The Advice Goddess

The Advice Goddess


The Alone Ranger     

Sometimes, when my boyfriend is upset, he wants comforting, just like I would. He’ll vent or lay his head in my lap, and I stroke his hair. But sometimes, he just sits on the couch and says nothing. How do I know what he needs, and how do I feel better about it when it isn’t me?        

— Man Cave Confusion

Just like women, men often verbalize complex emotions — for example, “I want sausage and pepperoni on that.”

The truth is, men have feelings; they just don’t hang them out to dry on the balcony railing like big cotton granny panties. Developmental psychologist Joyce Benenson, who studies sex differences, notes in Warriors and Worriers that men, who evolved to be the warriors of the species, typically express emotions less often and with less intensity than women. Men are especially likely to put a lid on fear and sadness, emotions that reflect vulnerability — though it’s also the rare man you’ll hear chirp to his buddy, “OMG, those are, like, the cutest wingtips!”

Men’s emotional coolness is an evolved survival tactic, Benenson explains. “Emotions communicate feelings to others. They also affect our own behavior.” In battle, “a person who loses control of his emotions cannot think clearly about what is happening around him. Revealing to the enemy that one feels scared or sad would be even worse.”

Women, on the other hand, bond through sharing “personal vulnerabilities,” Benenson notes. Men and women do have numerous similarities — like having the adrenaline-infused fight-or-flight reaction as our primary physiological response to stress. However, psychologist Shelley Taylor finds that women also have an alternate stress response, which she named “tend-and-befriend.” “Tending” involves self-soothing through caring for others, and “befriending” describes “the creation of and maintenance of social networks” to turn to for comforting. (And no, she isn’t talking about Facebook or Instagram.)

So, as a woman, you may long to snuggle up to somebody for a restorative boohoo, but for a man, opening up about his feelings can make him feel worse — and even threatened. The problem is we have a tendency to assume other people are emotionally wired just like us. Being mindful of that and of the evolutionary reasons a guy might need to go off in a corner to lick his wounds might help you avoid taking it personally: “I’m upset about how you’re upset!” (Great! And now his problem has a problem.)

It would be helpful if an upset man would hang a “Do not disturb” sign on his face when he just wants to drink a beer (or four) and watch South Park. You could try to read his body language — like crossed arms and stiff posture saying “go away.” But if his body isn’t speaking up all that clearly, you could say, “I’m here if you wanna talk — or if you don’t.” If it’s the latter, stock the fridge; make him a sandwich; make him some sex. In other words, comfort him in the way a clammed-up guy needs to be comforted. It beats being the girlfriend version of the enthusiastic Good Samaritan who, on a slow day, forces little old ladies across the street at gunpoint.


Waking up rusted                        

My girlfriend loves to “spoon” when we sleep. She says it makes her feel safe and loved. I have recently developed spinal problems and have to sleep on my back like a corpse with this weird neck pillow. I’ll put my hand on her thigh to make her feel connected, but it’s not really cutting it. I suspect this reminds her of her marriage falling apart and her now ex-husband sleeping on the other side of the bed with a bunch of pillows between them.

— Ouch

Sometimes a person’s need feel to safe and loved has to be forgone for the other person’s need to not be an Oxy-addicted hunchback at 45.

You can surely understand where she’s coming from. Nothing like going from sleeping lovingly intertwined with somebody to feeling as if you’re sleeping next to an open casket. This may feel even worse for your girlfriend if she does associate physical distance with emotional distance, having had an ex who built a Berlin Wall of pillows between them and would only have been farther away in bed if he’d slept on the floor.

What you can do is promise to make it up to her with extra affection when you’re out of bed — and do that: Go to cuddlesville when you’re watching TV together; shower with her; put your arms around her and kiss her head while she’s washing a mug. (P.S. This is also a smart practice for men who don’t sleep on a foam log.) Love does involve making sacrifices, but one of them probably shouldn’t be no longer being able to feel your toes.

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


The Advice Goddess

The Advice Goddess


High, I think I love you     

Two friends of mine are in “love at first sight” relationships. (One went from chills at seeing the guy to moving in with him weeks later.) Each has said to me, “When it’s right, you just know.” Well, as I get to know this new guy I’m seeing, I like him more and more. It’s just not the instant love of the century like they have, and that makes me feel a little bad.       

— Lacking Thunderbolts

Getting the chills the moment you set eyes on a person may be a sign that you have love at first sight — or an incipient case of malaria. (In time, you’ll find out whether you have lasting love or lasting liver damage, seizures, and death.)

Love at first sight is made out to be the rare, limited-edition Prada purse of relationships — that extra-special luvvier kind of love that we romantic commoners don’t get access to. However, what the “first-sighters” actually have is not the enduring love poets write about but the kind animal behaviorists do — when the boy baboon spots the girl baboon’s big red booty. People in this fleeting first phase of love are basically on a biochemical bender, high off their asses from raging hormones and neurotransmitters, and shouldn’t be operating heavy machinery or making plans any heavier than where to show up for dinner on Tuesday.

