. Letting fear of loss drive you to have sex before you're ready could tag you with an air of desperation and/or cause you to confuse lust with love. Being gnawed by curiosity about the competition sometimes spins even normally stable and levelheaded women into crazycakes stalkers. Tempting as it might be to know whom you're up against, it's best a new fir tree doesn't suddenly appear outside the guy's apartment wearing the same go-go boots you do.
Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave., #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email AdviceAmy@aol.com (www.advicegoddess.com). Follow her on Twitter @amyalkon. Order her latest "science-help" book, "Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence."