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Dating and relationships have always been hard. In this day and age, however, they can sometimes seem impossible. Particularly, women I speak to say that they can't find a good man. They lament over the guys that they say are stuck in childhood, not taking responsibility for their lives. They complain about the men they call "nice guy, push-over" types, who don't stir passionate feelings. They also have difficulty with men they label attractive "jerks", who disrespect them, ignore their needs, and break hearts.
What is going on here? Have all of the "good men" blown away? Personally, I would like to offer an alternative hypothesis—one where women have been put in a very unfulfilling double-bind. I would like to posit that cultural and biological factors have been pitted at odds, leaving women in a "no win situation" most of the time in modern life.
In her book, Why We Love, author Helen Fisher describes three types of love:
Each of these types of love can have very different origins and be independently expressed for different people. For example, one woman might find that she lusts after her partner, is attracted to him, and securely attached (perhaps that is the ideal). Another woman might lust after one man, be attracted to a second, and feel comfortable and attached to her partner only.
These differences in who we lust after, are attracted to, and feel an attachment towards, arise because each feeling has an independent origin. Lust and attraction are often more deep-seated, primal, and uncontrolled feelings. Usually, it is impossible to "choose" to be turned on or attracted to a partner. These feelings are more likely elicited automatically from certain cues in a partner. For women, those attractive male cues may include physical attractiveness, social status, economic resources, ambition, industriousness, stability, and intelligence (Buss, 2003).
Attachment, however, can often be more of a conscious choice. It is possible to "decide" who to share a home with, how to divide parental duties, and pick someone particular based on safety criteria. Therefore, attachment decisions are often more greatly influenced by social norms and cultural practices. Think of the "wish list" some women have for the perfect partner.
Here again, I posit that at least some of women's frustration in modern dating can be explained through a double-bind. Particularly, this double bind occurs between the type of men that women find attractive (from biological/evolutionary origin)... and the type they choose to attach to (from social instruction). Let us look at this idea in more detail.
Socially, today's woman is encouraged, empowered (and perhaps expected) to do it all. This, in itself, often causes extreme stress for the "super woman" and "super mom." Social norms tell her she is expected to succeed in work, run her home, raise the perfect children, and be attractive and chipper too. It is a tall order. It is also an order that requires women to be intelligent, motivated, powerful, and in control.
Given those social instructions, women are motivated to "choose" men for how well they mesh with their life plan, goals, and ideals. Essentially then, some women choose to "attach" to men who are cooperative, agreeable, supportive, and often take their lead in areas the woman finds important. From a cultural standpoint, men who are categorized as "disagreeable," "opinionated," or expect women to "acquiesce" may be considered unappealing as "attachment" partners.
Unfortunately, however, many of those "culturally undesirable" male traits are similar and overlapping with the traits that are biologically "attractive." Although not always true, often the man who is intelligent, high status, and ambitious will be unlikely to take a back seat, follow, and submit in a romantic relationship. Generally speaking, men who have "leadership characteristics" may want to lead in many situations.
With those two "feelings" juxtaposed, women often find themselves unfulfilled in love. Many that I talk to seem to hover between what they call "nice guys" and "jerks" in their dating life. They become attracted to "jerks" for their status, ambition, and dominance—only to be hurt when those men don't live up to the cooperative and considerate cultural standard for an attachment partner. Women then may gravitate towards a culturally prescribed "nice guy," only to find that they become bored, their libido wanes, and their eyes wander back to "jerks." Either way, they find the relationships largely frustrating and unsatisfying.
Beyond highlighting this double-bind for all, I will save the "what men can do" for another time. For women, a number of possible solutions exist, including the following:
1) Learning to Love Leading—one strategy adopted by some women is to learn to love being the leader of a "nice guy". Think empowered business woman, cougar, or even dominatrix. All of these women relish being in charge, empowered, and having their desires fulfilled. Getting what you want can be pretty attractive after all. This dominant approach may have a downside in resentment and rebellion however. So, be considerate (and persuasive). For more on the pros and cons of dominance, see fellow PT blogger Dario Maestripieri (here).
2) Following Wisely—other women choose to be cautious in love, looking for the "right" guy to be with, and enjoying their attraction to strong, male leadership. This is more of the compatibility, eHarmony approach. These women evaluate and "test" men to find the right guy, a guy who will lead with their hopes, dreams, and goals in mind. They know that, if you're not driving, it is wise to pick the driver carefully. Thus, they find a man with strong, attractive attributes to swoon over, who will not end up treating them like a "jerk." See my own articles for more on that (here, here, here, and here).
3) Mixed-Mating—yet other women join the "best of both worlds" club. Here, think polyamory, open relationships, or a hot boyfriend on the side. Evolutionary psychology indicates that women sometimes use this strategy to seek the most stable and supportive partnership from one man, and the best genes for children from another. When women can't find it all in one guy, some choose to mix-and-match. For a more detailed analysis, see Cashdan (1996).
4) Negotiation, Sharing, and Balance—finally, some women choose to negotiate and share leadership roles with their partner. They divide life tasks and duties into different areas, with each being the "boss" of different things. Perhaps she leads with the finances, and he takes charge of the kids (or vice versa). That way, everyone has a bit of leadership, responsibility, agreeableness...and therefore attraction and attachment too. For a good discussion of this approach see my fellow PT blogger Susan Heitler (here).
Dating involves costs and trade-offs. Double-binds and unknown frustrations, however, can be explained. The choices may not always be ideal, but satisfaction can be obtained with a bit of knowledge. I wish you the best... no matter what you choose.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
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© 2012 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.