Those who end up staying together will often sniff, “We just knew!” — which sounds better than “We are idiots who got hitched 20 minutes after meeting and got lucky we turned out to be well-matched.” Their initial belief that they’re perfect for each other is probably driven by a cognitive bias — an error in reasoning — that psychologists call “the halo effect.” Like the glow cast by a halo, the glow from “Wow, she’s hot!” spills over, leading to an unsupportedly positive view of a person’s as-yet-unseen qualities. But, early in a relationship, you can only guess how someone will behave — say, at 3 a.m., when you’re awakened by period cramps that feel as if some big Vegas boxing match accidentally got scheduled in your uterus. Will he mumble “feel better” and roll over or go to the drugstore and roll you home a barrel of hippo-strength Midol?  

Maybe real romance is finding out all the ways somebody’s disturbingly human and loving them anyway. This happens about a year in, after the party manners have fallen off and after you see — for example — whether your partner fights ugly or like someone who loves you but thinks you’ve temporarily fallen into the idiot bin. In other words, you’re wise to get to know this guy instead of immediately drawing little sparkly hearts in your head about your magical future together. Keep unpacking who you both are and see whether you keep wanting more — or whether one of you goes out for a smoke and, a month later, sends a postcard from the Netherlands.


Toad rage                       

I’m in my early 40s and newly divorced. I fooled around with this guy — my first time with somebody besides my husband in 12 years. We had weekend plans, but two days passed with no texts from him. I texted him angrily, repeatedly telling him he’d hurt my feelings, and he cut off contact. Now, months later, he has resurfaced, saying I’ve been in his thoughts. What could he want?

— Puzzled

Men you’ve dated briefly will sometimes resurface — much like bloated dead bodies in New York’s East River.

As for why this one’s coming around again, chances are, the paint on “she’s crazy” dried and he remembered that you are also pretty and do that crazy thing with your tongue. Okay, so you were short on nonchalance in your first post-divorce dating situation. After a long sex-and-affection famine, a newly divorced woman, like any starving refugee, is unlikely to simply nudge a hot piece of meat around on her plate like one of those skeletal “ladies who lunch” (but do not eat).

The truth is you probably weren’t going off on him merely because he failed to meet your text-pectations. Your behavior most likely stemmed from what psychologists call a “priming effect,” describing how exposure to one situation colors how you react to another. Being mindful of this can help you tell a guy what you need and give him a chance to come through — instead of immediately texting him with all the casual cool of a kidnapper demanding a bag of unmarked small bills. Should you give this guy another chance, see that you’re only asking questions he’s prepared to answer, like where he went to elementary school and why his previous relationship ended — not “Will I be alone forever?” and “Wanna come over and try to fill the vast void I have inside?” 

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).

The Advice Goddess

The Advice Goddess


Photo-bomb scare                    

I’m a 29-year-old woman, and I’ve been dating a guy for two months. I was scrolling (OK, stalking him) on Instagram and saw a pic of him with this pretty girl with her arm draped around his neck. Does monogamy just happen, or should I initiate the “commitment talk”?       

— Nervous

Welcome to the place relationship dreams go to die, also known as social media. One moment, you see your relationship heading toward the town of OnlyYouville, and the next, it’s looking more like a “Ten Commandments” production still of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea.

Understand why men commit: because they come to love a particular woman more than they love their freedom — not because they’ve decided it would be a bore to have sex with the Pilates-teaching twins. Getting to “only you” happens after a guy starts to feel attached to you, which comes out of a combination of sexual attraction, emotional compatibility, and the sense that you have a package of qualities that he’s unlikely to get from anyone else. Feeling this way takes time — time spent together, and sometimes, a little time spent comparison shopping. Trying to rush the process is like planting a pea in the morning, yelling “GROW! GROW! GROW!” and expecting to be climbing a beanstalk by noon.

Also, even for a guy who’s starting to care about you, hearing “We need to have the commitment talk” can be like hearing the starting gun at the Olympics. There are couples who get serious without ever having this icky conversation. It just happens organically. But to avoid misunderstandings, right from the start, you should be indicating your interest in getting into a relationship. No, not with strategically strewn Brides magazines or messages magic-markered across your breasts: “MARRY ME!!!” You simply drop remarks about what you want and then ask questions to draw out what a guy’s up for. This allows you to get out fast if your goals aren’t a match — as opposed to getting to the four-month mark, holding him down and screaming in his face: “So what’s it gonna be, buddy? You looking to start a family — or a harem?!”

As for the woman in this photo, she could be someone to your man — or someone standing near him when his friend was taking his picture. (People shooting photos rarely say, “OK, you two, get as far apart as you can.”) You could ask him — and reveal that you’ve been going all Secret Squirrel on social media. But you could also ask yourself, simply by applying context. Look at the photo as one piece of information in the whole of your experiences with him: Is he increasingly sweet and attentive? Increasingly eager to see you? Are you starting to meet his friends? Chances are, you already have the information you need to figure out whether your relationship is going places — without trying to conduct it at a speed that suggests your ancestry is part French, part Italian, and part cheetah.


As duck would have it                       

My boyfriend just said, “Your lips get bigger and smaller. What’s going on?” I admitted that I’ve been getting them injected. He hinted that I should stop, saying, “You’re too hot. You don’t need it.” Do I really need to kick the habit?

— Smoochy

If your boyfriend wanted to kiss something inflated, he’d make out with his tires.

There’s a reason you feel compelled to join the reality-star-led parade of women duckbilling it up — as opposed to going in for a nostril enlargement. Men evolved to prefer women with plump lips. As for why, it turns out that the features men across cultures find beautiful are those that give them the best shot of passing on their genes. Biopsychologist Victor S. Johnston, who studies the biological basis of human facial attractiveness, finds that full lips on a woman (along with small jaws and a small chin) are associated with low androgens (male hormones) and elevated levels of the female hormone estrogen — a combination that translates to higher fertility. In other words, big pillowy lips are basically a message from nature’s ad agency: “Wanna have descendants? Pick me — not some thin-lipped Lizzie.”

However, there are full lips and lips full of stuff some plastic surgeon injected in them, and any plastic surgery that can be spotted as such is usually a turnoff to men. (You might as well get a tattoo that says, “Hi, I’m insecure!”) So, tempting as it is to keep up with the Kardashians, you’ll be more attractive to your boyfriend if you don’t seem to need to. Best of all, to accomplish this, all you have to do is avoid spending hundreds of dollars to look like you just got out of a heavy make-out session with the vacuum cleaner. 

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


The Advice Goddess

The Advice Goddess



Six years ago, I was dating this guy on the East Coast. He and I share a deep love of the arts. We started arguing on the sidewalk, and I got so upset that I vomited all over myself. He refused to drive me home or let me back into his apartment to change. Finally, he gave me a pair of pants, but he made me change in the stairwell. Shortly afterward, I moved out west. I told him I still loved him and couldn’t get him out of my system, but his response was downright cruel. Eventually, I fell in love with my current boyfriend. Well, East Coast Guy now wants me back. I do miss our mutual passion for theater and art. (West Coast Guy isn’t interested in attending artistic events.) However, I’ve had poor job-hunting luck and I’m fearful about my financial future, and West Coast Guy recently made me his heir. I’m tortured. Should I give East Coast Guy another chance?       

— Torn

Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm wrote that mature love is “I need you because I love you.” Rather different from “I need you because I don’t want to be living in a packing crate when I’m 50.”

As for the love you could have … it seems that — awww! — even now, East Coast Guy wants to be the reason you walk home alone in an upchuck-decorated dress. (Sell framed, numbered snippings and it’s art!) Your entertaining a re-up with a guy who treated you so cruelly is bizarre — unless you consider a psychological gotcha called “the Zeigarnik effect.” Social psychologists Roy Baumeister and Brad Bushman explain that when a task or goal gets interrupted, the automatic, unconscious part of our brain keeps pinging the conscious part, nagging us to finish up whatever we’ve left incomplete. (Unfortunately, our subconscious is only interested in getting the thing finished, not whether the guy in question is a complete douche-iopath.)

A way to shut off the Zeigarnik effect is to complete the incomplete thing — like by ending it for good with East Coast Guy or maybe picking up where you left off. But before you do the latter, consider another factor that’s surely in effect here — the cognitive bias of “selective perception.” This is our tendency to go all forgetsenheimer’s about the stuff that’s emotionally uncomfortable (ego battering, for example). Shoving it in some mental closet allows us to focus on more appealing beliefs, like “I can always count on him — to share my enthusiasm for gallery openings where everybody has complicated hair.”

Real love draws lines in how somebody treats you — how even when they’re angry, they act lovingly (assuming you haven’t, say, sautéed their parrot and served it up with a side of peas). As for whether you need a more arts-going man, that’s something to figure out before you get all relationshippy with somebody who’d rather stay home watching YouTube videos of a raccoon riding a Roomba. But also consider that life involves trade-offs, like maybe going to arts events with a friend instead of demanding that your partner meet your every need like a giant human Costco: “Love me, leave me money, and live to attend haunting performance art, like a woman reading a Chinese takeout menu for nine hours straight and then clipping her toenails and lighting them on fire.”


Grope springs eternal                      

I’ve always been a sexual free spirit, but I’d like to get serious with this guy I’ve been dating. Is it ever good to tell a guy about other guys you’ve slept with recently or who are still nosing around? I think it might make a guy feel you’re desirable and commit, but my guy friends say it’s really off-putting.

 — Just Wondering

For a woman, finding somebody to have sex with is about as hard as finding an Indian guy running a 7-Eleven. Yay, huh? Uh … except for how harshly women get judged for being “sexual free spirits.” This comes out of what anthropologists call “paternity uncertainty” — the fear men evolved to have that they’ll be bringing home the bison to feed a kid who’ll be passing on the genes of Mr. Monobrow in the next lean-to. So men take issue with women who get around, whereas for men, there’s no such thing as “stud shaming.” In other words, never tell who or how many. And by the way, some guys claim they’ll be OK with knowing — just before they start keeping you up all night with questions like “Was it recent?” “Was there overlap?” and “Was this BEFORE you got Lasik?” The reality is, a boyfriend will want to believe that your body is a temple — and not the sort that’s been an international tourist hot spot with a eunuch outside operating one of those little clickers.

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


The Advice Goddess

The Advice Goddess


Wed blanket                     

I’m very attracted to my co-worker — a self-described “happily married man.” We are “friends,” but he always has a warm hug, an interesting YouTube video, or a poem or short story he’s written to share with me. He has taken me to lunch and has done work for me gratis. If I have car trouble, he connects me to a mechanic and sees I get great work for a great price. Twice he’s told me, “I love you.” The second time, I responded, “I love you, too, and if you weren’t married, I’d take you on!” He then responded, “Previous commitment!” I’m confused as to what’s going on in his head. There has been no sex, and he hasn’t asked for any.        

— Huh?

Nothing says “I want to make mad, passionate love to you” like a referral to a skilled and honest auto mechanic.

The guy seems to be having a “flirtationship” with you — which is to say, this stuff he’s doing is foreplay to foreplay that’s unlikely to happen. There seems to be some evolutionary psychology bubbling up here — specifically, a facet of “error management theory.” This is the mouthful of a way that researchers Martie Haselton and David Buss explain how, when we might make an error in judgment, we evolved to make the least costly error. And though women engage in flirtationships, men seem to have evolved to err on the side of not missing a possible mating opportunity. And yes, that’s true even when they aren’t technically free to “mate” — like when a guy has taken (and seems to adhere to) those pesky vows to grow old with some lady, and not just in between sex romps with some other lady.

That’s where flirting comes in. Interpersonal communications researcher David Henningsen points out that the essence of flirting is ambiguity, leading the target to “suspect that sexual interest is being expressed” but not allowing them to really be sure. As for a flirt’s goal, predictably, for many in Henningsen’s and others’ research, it’s about “getting some.” But some flirting, called “instrumental” flirting, is about getting something else — like getting a discount, getting some free help or getting out of a ticket by flashing a lady cop one’s man boobs.

As for what may be going on here, Henningsen notes that some flirting is just about having fun or is a way for a person to feel good about themselves. (“She’s all over me like ants on a croissanwich!”) There’s also what Henningsen calls the “exploring” motivation: safely testing what a relationship with somebody new might be like (in case the wife runs off with the census taker).

Chances are, this guy is into you but is clinging to fidelity like a shipwrecked rat on driftwood. Maybe try to enjoy this for what it is: free lunch, free work, and referrals to the amazing Carlos at Numero Uno Auto. And try to be grateful for all that he shares with you, like the poetry and short stories that his wife probably (wisely) refuses to read. As for a companion to take you to that dark place with satin sheets, you’ll have to find somebody unmarried and available. If this guy is looking to make his wife cry, it seems he’ll stick to low-grade relationship misdemeanors, like forgetting her birthday or, when they’re in bed, calling her by an old girlfriend’s name. Or by the dog’s.


A brief history of slime                     

I just discovered that my boyfriend of a year not only is married but has two young kids. I broke it off immediately and texted his wife. I made clear that I had no idea he was married. But now his wife keeps contacting me, wanting to meet for lunch. I’m not sure what she wants from me.

 — Go Away, Lady

When somebody just can’t let go after a relationship, you don’t expect it to be your married boyfriend’s wife. You can’t seem to get it through her head: “I’m out of his life, and I’d really like to be out of yours.”

She’s probably just looking for answers — sadly, to questions like “How pretty are you?” “How big are your boobs?” and “How the heck did you get him to go to the dermatologist?” But the only answer you really need to give her is a definitive no: No calls. No texts. No more contact. Meanwhile, review any signs you may have overlooked that this guy wasn’t the single, available man he made himself out to be, and go into future relationships wanting to find out rather than wanting to believe. This should keep you from having scorned wives hitting you up for lunch dates and from the charming offers that might ensue: “Whaddya say — if I treat you to tiramisu, would you help me dump his body in the ravine?”

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA  90405, or e-mail ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


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